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THE ANCIENT Weapons, Tikis AND Society OF Hawaii

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Ancient Hawaiian Culture:
The Extreme Sports and Games of Hawaii

Ancient Hawaiian
Culture & Sports

The culture of the ancient Hawaiians featured the first X-games (Olympic like extreme sports celebration) in history. In times of peace ancient Hawaiian chiefs used these daring sports to impress their subjects with their boldness. While Hawaiian warriors and commoners alike competed to increase their prestige. These bold sports included lava sledding, surfing, boxing, cliff diving and spear catching. Ancient Hawaiians also competed in running, swimming and sports fishing events. Other games were feats of strategy instead of athleticism or boldness; these included a chess/checkers like board game and a game similar to bowling.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku
Native Hawaiian Swimmer, Surfer, Actor and Olympic Gold Medalist


As with all aspects of the ancient Hawaiians and their culture religion touched upon their sports and games. These events fell under the jurisdiction of the Tiki God Lono. In ancient Hawaiian culture, games were traditionally played during the makahiki season, which stretched three or four months from late fall through the winter. It was a time when attention turned from warring to farming, in fact all warfare ceased. Taxes were paid to ruling chiefs, and as chiefs traveled from one village to another, games of skill were performed for their entertainment. Political power shifted away from the warlike chiefs to the relatively peaceful Kahunas during this time of celebration. Many kapu (taboos) were lifted during makahiki, allowing women to surf and participate in various competitions.

The Original Surf Culture and History of Surfing
Captain James Cook, the British explorer and navigator, was the first European to record surfing, which he ‘discovered’ along with Hawaii. Surfing was central part in the culture of many coastal Hawaiian communities. Chiefs and nobles took the best beaches for them selves placing a kapu on them banning commoners. They also had the best boards from the best trees, however even a commoner could gain mana if they were an excellent surfer.

Once the fussy pants Scottish and German missionaries arrived in 1821 they began using their growing power to suppress Hawaiian culture. Surfing was particularly looked down upon do to the natives custom of surfing without clothes. Surfing died out and only a few Hawaiians carried on the tradition of surfing and knew how to make the ancient, heavy Hawaiian long boards.

In the early 1900’s, Hawaiians living close to Waikiki began to revive surfing, possibly in protest to America’s illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Surfing began to catch on and was soon a sport. From there, Duke Kahanamoku, "Ambassador of Aloha," helped introduce surfing to the world. Duke Kahanamoku was a native Hawaiian, actor and an Olympic gold medalist in swimming, who used his celebrity to lure the countries attention to water sports.

In the late 1930’s and 40’s new lighter balsa wood boards were introduced and surfers gained added maneuverability. The sport didn’t really take off until the 1960’s however. Movies about surfers, “beach party movies” introduced surfing to the masses. While Tiki culture spread was at it’s highest surf culture launched an amphibious assault. The native protester surfers of Waikki had spread their Hawaiian culture more successful then they could ever have imagined. Hawaii is still one of the world’s hottest spots for surfing; it’s waves drawing thousands of surf tourists annually.

Ancient Hawaiian Lava Sledding
Hawaiian lava sledding (Hawaiian: he‘e holua, "mountain surfing") is a traditional sport of Native Hawaiians. Similar to wave surfing, he‘e holua involves the use of a narrow 12 foot long, 6 inch wide wooden sled (papaholua) made from native wood like Kau‘ila or Ohia. The sled is used standing up, lying down, or kneeling, to ride down man-made courses of lava rock, often reaching speeds of 50 mph or greater. In the past, Hawaiian lava sledding was considered both a sport and a religious ritual for honoring the gods.

Spear Catching and Cliff Diving
Chiefs often did dangerous activities in order to impress their subjects with their braveness. Cliff diving and Lava sledding were two examples that have been recorded, each involving great dare devil speeds. Another method used by chiefs to impress others was spear catching. Kamehameha the great, the first king to unite Hawaii, once impressed a group of Europeans by having five of his warriors throw spears at him at the same time. Kamehameha caught two of them, dodge two of them and deflected one of them.

Boxing, Ancient Hawaiian Style
When captain cook and his men landed in Hawaii it was the makahiki season and they witnessed Hawaiian boxing competitions. These where similar to the one they had witnessed throughout the Polynesian triangle and they were not interested in competing when offered the opportunity. This was due to the fact that none of them had faired well in these competitions, each time the European contender was thoroughly bludgeoned by a powerful native. The rules of boxing in Hawaii and throughout Polynesia were quite simple, opponents would take turns exchanging blows until one of them quits or is knocked out. Opponents are not allowed to block or dodge the punches though!

Ancient Hawaiian Games

One of the culture's more strategic games was konane, similar to a blend of chess and checkers. The game included a pitted stone checkerboard (called a papamu), with black and white pebbles made of lava and coral (known respectively as ‘ili ‘ele and ‘ili kea). The number of holes on the papamu, set in even rows, varied from 64 to 250 -- depending on how long participants wanted the game to last.

To play: If you don't have black lava and white coral pebbles, beachcomb for suitable substitutes. If you don't live near a beach, check craft or hobby stores for polished or unpolished stones.

As far as crafting a game board, your imagination is the only limit. Chiseling an authentic papamu is time-intensive, but if you're up to the challenge, look for a large flat rock in which to carve holes. (Note that the holes, especially the indent in the center, were traditionally inset with human teeth.)

The rules are similar to checkers. All holes on the papamu are filled with stones, alternating dark and light. The game starts by removing an ‘ili ‘ele (dark stone) from either the center of the board or one of the board's corners. The next move is to take away an ‘ili kea (light stone) adjacent to the newly removed dark stone.

The game progresses from here much like checkers: Players take turns trying to capture their opponent's ‘ili by jumping the stones horizontally or vertically. As in checkers, you can make more than one jump during a move if there's an empty hole between jumps and the stones being jumped are in the same row or column. You can't move diagonally, or switch directions within a move.

The Hawaiians also played ‘ulumaika, a game that resembles contemporary lawn bowling. Descriptions of the game vary, but following are the essential elements:

A round rock about the size of a coconut is rolled or pitched through two short wooden stakes. A point is gained each time the rock passes through the stakes. The stakes can be as close together as five or six inches or as far apart as two feet, depending on how challenging you want the game to be. Similarly, the distance the bowler stands from the stakes depends on the difficulty level the participant’s desire. It's best to play one person at a time unless you have a large yard and can set up stakes far apart from each other.

The Sport of Kings
The preferred sport of royalty was warfare, however this was banned during makahiki. Battles were considered sport to ancient Hawaiian warriors, this can be seen in their word for battlefield: Playground.

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