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March 1998

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Hawaiian Recreation
Games People Played
by Betty Fullard-Leo     

Holua Art

In old Hawai'i, there was a time for work and a time for play. During the fall Makahiki season, war was suspended for three-to-four months, taxes were paid to the chiefs according to the abundance of the year's harvest, and festivities, feasting and games filled the days. Religious kapu (taboos) that were in effect during the rest of the year were suspended while Hawaiians on all islands heeded the command: "Stand up! Gird yourselves for play! Hail to Lono!" (Lono is one of four major Hawaiian gods.) The command was the Hawaiian equivalent of the Olympic cry, "Let the games begin!"

Men donned their malo to take part in sporting tournaments. Pa'ani were team sports intended primarily for fun and might include no'a, a game where groups of people faced each other on either side of five bundles of overlapping kapa. A member of one team hid the no'a, a small polished rod of wood, by plunging his arm under the kapa and moving the concealed game piece back and forth until he dropped it under one of the bundles. The other team then tried to guess which kapa pile concealed it. Teams took turns, and when one side scored ten points, it was declared the winner.

Mokomoko (hand-to-hand sports, such as wrestling and boxing) and contests were designed to train young men as warriors and athletes. Barefisted boxing called kuikui, hand wrestling or uma, and foot racing, kukini, were hotly competitive sports enjoyed by spectators as much as by the combatants. In 1826, Reverend William Ellis wrote about another sport warriors practiced: "(Hawaiian men) also practiced throwing the javelin (pahe'e), and catching and returning those thrown at them, or warding them off so as to avoid receiving any injury...We know some men who have stood and allowed six men to throw their javelins at them, which they would either catch, and return on their assailants, or so dexterously turn aside, that they fell harmless to the ground."

During any season of the year, holua sledding down a steep, rock-lined slope was a favorite pastime. Youngsters might fly down the slopes on clusters of ti leaves, but adults perfected a wooden papa (sled) with two narrow runners measuring seven-to-twelve feet long spaced only five or six inches apart. The sledder held his vehicle by an attached grip, ran to the starting point and threw himself chest down on the sled, fighting to maintain his balance as he raced perhaps 150 to 200 yards down a grass-lined slope. Holua tracks were too narrow for racing side by side, so the winner was determined by the distance he managed to traverse. One of the best preserved holua slides, can still be seen on a slope called Pu'u Hinahina backing the Kona Country Club, and an antique holua sled is on display at Hulihe'e Palace in Kailua-Kona.


Kids playing 'ulumaika.

But games did not consist solely of physical competition. Some games were played for pure amusement, others made opponents match wits and helped develop strategic thinking skills. Captain Cook's journals left the first detailed descriptions of games and the ingenious equipment he saw on his early voyages to Hawai'i. One journal entry described konane as a game resembling draughts (checker), but played on a papamu (board) three feet long with 238 squares arranged in rows of 14. Since then, larger and smaller boards with varying numbers of rows and squares have been found, which affected the length of time the game was played but not the way in which it was played. In the 1800s, Reverend William Ellis described Haloa Beach near Ninole as a renowned source for the black basalt and white coral pebbles used as checkers in konane.


Kids playing konane. A Hawaiian
game similar to checkers.

Interestingly, papamu were not always wooden boards, but were sometimes carved in lava flows in areas that also might contain other petroglyphs. At Kapalaoa on the Big Island, a number of petroglyph boards line the shoreline terminating in an arena-like depression where a single large papamu is etched into the lava. Ski Kwiatskowski, who researched a book on petroglyphs called "Na Ki'i Pohaku," surmises, "The large lonecheckerboard in the arena was for the championship game. This way an entire village was able to view the match along with much cheering, kibitzing and betting."

A number of old Hawaiian games have survived and are played at Makahiki festivals or other cultural events today. Courses for 'ulumaika, played with circular stone disks that are pitched through two stakes spaced about six inches apart, are at Waimea Falls Park on O'ahu, and at Pu'uhonua O Honuaunau on the Big Island. 'Ulumaika is also played every year by fourth and fifth grade school children during a Big Island Sports Day, or La Pa'ani, sponsored for six schools by Keauhou Beach Hotel every November. In addition, the kids do battle in uma (wrestling), pahe'e (javelin), konane (checkers), kimo (similar to jacks) and hu (spinning tops). In today's world, the games are played not only to develop skills and quick thinking, they are played to instill pride in the Hawaiian culture and to keep that culture alive for generations to come.


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Story appeared originally in Coffee Times print magazine and appears online for archival purposes only. Any use or reprinting of these stories without the expressed written consent of the author is prohibited.

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