This is the season of the Makahiki, a time for giving hoʻokupu. This month of December is also a time of giving gifts. Hoʻokupu and gift-giving, however, are different. What really is this hoʻokupu?
Here is an answer. Historian John Papa ʻIʻī, an eye-witness, saw a hoʻokupu giving ceremony during the reign of Kamehameha. He recalled this in a newspaper article:
We traveled with the chief [Kamehameha] aboard the ʻOkena and stopped at Lāhaina. Then all of Maui gave their hoʻokupu that swelled the pile of Keʻeaumoku with kapa, pāʻū, ʻupena, food, fish, and our share (haʻawina) was two ʻiako (forty) of kapa, ten pāʻū, 10 dogs. When the tribute of Maui was complete, then we went to Molokaʻi aboard the ʻOkena, we got off on Molokaʻi, then the ʻOkena sailed off to Oʻahu, and we stayed in Molokaʻi with the chief (Kamehameha). All of Molokaʻi gave tribute, kapa, pāʻū, nets, and when the hoʻokupu was finished then my share was 20 kapa, 10 pāʻū stained with kukui soot, four dogs, and when completed we stayed until all the tribute of Molokaʻi was given. We returned first to Lahaina because of the lack of canoes and we stayed with Kekuaiwa folks at Keawaiki, and on another day, Kamehameha landed at Lahaina. We waited there until the ʻUnihepa returned from Oʻahu then we returned to Hawaiʻi.
-Ke Kumu Hawaii, Mar 14, 1838 p.83
Therefore, from that massive hoʻokupu at Mokuhinia (fishpond of Mokuʻula) that was divided by the chief counselor, Keʻeaumoku, ʻIʻī received 40 kapa, 10 pāʻū skirts, 10 dogs and thus went the division of goods on Molokaʻi. That was his share even though he was a junior, lesser chief. What would the high chief or minister have received?
According to S.M. Kamakau, Puʻunui was a nickname for Keʻeaumoku. After the battle at Nuʻuanu, Kamehameha stayed on Oʻahu for six years until he was urged to return to Kaiakeakua (Kailua, Kona) due to his old age. While he was returning, he wanted to bowl at Kaʻakeke, ʻUalapuʻe, and when finished he traveled to rest at Lāhaina. At Lāhaina, Keʻeaumoku gathered all the wealth of Maui, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi and Kahoʻolawe for Kamehameha.
Kamakau wrote, “the chief who accumulated this wealth (hoʻokupu) was Kahekili Keʻeaumoku Puʻunui (Kuokoa, 8/17/67).” Because of his skill in gathering hoʻokupu he was called “Large Mound.” What a sight it would be to see that mound!
Therefore a hoʻokupu is not a single gift or single lei.
It is comprised of many gifts – 40 kapa, 40 mats of feathers, 40 fish, pigs, etc. This way of gifting still persists in Sāmoa and is known as faʻalawelawe. For example, each family might contribute to a married couple, siapo (tapa), fine mats, cases of corned beef, etc. which is then divvied up amongst honored guests.
The difference then, between simple gift-giving and hoʻokupu, was not only the quantity but also in its grounding and reason. Hoʻokupu was a means to “sprout” or grow relationships, trust and loyalty and also a visible and magnificent expression of mana and status.