The Rebirth of Makahiki

Maui and her sister islands are reviving one of the most important spiritual times of ancient Hawai‘i.

Micheal Stein |  Photography by Luana Pa‘ahana/Ka‘anapali Beach Hotel | Yuki Lee  |  Bishop Museum

I ke ao ‘eka ‘eka o Lono
Kukulu ka ipu ‘eka ‘eka o Lono
Ho mai ka ipu lau makani o Lono
Ia hiki mai ka ua o Lono
Ho‘oulu ke ea
Ho‘oulu ke kupu
Ho‘oulu ka wai nape i ke kama o Ho‘ohokulani

In the dark cloud of Lono
Lono’s water gourd takes form
Grant us Lono’s gourd of many winds
Let Lono’s rains come
Increase the life
Increase the plant growth
Increase life in man (child of Ho‘ohokulani)
—from a Makahiki chant by Nalani Kanaka‘ole

“For now, I’m a student of Makahiki, trying to become a professor.”

makahikiKimokeo Kapahulehua’s work on restoring Hawaiian fishponds has won him a Volunteer of the Year award from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and he has been teaching Hawaiian traditions to the children of Maui for decades. His honest admission of gaps in his knowledge of Makahiki underscores how even some native Hawaiian activists and cultural practitioners are in the first stages of re-exploring one of the most sacred and vital of all Hawaiian festivals.

In ancient times, Makahiki was not just a holiday, but a whole season in which to celebrate the god Lono, who provided peace and the fruits of the harvest. Now, after centuries when such festivities were relegated to Hawai‘i’s pagan history, and after decades of private rituals and colorful but limited public celebrations, Maui Nui is begining to rediscover the full spectrum of Makahiki.

As the great cultural historian David Malo described in his book Hawaiian Antiquities, based on chants and oral histories of the Hawaiian kingdom, Makahiki was a four-month phase of the Hawaiian calendar, with its own ceremonies, rhythms, and purposes. The coming of Makahiki was signaled by the stars: when the constellation Na Huihui o Makali‘i (the Pleiades) rose due east at sunset in the month of Welehu, around the time of the new moon. Through three lunar cycles of the rainy season of Ho‘oilo, Makahiki continued, until the return of the new moon when the constellation appeared at dawn, to be obscured by the coming of the day.

Hawiian ti capesMakahiki marked an astonishing change in the normal fabric of life. Commoners and chiefs alike abstained for at least half of every eight-day period from fishing and farming; and ceremonies honoring Lono, the god of fertility and agriculture, dominated religious activities. David Malo described the earnestness and sincerity with which the common people prayed for health and prosperity for themselves and their chiefs; and how the ali‘i (royalty) joined them in prayers for the ‘aina’s (land’s) vitality.

Those prayers were directed towards the akua loa, a 12-foot-high wooden image of the god Lono. Adorned with white kapa, feathers and foliage, Lono circled the islands, the ocean to his left; to his right, the upland forest realm of Ku, the god of war. The journey symbolized the respite from Ku’s world of strife and the ascendance of Lono’s realm of agriculture, healing, and peace. Ho‘okupu (offerings) of sweet potatoes, gourds, medicinal plants, pigs, and handicrafts were collected within each ahupua‘a (land district) to entreat the gods—and their representatives, the ali‘i—to preserve the relationship among god, man and ‘aina. When the mo‘o Lono (priests of Lono) arrived, prayers were chanted that made the land noa, free of its normal taboos.


hookupu processionThroughout Makahiki, while the god Ku rested, while Lono ruled and softened the lands with rain, an ironclad kapu forbade war. To keep their skills honed in a time of peace, warriors vied in the games of Makahiki that were a source of pride for ali‘i and maka‘ainana (subjects) alike. Engravings by early European visitors show the throngs that gathered to witness their champions compete in events ranging from mokomoko (Hawaiian boxing), to heihei (foot races), ‘¯o‘¯o ihe (spear throwing); and traditional games like maika, a form of outdoor bowling that aimed a cylindrical stone between two pegs. Events requiring wit, oratory, artistry, and spiritual knowledge played a part, such as nane (riddle contests), hula, and haku mele (composition of chants).

After four months, the god Ku rose once again to rule over kau wela, the hot summer season. A canoe with offerings to Lono was set adrift to help return him to his ancestral lands and petition his generosity for the following year, and Makahiki concluded.

Hawaiian warrior danceWithin decades of European contact, the celebration of Makahiki began to disappear. Hokulani Holt-Padilla, cultural advisor for the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, suggests that it began to wane during the ‘ai noa period, when taboos such as the ban on men and women eating together were lifted, eroding the Hawaiian belief system. By the 19th century, Christianity had begun to supplant Hawai‘i’s pantheon of gods and goddesses, and with it, the worship of Lono at the heart of Makahiki. Cultural practitioner Lyons Naone recalls, “I was married to a strong Catholic, and she wouldn’t allow the kids to be taken to such a ceremony. We couldn’t do games or witness protocols, since the clergy frowned on it.” Naone remembers many decades when only sporadic, subtle recognitions of Makahiki survived, along with offerings in secluded spots such as Kipahulu.

But by the Hawaiian renaissance of the mid-to late-’70s, Makahiki observances got a second life. Over the past several years, various schools and youth groups have resurrected Makahiki games—the most popular manifestation of the holiday (see sidebar).

Many native Hawaiians also perform hi‘uwai, immersing themselves in the ocean before dawn in a ritual of cleansing and renewal. As Holt-Padilla told me, “During Makahiki, one can continue personal offerings, do things close to home, and remember the land, the relationship with your fellow man and your god.”

Lyons Naone and a small group do hi‘uwai ceremonies in Kipahulu at Makahiki’s beginning and end, along with chanting “E Ala E” to the sun, making declarations of thanksgiving, drinking a celebratory cup of ‘awa and leaving ho‘okupu at a nearby heiau.

Remembrances of Makahiki have a continuing role in Maui life. At the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, the large entrance gates, called “The Nets of Makali‘i,” represent a ceremony that closes the Makahiki season, in which a net was used to determine whether there would be feast or famine. The net, containing various crops, was held up in the air and shaken, and if foods fell through, like gifts of plenty falling from the gods, there would be no famine in the coming year.

But it’s on Kaho‘olawe that Makahiki is most comprehensively celebrated, as an integral part of the restoration of Hawaiian culture on this newly reclaimed yet ancient and sacred island. One can hear the warmth of the Makahiki prayers in these words from the Protect Kaho‘olawe ‘Ohana (PKO). “The Makahiki season is our opportunity to celebrate and show our appreciation for the past year’s harvest on our home islands. . . . It is a period to petition the deity Lono to come again with greater abundance. On Kaho‘olawe, we petition Lono to raise the water table. We petition his presence as the gentle rain and the cloud cover to support our efforts to green Kaho‘olawe in our lifetime.”

The PKO sees its Makahiki celebrations as a way to encourage native Hawaiians to immerse themselves more deeply in ancestral connections with the original people through religion, culture, and traditional relationships to the land. As part of the ceremonies, k¯upuna (elders) and other representatives of the Hawaiian Islands come together to offer homegrown ho‘okupu and conduct the ancient rituals in full native regalia, and thus celebrate and reaffirm the society of   their ancestors.

Centuries ago, Makahiki renewed the Hawaiian people’s strength and hope by clearing a consecrated period for peace and enjoyment of the fruits of a year’s hard work. In the 21st century, the period is now the vessel of hope for a different kind of harvest: a restoration of Hawaiian culture in a more unified Hawaiian future.

For more details on the Makahiki observances of Kaho‘olawe, visit Please note that you cannot be a first-time visitor to Kaho‘olawe and participate in the Makahiki ceremonies.