Ancient Hawaiian celebration of Makahiki tied to the stars

By Wayne Smith
February 2000

On November 18, for the second year in a row, a group of Maui Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) gathered in darkness long before dawn on the rim of Haleakala. They sat in the stillness of the night on a lava-strewn overlook peering into the heavens as their ancestors' royal counselors, holy men, wisdom keepers, and the master astronomer of the island did in times past.

As they waited in the numbing cold of the peak under the thin crescent sliver of the first new moon of the winter months, the group, all of Hawaiian ancestry, were seeking to bond with their cultural tradition through observing a sacred ancient ceremony.

The ceremony of Ka Ho'okupu, He Makana Kela (Bringing the Gift) was limited to Native Hawaiians in accordance with the Native American Religious Freedom Act. The now-annual gathering is sponsored by Hui `Ai Pohaku, (Keepers of the Culture) a group dedicated to preserving and protecting the cultural and spiritual essence of the Kanaka Maoli. It is an effort by elders in the host-culture community to expose its members to the core of their ancient cultural and spiritual customs and traditions.

According to Charles "Uncle Charlie" Kauluwehi Maxwell, Sr., a kapuna (revered elder) in the Kanaka Maoli community and Native Hawaiian cultural specialist, "the culture is alive and well, but the Kanaka Maoli are still seeking to renew and forge new links to their ancient past."

With their long tradition of observing the heavens for everything from navigating across the huge Pacific ocean to when to plant or harvest, marry or celebrate, and even when to make war or pursue peace, the stars have guided the Hawaiians from the kahiko (the ancient times). So, as their forebearers had done before them, the group gathered on the sacred slopes of Haleakala to await the long-anticipated appearance in the eastern sky of a star constellation called Na Huihui o Makali'i.

Na Huihui o Makali'i is a cluster of stars the English-speaking world calls the Pleaides or the Seven Sisters. The Makali'i is much revered in the Hawaiian tradition as the place from which, according to legend, the first Hawaiian people came to Earth and the star-based calendar of the ancestral Hawaiians has long placed special significance on their ties to the Makali'i. It also has renewed significance for this gathering of Native Hawaiians here and on every island who are seeking to observe their spiritual and cultural traditions.

Late November is the beginning of the Ho'o-ilo (winter or rainy season) season in the star-based Hawaiian calendar. Winter officially begins when the Makali'i cluster begins to rise at sunset and set at dawn and is visible most of the night. Ho'o-ilo lasts for about four months until the beginning of Kau (summer) when the Makali'i begins to rise in the east at sunrise and is not visible at night.

To the Kanaka Maoli the stars' appearance in the night sky also signifies the beginning of the Makahiki, the most important holiday of the year. It is the traditional Hawaiian celebration of the harvest and time of personal rest and spiritual and cultural renewal.

Makahiki is a form of the "first fruits" festivals common to many cultures throughout the world. It is similar in timing and purpose to Thanksgiving, Octoberfest and other harvest celebrations. Something similar was observed throughout Polynesia, but in pre-contact Hawaii the festival reached its greatest elaboration. As the year's harvest was gathered, tribute in the form of goods and produce were given to the chiefs from November through December. Various rites of purification and celebration in December and January closed the observance of the Makahiki season.

E. Kalani Flores, Hawaiian cultural advisor to the Internet magazine Aloha from Hawaii, writes that in early Hawai'i, the Makahiki was a designated period of time following the harvesting season. During the special holiday the success of the harvest was commemorated with prayers of praise made to the Creator, various deities especially Lono ancestral guardians, and caretakers of the elements.

Lono, the god of agriculture and fertility, was honored to ensure peace and productivity. Lono is seen, associated with or visualized as clustering or dark clouds, as thunder, the partial rainbow, whirlwinds, and even waterspouts - all aspects of Hawaii's winter season. Lono is the rain that falls from the Kona direction. He reestablishes the vitality of the land and nourishes the gardens of the people.

It was a time when all wars and battles were ceased, tributes and taxes paid by each district to the ruling chief, sporting competitions and contests between villages were organized, and festive events were commenced. Several of the rigid kapu (regulating religious and social laws) were eased or temporarily set aside to allow more freedom of activity and easy celebration. It was a time of rest and renewal in preparation for the next growing season.

The celebration of the mystical Winter Solstice is also celebrated during the Makahiki.

When the Makahiki season closed, Lono went back to the ancestral lands of Kahiki (Tahiti) and Ku returned to be in charge for the growing season. In a ceremony marking the closure of the Makahiki, a canoe with offerings to Lono was set adrift to help return Lono to the ancestral lands and be generous upon his return next year.

Although the Makahiki events and activities are not practiced to the same extent as in times past there are said to be those souls who return from the past to remind us of those earlier times. Some old-time residents of these islands can describe hearing the ancient drum beats echoing on particular nights in the vicinities of the temples and sites of the Makahiki celebrations.

Likewise on these nights, there are those who have witnessed spectral apparitions of royal processions of spirits in regalia from an earlier era proceeding along the ancient pathways previously used during the Makahiki season.

Traditional Hawaiian Makahiki Blessing:

As it has been through time, may this season of Makahiki be a time of new growth and rejuvenation for you physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.

For more information on the Internet about the Kanaka Maoli and their culture visit: "Uncle Charlie" Maxwell:

Ho`iho`i Mai