Native Hawaiian systems of health care sustained the wellbeing of kānaka in Hawai‘i for generations. These systems were rooted in spirituality and balance.

For example, the akua were integral parts of healing and medicine. Kū, known as an akua of war, was also a principal god of medicine with the goddess Hina. Hi‘iaka was a goddess of healing. Lonopūhā was a god of healing, particularly of chronic diseases. Koleamoku was a man who was taught medicinal arts by the gods and who was deified as a god of healing after death. Both Lonopūhā and Koleamoku were names given to heiau that were built by an ali‘i after recovery from a malady.

The ‘āina was also an essential part of healing. Hale lama were structures built from the lama tree (Diospyros sandwicensis); lama refers to “light.” The hale was built between sun-up and sun-down to maintain healing and enlightening properties and was used as a place to convalesce, especially for ali‘i.

Illustration: Kahuna treating a kānaka
Kahuna used native healing strategies and medicines to treat kānaka. – Illustration: Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker

The profound changes of the mid-19th century in Hawai‘i increased tensions between Native Hawaiian healing strategies and those of other cultures. Formal laws in Hawai‘i began to restrict many Native Hawaiian healing practices as early as the 1830s. Prior to this time period, kahuna were considered to be skilled medical practitioners. Yet by the late 1840s, the newspapers record kahuna being referred to as “mea ho‘opunipuni,” or “liars” and “charlatans.”

However, many people still valued Native Hawaiian knowledge and healing. In 1868, King Kamehameha V (Lot Kapuāiwa) encouraged the revival of native practices, including those related to healing. An article published in Ka Nupepa Kuokoa on February 27, 1869, describes an 1868 law that established a Board of Health to license medical practitioners; this law included mechanisms for licensing kahuna. Kapuāiwa appointed two Hawaiians and one non-Hawaiian to consider each license application, and 10 Native Hawaiian graduates from the first class of Dr. Gerrit P. Judd’s School of Medicine were licensed to practice by 1872. The March 30, 1870 edition of Ke Au ‘Oko‘a documented the formation of a “Society of Medical Kahunas.” Licensed kahuna were required to make an annual report recording the names of patients, their ailments and prescriptions. Many of these reports are now held at the Hawai‘i State Archives and are valuable resources for researchers.

Kapuāiwa’s desire to maintain the people’s health was shared by other ali‘i. In 1859, King Kamehameha IV (Alexander Liholiho) and Queen Emma founded the Queen’s Hospital (Queen’s Medical Centers). King Kalākaua and Queen Kapi‘olani founded the ‘Ahahui Ho‘oulu a Ho‘ōla Lāhui, a society to promote hygiene to combat infant mortality. Queen Kapi‘olani founded the Kapi‘olani Home for Girls in 1885 and the Kapi‘olani Maternity Home (Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women and Children) in 1890. King Lunalilo founded Lunalilo Home to care for the Hawaiian elderly population. Queen Lili‘uokalani established a trust for Native Hawaiian children (the Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center). One of Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop’s most passionate interests is documented as healthcare for Hawaiians. Yet, because her other family members had focused their efforts toward health, she turned to education.

The aloha of the ali‘i for the wellbeing of their people was evident in the efforts made to maintain the health and survival of the lāhui. As kānaka sought to sustain the knowledges and practices associated with native healing, they also welcomed wholeheartedly new strategies to cope with new health realities. Today, the work of individuals, communities, and organizations in fields of health continues to be a testament to the strength of Hawaiian healthcare. E ho‘ōla a e ho‘oulu ka Lāhui Hawai‘i!