Illustration: Herb Kawainui Kāne
Makahiki, literally meaning “year,” begins when the constellation, Makaliʻi (Pleiades,) rises at sunset, a phenomenon that typically occurs in late October. This marks the start of the Hawaiian new year. Makahiki is a four-month season that comes to a close in January, aligning with part of the rainy season. Makahiki typically begins during the last month of kau (summer) and carries into the first 3 months of hoʻoilo (winter).
In ancestral times, Makahiki marked a significant shift in society, one that happened annually as kānaka transitioned from the eight-month period in which all work was done under the observance of the akua Kū. It was during Makahiki that kānaka dedicated their work and tasks to the akua, Lono. Kū is generally worshipped as the primary god of warfare, tool making, and conquest. Lono is generally worshiped as the principal god of agriculture, procreation, and rain. Under the observance of Lono’s season, the ʻāina was allowed to rest and become softened by the rains in preparation for the next planting season. War was prohibited during the observance of Lono and aliʻi and makaʻāinana joined in various forms of celebration including feasting and competitions, both athletic and intellectual.
During Makahiki, all work was stopped and men, women, and aliʻi rested. For the first four days of Makahiki, everyone was expected to rest at home. Following the four days of rest, kānaka would farm and fish for themselves and engage in different celebrations. The four months of makahiki stood in contrast to the other eight months of the year in that no one was expected to carry out their usual tasks. One of the biggest changes in traditional society under the observance of Makahiki was the suspension of regular haipule rites to their akua.
Haipule is typically defined in English as “religiously devout” however, Hawaiian Historian and author Davida Malo provides deeper insight to this term and how it influenced the shift from Kū season to Lono’s makahiki. Haipule, as Malo’s original writings reveal, is related to the 8 months of the year where religious rites and practices associated with the worship of Kū were enforced and observed. This would include human sacrifice and other rites connected to luakini, which are sacrificial heiau used by ruling aliʻi and most often dedicated to Kū. Luakini are associated with war and politics, both of which were placed on hold during Makahiki. During Makahiki, all haipule rites and practices stopped for both makaʻāinana and aliʻi. At this time, it was common for vegetable foods to be offered to their akua instead.
Kū worship did not glorify violence and war, but rather the courage of warriors and aliʻi in their various conquests. Kū and his many forms and bodies are associated with several tasks including canoe making, fishing, and tool making. Lono worship, in contrast to Kū, focused more on agriculture, peace and hana leʻaleʻa (amusements and fun). Makahiki was a time of leʻaleʻa (fun) and meant to celebrate the bounty of hard work that came from adhering to haipule rites for most of the year.
Makahiki season was signified by displaying flags which marked the time to end all haipule rites at heiau and luakini. The aliʻi and makaʻāinana then turned to games and amusements in addition to following the tax protocols involved with Makahiki. Each moku (district) on every island was expected to procure certain goods that had previously been assessed based on the smaller land divisions within the moku. These goods would be collected by the konohiki who would bring the goods from each moku to the ruling aliʻi. Some of the goods would be dedicated as tribute to Lonomakua, the akua of Makahiki, while other goods were set aside as tribute for the ruling aliʻi. These goods might include, kapa, malo, pāʻū, dogs, and other types of food. During Makahiki pigs were not typically offered to aliʻi because the rites done to consecrate pigs for eating were considered haipule and done at luakini, which were closed.
The aliʻi nui were responsible for distributing the goods they received. First a portion was set aside for the akua held by the ruling aliʻi, and then a portion went to their kahuna (experts and advisors). After that more goods were set aside for the remaining aliʻi and their attendants and wives as well as their soldiers. Aliʻi of higher rank received more as they often had more retainers. Makaʻāinana were not given goods but were the ones providing them as an offering to Lono and a tax to their ruling aliʻi, who protected them in the season of Kū.
Makahiki involved the worship of the principal Makahiki god, Lonomakua. Lonomakua was a carved wooden image that was assembled and adorned each Makahiki season, on each island. Lonomakua was situated on a wooden pole about twelve feet long. The head of the image was carved on the top of the pole, with a crosspiece tied at the neck. The crosspiece was adorned with ferns and feather lei. White kapa was attached to the top of the image and on a specific night the akua would be anointed with coconut oil. Lonomakua was also referred to as the akua loa (god of the long journey) because of the circuit it made around each island. Another wooden akua associated with Makahiki, the akua poko (god of the short journey,) made a shorter journey to the boundaries of each moku before returning to their post. There was also the akua pāʻani (god of play) who travelled together with the akua loa. The akua pāʻani would oversee certain Makahiki games and amusements around the islands.
Lonomakua (the akua loa) traveled clockwise around the island to make his circuit. The akua poko went counterclockwise. As the akua loa travelled, their left side would face the sea and was considered kapu. If a person trespassed on that side of the god, they were in violation of the kapu and would have to pay with a pig. They would not be killed for this violation under the observance of Lono. When the akua loa arrived at each moku, the konohiki who supported the moku and the surrounding ahupuaʻa would have the Makahiki goods prepared and they would offer them to the akua. Some goods offered to Lonomakua included feathers, pigs, kapa, and poi for those carrying the god. The konohiki would collect the goods ahead of time and place them on the boundary of the ahupuaʻa where the altar stood.
Makahiki was a time of bounty and abundance where everyone was well fed. It was common to make delicacies at this time like kūlolo and other sweet treats. Makaʻāinana were permitted to fish and farm for themselves, but work was discouraged, and games were common. This was considered a time of hana leʻaleʻa or amusements and fun. Makahiki is known for its games like mokomoko (boxing), maika (a disk rolling game), noʻa (guessing the location of a hidden item), heʻe hōlua (sledding), kūkini (foot racing), and hula.
At the close of Makahiki, the akua were disassembled and bundled up securely to be stored in the luakini. Once the akua were secured, the men carrying them were ritually fed and kāhuna offered prayers. A waʻa ʻauhau (tax canoe) was readied and filled with provisions. This was Lono’s canoe so he could return to Kahiki, his homeland and residence of the akua. The aliʻi nui and their kāhuna followed several kapu before they were permitted to refurbish their luakini. On the night of Kū in the month Kaulua or Nana all aliʻi and their people returned to observing haipule rites, ending the Makahiki season.
Today, Makahiki has taken on a new role in our community. Each year kānaka celebrate the coming of a new season and the return of Lono by playing Makahiki games and feasting. At this time, we honor the abundance of our ʻāina that feeds us and cares for us. Makahiki is still celebrated every year on every island. Community members, schools, and various Native Hawaiian organizations facilitate games and other hana leʻaleʻa during this time as we welcome the rainy season and honor Lono. The Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana (PKO) celebrates Makahiki annually on the island of Kahoʻolawe. These festivities began in 1980 through strong negotiations with the U.S. Navy to continue our religious practices. Before his passing, George Helm advocated for the celebration of Makahiki on Kahoʻolawe. For this reason, PKO considers George Helm to be our new Lonoikamakahiki. Ceremonies and rituals have been recreated and are facilitated by cultural practitioners including the Kanakaʻole ʻohana. Kūpuna, kamaliʻi, and ʻohana from every island have made their way to Kahoʻolawe to kōkua by planting and restoring the island, which is still devastated by the violent crimes of the U.S. Navy. PKO shares that to them Makahiki season is an opportunity to celebrate and show our appreciation for the year of harvest and growth on our home islands, for the rain that nourishes our lands, and for the abundance that comes with the return of Lono.
Malo, Davida. Edited and Translated by Langlas, Charles and Lyon, Jeffrey. The Moʻolelo Hawaiʻi of Davida Malo Vol. 2. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2020.
Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana http://www.protectkahoolaweohana.org/makahiki.html