Hawaiian Leadership

Davida Malo (pictured) is known as the most noted authority on pre-contact Hawaiian culture and history. He was a “bridge” between ancient and modern Hawaiʻi, the first Hawaiian intellectual in the Western tradition, that is, to write things down. He was something of a renaissance intellectual, and somewhat hard to put into a modern academic category.

David Malo had the reputation of being the best acquainted with the ‘old state of things’ before Christianity was introduced to the Hawaiian Islands. He was well regarded by the chiefs and people in general.

“Pono I kekahi mea a loaʻa mai i kona mau palapala, a e kākau i kona moʻolelo, e paʻi a e hoʻolaha I waena a nā kānaka a pau ma Hawaiʻi nei.”

“Someone should get [David Malo’s] papers and write his story to be published and told among all the people here in Hawaiʻi. - Obituary of Malo in Ka Elele, January 5, 1854”

The following article is courtesy of Umi Perkins from the blog ‘the umiverse’. Mr Perkins is a Hawaiian history lecturer at the University of Hawai’i Manoa Campus.

“Much is said about leadership in the Hawaiian community today. The movements surrounding Kalama Valley, Kahoʻolawe and more recently Mauna Kea have naturally produced leaders. In Hulīli journal, Guy Kaulukukui and Daniel Nahoʻopiʻi created an “inventory of exemplary Hawaiian leadership behaviors.” The quote above is from a participant in their study. So it behooves us to look back at traditional Hawaiian leadership to establish a baseline for leadership characteristics in ka wā kahiko. Malo’s chapter “No nā aliʻi a me nā kānaka” [Concerning the aliʻi and the people] is helpful in this regard.”

“Malo states……as for the nature of the ali’i and the common people of Hawai’I, they were of the same sort, a single race…… it was perhaps in the generations after Wakea that a separation developed between the ali’i and the people”

“Malo enumerates the duties of aliʻi, noting that “everything was under his control, so long as he acted properly” [emphasis mine, quotes are from Malo, edited by Langlas and Lyon]:

  • to gather men together in time of war
  • he said who should live and who should die, among commoners and aliʻi
  • care for the soldiers
  • “to him belonged the wealth given during the makahiki festival”
  • “to him belonged the right to take away the land of commoners or aliʻi”

“But the surprising part for me was in the preparation of a chief:
…. The future ruler first lived under another ali’i, so that he experienced poverty, scarcity, hunger and hardship, and reflected as a result of those troubles: he would learn to care for the people with patience, humbling himself below the commoners; he would learn to be religiously observant, not disregarding the kapu; he would live justly, not (be too quick to) shed blood, being kind in his rule over all the people.

“Both monarchs in Europe and wealthy people in the West find difficultly with this problem of the spoiled heir. If a man is self-made and has gone through hardship to get there, he provides opportunities and luxuries to his son, which become the reason the son canʻt duplicate the father’s success. Among monarchs, Peter of Russia, son of Peter the Great was one such example – he was overthrown by his own young wife, who became Catherine the Great.”

“Thus, the Hawaiian practice of subjecting an heir to poverty and hardship was an effective way of developing both grit and compassion for the plight of those over whom they would rule. (In the translation, the generic heir is male, but it isnʻt necessarily so in the Hawaiian – usually chiefs were male, but there were some examples of female ruling chiefs).”

“Much of Malo’s chapter is about genealogical succession, including the practice of nīʻaupiʻo – incestuous mating among the chiefly class. When I teach my students about this practice, I try to emphasize that nīʻaupiʻo is really about the right to rule. I look to Kamakau here for an explanation of chiefly rank, and its relation to nīʻaupiʻo.”


Aliʻi Nīʻaupiʻo – father was a high chief with no one of low rank on either side
Aliʻi Piʻo – the product of two nīʻaupiʻo chiefs (brother and sister)
Aliʻi Naha – product of nīaupiʻo half siblings
Aliʻi wohi – One parent is nīʻaupiʻo, the other is a high chief
Lō aliʻi – “The chiefs of Līhuʻe, Wahiawā, and Halemano on Oʻahu were called lō aliʻi. Because the chiefs at these places lived there continuously and guarded their kapu, they were called lō aliʻI [from whom a ʻguaranteedʻ chief might be obtained loaʻa]. They were like gods, unseen, resembling men” (Kamakau, 1991)
Aliʻi papa – product of a nīʻaupiʻo or piʻo and a kaukau aliʻi
Lōkea aliʻi – Father was nīʻaupiʻo and the mother was aliʻI nui, sometimes called wohi
Laʻauli aliʻi – parents both chiefly
Kaukau aliʻi – Father was high-ranking, mother was lower rank
Kūkae Pōpolo – Father was of little rank, mother of no rank. Children were called hana lepo popolo.

For modern leadership, surely other factors come into play – media presence, rhetorical skill, credibility of background and others. But it may be useful not to completely lose sight of traditional leadership traits in identifying and developing leadership talent in the Hawaiian community. As Malo states, “it is hardly possible to for all the people as a group to manage the government, acting to gather to solve problems, lift burdens, and clear up difficulties. That is probably the reason one person was made the aliʻi…”

Article by Umi Perkins, Hawaiian History lecturer.
Quotes within the article from the books of Samuel Kamakau “Ruling Chiefs” and David Malo “ Hawaiian Antiquities”. Also excepts from the Hulili Journal by Guy Kaulukukui and Daniel Naho’opi’ipi’i.

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