The Makahiki ceremonies were much more than an elaborate means to redistribute wealth; this calendrical celebration helped Hawaiians live within their means.
Kepa Maly, ethnographer and executive director of Lanai Culture and Heritage Center, says these ceremonial tributes allowed the chiefs and common people to take stock of their resources; abundant offerings signaled healthy lands and reefs.
“Makahiki,” Maly says, “is about knowing boundaries — that resources have limitations. If we take too much today we will have zero for tomorrow.” Makahiki was a time of assessment, uniformly observed across the islands. It was, he says, a time of renewal for the people, the land and the sea.
Mikiala Pescaia highlights the values of this respite from war. Molokai, known as aina momona (fat land) for its many resources, was easy prey for marauding chiefs from neighbor islands. Pescaia theorizes that Molokai’s proximity to the other islands meant there was no time to prepare for battle once warring canoes were visible from shore. During the four months of Makahiki, she says, “People could tend to their nets, fix canoes, spend time with family, make plans, or teach their children without having their guard up.”
After the akua loa had traversed an ahupuaa, the people of the district held feasts and competitions that lasted for weeks, with foot races, wrestling, spear throwing, chanting, tug-of-war, and demonstrations of intellect. Boxing, by both men and women, became especially prominent at the games.
Lewa Makalii, lewa Na-huihui
Swings the Pleiades, Makalii, swings the Cluster, na Huihui
— From the creation chant Kumulipo
The Makahiki rituals began to disappear from Hawaii with changes in religion and politics; Queens Kaahumanu and Keopuolani abolished the kapu system in 1819, and heiau (temples) were later destroyed. But in some areas, Makahiki ceremonies persisted for decades.
Pescaia says that decades later, her grandmother and other kupuna (elders) asked, “How blessed could we be if we went back to expressing our thankfulness the way our ancestors used to?” Molokai’s modern Makahiki festival grew from that thought and has been going for thirty years, bringing together competitors and thousands of spectators from across the islands.