The Epic Story of Kawelo of Hanalei

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The story of Kawelo is one of the most well-known epics from Kauaʻi.

Kawelo is claimed as an ancestor to Kauaʻi aliʻi including King Kaumualiʻi and Queen Kapiʻolani. When Kaʻahumanu toured Kauaʻi with Kaumualiʻi in 1822, he took her to places named in that epic, including to the island of Nīhoa.

Princess Liliʻuokalani also visited places associated with Kawelo. In mele honoring King Kalākaua during his Jubilee, the king is compared to Kawelo.

Hoku o Hawaii
Stories about Kawelo appeared in many early newspapers, as in this 1908 example from Hoku o Hawaii. – Photo: Courtesy

Early on, the first independent Kānaka Maoli paper, Ka Hoku o ka Pakipika, printed the moʻolelo of Kawelo in 1861 as a reminder to never forget our traditions and to hold fast to who we are. And during the 1900s, in the Territorial era, Hawaiian newspapers, including that of the Home Rule Party, continued to publish the moʻolelo of Kawelo to remind readers of what made Kawelo successful: his skills, his love of knowledge; and his aloha for his akua, family, and homeland.

Kaweloleimakua, also known as Kawelo-a-Maihunaliʻi or simply as Kawelo, is a kupua (demigod) raised within the ruling house of Kaua’i. He was a middle child. His grand-uncle was Kawelomahamahala who, after he passed away, becomes a shark guardian of Kauaʻi.

Kawelo and his cousin, Kawelo-aikanaka (or simply Aikanaka), and Kauahoa the giant, were born the same day. Growing up in Hanalei, his cousins and uncles vied for power. As a child, Kawelo was bullied by his older siblings, by Kauahoa, and by his cousins; but he is beloved and hānai by his grandparents.

As Kawelo grew older, he realized that he had supernatural strength and so his grandparents taught him how to redirect it. They also taught him philosophy, moʻolelo, and other deep Hawaiian knowledge.

Aikanaka, who is Kawelomahamahala’s, grandson, becomes king. Rats warn Kawelo that Aikanaka plans to kill him out of jealousy. Kawelo goes into self-exile and hides in Kolekole, Waiʻanae, with his grandparents and his youngest sibling, Kamālama.

At the suggestion of his grandparents, Kawelo mastered farming, canoeing, surfing, lua (hand-to-hand fighting), and mokomoko (boxing). His mokomoko skills gained notice, and, after he won a match with a much larger opponent, the king of Oʻahu gave Kawelo lands in Ulukou, Waikīkī, near where the Outrigger Hotel is today.

After learning lua and boxing, Kawelo began training in hula and in the arts of war. He learned more moʻolelo, ceremonies, and chants through hula, which helped ground him. While learning hula, he meets his wahine, Kanewahineikiaoha. She also studies the art of war with him and becomes a skilled warrior, particularly with the ʻīkoi (tripping club). Kawelo then adopts two kupua boys, Kalaumeke and Kaʻeleha.

While learning fishing, Kawelo encounters Uhumākaʻikaʻi, a gigantic supernatural fish. As they battle, Uhumākaʻikaʻi drags both Kawelo and his fishing kumu around Waiʻanae, Kauaʻi, Niʻihau, and Nīhoa for two days. By invoking his ancestral gods, Kawelo is able to subdue and kill Uhumākaʻikaʻi. Again, it is not his physical strength but his spiritual strength that makes him victorious.

Photo: Rare photo of Nīhoa Island
Rare photo of Nīhoa Island taken in 1885 during (then) Princess Liliʻuokalani’s trip to Nīhoa and Moku Manamana, a tour similar to that taken by Kaʻahumanu 63 years earlier. – Photo: Hawaiʻi State Archives.

Kawelo’s family was dispossessed of their homelands at Hanamāʻulu by Aikanaka, leaving them houseless – which must have resonated with readers in the 1900s. Messengers were sent to Kawelo, but were unable to make their journey because they did not pray properly. The epic reminds us of the continued importance of protocols. Eventually, Kawelo discovers his family’s dispossession and appealed to his ancestral gods. Kawelo then prepares for war, but he does so only to avenge his parents, not to seek power.

Before invading Kauaʻi, Kawelo humbled himself before his gods and builds a temple. He conducts the correct ceremonies, and the gods hear him. He gathered up seven mighty warriors known as Nāʻulu, his adopted sons, his wife Kanewahineikiaoha, and other women to invade Kauaʻi. His father-in-law gave Kawelo a supernatural spear and war club, Kuʻikaʻa. He then prayed and conducted ceremonies either at Kaneʻaki or Mahuka heiau invoking his ancestral gods.

Kawelo and his warriors arrived on Kauaʻi and, through skill, defeated Kauahoa the giant. Kawelo fought several battles with his magical spear and war club and wins. In Anahola, he threw his spear so hard that it pierced the mountain.

Between battles, he composed oli to honor his akua and chants in admiration of the beauty of his homeland. With reluctance, Kawelo agreed to become ruler of Kauaʻi and reorganizes the island. His knowledge of farming and fishing help him increase food for his people. He made Hanalei his capital.

Aikanaka retreated to Hanapepe, plotting a rebellion against Kawelo and killing his parents. When Kawelo goes to Hanapepe to avenge his parents Aikanaka’s men stone him. Believing that Kawelo is dead, Aikanaka lays him on an altar. Kawelo then leaped up and eliminated Aikanaka and the rebels.

Just as it did during the time of the aliʻi and the Home Rule Party, this Kauaʻi epic teaches us that Kawelo became a ruler not because of his bloodline, but because of his merit and his mastery of Hawaiian skills, wisdom, dedication, and spirituality. Kawelo then, and now, reminds us to hold fast to everything that makes us Kānaka Maoli. Never give up on being Kanaka Maoli.