The Ancient Hawaiian Political System

Political Power

The ancient Hawaiians employed a class-based political system divided into four major classes: the alii, the kahuna, the makaainana, and the kauwa .

The alii, the ruling class was made up of various ranks of chiefs. The chiefs were the war leaders and often the head of their churches. A chief was surrounded by aialo, a crowd of attendants: a fly-brush holder, a masseuse, a spittoon holder, a chief steward, a treasurer, heralds, runners, and many others. Crimes were often punished through personal revenge, but an appeal to the chief could be made. If the chief decided to punish the guilty, the executioner, ilamuku, would visit the perpetrator in the night and kill him. Members of the alii were believed to be descended from the gods. After death, they were often worshipped as gods. Because of their divine ancestry, a chief could tax the people and declare tapus. The chiefs taxed their people a variety of ways. They enforced a food tax which required a portion of crops be allotted to the chief. They also enforced a labor tax which forced workers to farm the chief's fields. They also could require the common people to labor building temples and other public works. A chief could designate something as tapu, or forbidden. Tapus were a part of the daily life of the Hawaiian people. Tapus were enforced using fear of vengeance from the gods, which may include punishments such as death. Hawaiian chiefs were not exempt from tapus. They were subject to the tapus declared by the priests and higher ranking chiefs.

Within the rank of alii, the chiefs were further divided into ranks based on ancestry. The chiefs with the best bloodlines were called alii kapu. The alii kapu were given divine honors, some were considered so sacred that they were carried at all times on litters so their footsteps would not make the ground holy.[1] The alii kapu were further divided in ranks also by ancestry. Children of equally high ranking families were ranked by parentage. Children of half brothers and sisters, naha, were the lowest of the alii kapu . Children of first cousins, ho'i , were the second highest class. Children of brothers and sisters, pi'o, were considered gods.[2] This stronger connection with the divine, through ancestry, gave the alii kapu control over other alii , the common people, and slaves.

The second class of people, the kahuna , were made up of the priests, sorcerers, and doctors. The kahuna had their own divisions of rank within their class.[3] These ranks will be further discussed in the section, Hawaiian Religion. The kahuna , like the alii, also used their connection with the divine to declare tapus . Both the alii and kahuna used the tapu and fear of the gods to control the lives of the lower classes.

The third class of people were the makaainana, the common people. The common people were free men who were attached to the land. They could not own the land, they only cultivated it. They had no political rights. The chiefs had total control over their lives. If a common person had something a chief desired, the chief could take it through the establishment of a tapu or a tax. Another example of the power of rank is shown in the contrast of clothing worn in battle. The chiefs wore elaborate feather capes and helmets, while the commoners wore loin cloths.[4] The common people were further divided in two ranks according to their level of knowledge, skilled and unskilled labor.[5] Although under the control of the alii and kapu, the common people enjoyed a better life than that of the lowest class.

The lowest class, the kauwa, was made up of slaves. The slaves are believed to have been made up of captures of war, descendants of slaves, or persons who broke a tapu .[6] The slaves were at the bottom of the classes and most likely had a poorer standard of living than the common people and were subject to a stricter set of tapus .


The ancient Hawaiians employed a rigid class structure based on ancestry. Those who could trace their ancestry to the gods were in power. The connection with the divine gave the chiefs and priests the power of declaring tapus. Tapus were often used as a means of ensuring the best food, land, and other items for those in power. The amount of tapus that were enforced depended class, the members of the high classes had less tapus then those of lower classes.


Written by Emily Morishima