Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Hawaiian Canoes

Edgar Henriques

[From the 34th Annual Report of the Hawaiian Historical Society, 1925, 15-19]

The ceremonies in connection with the selection of a tree and the making and launching of a Hawaiian Canoe are of a more or less religious character.

In 1912 I had the good fortune to witness these ceremonies at a place called the Ahupua'a of Ki'ilae, in South Kona, Hawai'i, and from notes then made, I judge them to have been unlike the ceremonials described by other writers, and worth recording.

When the Kalai Wa'a (Canoe carver) whose name was Kealakahi was requested to make a canoe, he consented, with the understanding that he was to be in entire charge until the canoe was brought down from the mountain forests.

For three nights the Kahuna went to his family heiau to pray that his undertaking would be successful. On the fourth day he started up the mountain, with one assistant, to search out a suitable tree. After arriving in the koa woods, they made their camp a nd sat down, keeping silence, to watch for the bird 'Elepaio which was to help them select their tree.

After watching for two days, they saw the 'Elepaio. Then, for three days more, they followed the bird from tree to tree, taking note of its actions and behavior, for they knew that if the 'Elepaio lit on a tree and started pecking at the bark, the wood of that tree was not sound. Were they to fell it, they would find the wood decayed and the heart defective.

The 'Elepaio lit on many trees that it did not peck at, but the watchers always found some fault with the tree--the trunk might be too short, or twisted, or too large in diameter, or growing where it could not be felled properly. At last the 'Elepaio alig hted on a beautiful, straight tree which the Kahuna declared was exactly the one he had in mind. He and his assistant thereupon hewed a deep groove in the trunk, near the ground, and we returned to the settlement to get assistance.

After securing supplies, including, food, blankets and tools, and resting at the settlement that night, the Kahuna and four men left again for the mountain the next day. Arriving at the selected tree the Kahuna first made sacrifice of a small pig at its b ase, with incantations and prayers. The koa tree was then cut down, each of the five men taking turns in cutting. The next operation was to trim off the limbs.

When this was finished, the Kahuna measured the trunk and designated where it should be cut off. The men then topped it as it lay on the ground. The trunk was then barked, and pointed at each end. About 18 inches from the stern a deep groove was cut in wh ich to fasten the rope by means of which the trunk was to be hauled to the sea.

The men then roughly hollowed the trunk until the sides were down to about three inches thick, and the bottom of the canoe six inches thick. The Kahuna marked where the pepeiao, or brackets for seats, should be, and these were left as the men hollowed out the trunk.

The following day, after again camping a night in the forest, ropes were attached and the roughly outlined canoe was dragged down the mountain-side to a point about a mile from the sea where it was left beneath the shade of a clump of orange trees for abo ut six months, to be seasoned, trimmed, and smoothed to its final thickness. The trimming and shaping of the canoe lasted several weeks.

The 'iako and ama (outrigger) were made from the hau tree; and the mo'o, or gunwale, from the breadfruit tree.

All during the course of preparations and making of the canoe exact attention was paid to the way in which each operation was performed. There were ceremonies of consecration before the tree was felled, and a certain precedence and form was carefully obse rved. It was considered a very unfavorable omen if any quarrel or disagreement occurred among the men before the tree was cut down, or during its construction.

As the little pig was sacrificed, just before the tree was felled, the Kahuna chanted, in Hawaiian: "Now, thou art a tree. When I cut thee, thou wilt become a man."

When the canoe was completed in all its parts, after about six months had elapsed, and the wood had been polished and lacquered with Hawaiian oils and gums, the owner and the Kahuna joined in prayer and response, at the conclusion of which the owner place d a small pig in the stern of the canoe. The pig walked from stern to bow and sat down, without attempting to jump out. This was declared to be an especially favorable omen.

The event was celebrated by a luau, provided by the owner, in which all the people of the surrounding neighborhood participated. The following day, the canoe was taken to Napo'opo'o, to be launched.

The nine Hawaiians who had taken part in the making of the canoe from the time of the search for the tree to its completion, joined the owner and the Kahuna in the final ceremonials. They were naked except for red malo, and the owner wore a yellow malo. E ach had fish-lines and hooks, and after they had paddled out into the bay, all fished. The owner caught the first fish, a red moana, which was doubly a good omen. The owner had to eat all of the first fish and the bones were thrown into the sea.

About noon, the party, after catching many fish, landed at Ke'ei where another pig was sacrificed and with the fish that had been taken, and many Hawaiian delicacies, were much enjoyed.

In dragging the canoe down from the mountain, the Hukiwa'a (master of ceremonies) uses the following expressions:

Ka pa'a--to hold when the canoe is going too fast;

Kai Kona--steer it to the north (toward Kona);

Kai Ka'u--steer it to the south (toward Ka'u;

Ho'olana mai--easy; raise the stern (lit. "float")

When it was launched, the canoe was christened "'Ehunuikaimalino" ("'Ehu of the calm sea"). 'Ehu was a ruling chief of Kona.

The gods of the canoe, called upon in the ceremonial chants by the Kahuna, were:

Kumahaalii--God of him who journeys in the canoe.

Patrons of the Canoe Builders were the following:

'Elepaio, Goddess of the Canoe Builders;
Laea, Patroness of the Canoe Builders

Gods who assist in restoring and righting canoes when upset in the ocean: Maikahulipu, Maikahuliwa'apu.

The following are the names of parts of the canoe, which, as will be remembered, has become a man:

Chin, 'Auwae, or Moa-moa--where the gunwale joins the bow;
Head, Po'o--the bow; and ku-apo'i, the shield, or weatherboard;
Eyes, Maka, or Manu--bow and stern;
Ears, Pepeiao--brackets for seats;
Ribs, Mo'o--gunwale;
Arms, 'Iako--arms of outrigger, and Ama, the outrigger float;
Wings, or kite, Lupe--the head of the outrigger;
Body, Kino--the hull;
Chest, Uma--the bow [cf. Pukui-Elbert Dictionary: uma is the stern.];
Back, Kikala--the stern [literally, the hip];
Feet, Kapua'i--where the outrigger is joined to walk on the sea;
Nose, Ihu--below the eye;
Wae, the braces.

Among general descriptive names relating to the canoe or its appurtenances are the following:


Muku--the short end of the 'Iako

Pola--the seat between double canoes;

Pa'u o Lukia--fashion of tying outrigger for smooth water;

Kaula-'Ohi'a--fashion for tying outrigger for rough water;

Iwika'ele--the body of a canoe [Pukui-Elbert: keel of canoe.]

'Aki--the stools on which canoes are placed on dry land;

Aha hoa wa'a--canoe lashing, made from olona fiber;

Lanalana--the lashing that binds the Ama, or float, to the curved cross-pieces of the canoe's outrigger. These lashings were sometimes highly ornamental; one was called Pa'u o Lu'ukia, a very decorative affair;

Kioloa--a long, elegant, swift canoe used for display and for racing (Emerson's translation of Malo, p. 89). Also, a small canoe, (Andrews-Parker dictionary, p. 296).

Kapena--a tree sometimes used for making canoes.

The ceremony of consecrating the canoe was called "Lolowa'a," and the hog which was sacrificed after the canoe was finished and ready for launching was "Lolo."