fa`Umi-A-Liloa, Ali`i Hamakua
Without doubt, the best known Hawaiian in history is Kamehameha I. His fame is due not only to his personal qualities, but as well to the coincidental overlapping of his life-span with the beginning of written history due to the presence in the Islands of witnesses from outside of the culture of Hawai`i. Events associated with his life took place in various areas of the Island of Hawai`i, including Waipi`o, but his `aina hanau or birthplace and his lo`i kalo or taro patches were in Kohala. It is commonly thought that these proud lands, Kohala `aina ha`aheo, held the central place in his mind and heart.
Of the many ali`i who held sway in Waipi`o over the centuries between the end of the `ohana period– the society of the original settlers– and the time of Kamehameha, the most prominent was `Umi-a-Liloa. Like Kamehameha, a combination of his own attributes and the circumstances of the time led to his fame, but the stories of his exploits were for centuries carried forward purely in the oral traditions of the Hawaiian culture. For the early and most critical events of `Umi’s life, our land of Hamakua was the setting.
Tales of `Umi are well told by a variety of writers, including His Hawaiian Majesty David Kalakaua, David Malo, Abraham Fornander, and Martha Beckwith. What follows is a sampling of some of the events recounted by these writers with special attention to the ground under our feet and what happened here in Hamakua as `Umi moved about in it.
Liloa was the father of `Umi, and well-remembered himself as an Ali`i who oversaw his land holdings so astutely and well that peace and prosperity characterized his reign. Attentive to his spiritual obligations, he directed the consecration of a heiau in Hamakua named Manini, at a place on the coast below Kuka`iau called Koholalele. He seemingly took a holiday before returning to his headquarters in Waipi`o, for he went toward Hilo and rested at Ka`awikiwiki, not far from the “curving bridge” on the present highway. Going to a pool to bathe, Liloa saw a lovely woman, Akahi-a-kuleana, from nearby Kealakaha, purifying herself in the stream. As the early Hawaiian historian David Malo says in Hawaiian Antiquities, “…he conceived a passion for her, and taking hold of her, he said, ‘Lie with me.’ Recognizing that it was Liloa, the king, who asked her, she consented….” Knowing that pregnancy was likely to ensue, Liloa left his malo (loincloth), his niho-paloa (royal pendant) and laau palau (club) as tokens to be given to the child as proof of ancestry. He further directed Akahi-a kuleana to name the child `Umi if it were male.
It is said that Akahi-a-kuleana had a husband who believed that the child of her meeting with Liloa was his own son, and that his treatment of the boy was harsh enough to arouse distress on the part of his wife. When `Umi had “grown to good size,” she informed the boy and her husband of his true lineage, gave her son the possessions of his real father and sent him off to find Liloa in Waipi`o. Picture a strikingly strong and handsome young man making his way with two friends from near the Hilo-side boundary of Hamakua across the windward flank of Mauna Kea to Kukuihaele, the head of the main Waipi`o trail. The route of that trail was closely followed by the present road, and ‘Umi would have come at once to the Wailoa stream at the bottom. Once across the stream, evidently, the compound of Liloa was unmistakable and close at hand. Akahi-a-kuleana had given `Umi careful instructions on the way to gain the presence of Liloa without being killed by the guards who kept careful watch over the kapu associated with their ali`i. His Hawaiian Majesty Kalakaua’s description of `Umi’s approach is quite vivid and deserves to be read in full (The Legends and Myths of Hawaii), but suffice it here to say that `Umi managed to climb over a back wall, evading the guards and reaching his father. Several sources describe his sitting on Liloa’s lap (an interesting image – the strapping teen-ager rushing in to place himself on the legs of his elderly sire), and some emphasize that Liloa pushed his legs apart to dump the intruder on the floor. As he did so, however, it is said that he recognized his own malo and niho-palaoa, and asked the questions that established the boy’s identity.
`Umi quickly found a place of honor in his father’s court and just as quickly incurred the enmity of his older step-brother, Hakau. The dislike of Hakau for `Umi grew as `Umi’s prowess and leadership became increasingly evident. When the “black kapa” was drawn over Liloa, Hakau succeeded to his father’s position. `Umi was given custody of and responsibility to and for “the idols and the house of the gods,” a situation foreshadowing that of Kamehameha in centuries to follow, and guaranteed a drama that continued for some time in the lands of Hamakua.
Having dramatically claimed his place as the son of the great ali`i Liloa and established himself as a powerful and popular person in his own right, he found growing pilikia or trouble with his jealous half-brother, Hakau. With the death of their father and Hakau’s assumption of his temporal powers, `Umi found himself increasingly subject to Hakau’s hostility, despite his position as custodian “of the gods and temples,”. Without the righteous presence of Liloa, Hakau felt bold enough to demean `Umi’s position by asserting, among other insults, that his mother, Akahiakuleana, was of undistinguished blood.
Deeming it imprudent to challenge Hakau’s hostility openly at this juncture, `Umi quietly left Waipi`o with his two boyhood companions, passing beyond the bounds of Hamakua to dwell in privacy in the Hilo lands called Waipunalei, between the gulches of Laupahoehoe and Maulua. It is said that although every effort was made to conceal the identity of `Umi, his mana was such that he attracted the attention of others, including the kahuna named Kaleioku (or Kaoleioku), a person of great authority and former attendant of the famous Manini heiau. Many interesting details are to be found in the various accounts of this episode in `Umi’s life, including the use of a hog to identify `Umi as an ali`i, his friendship with the giant Maukaleoleo, and the collaboration of two kahuna from Waipi`o to set the stage for a confrontation between `Umi and Hakau.
Of special interest to residents and visitors in the lands of Hamakua, however, are the particulars of the movement of the players from place to place: One journey undertaken on behalf of `Umi was a messenger dispatched by Kaleioku to his fellow kahuna of Waipi`o, Nunu and Kakohe. As told by his Hawaiian Majesty Kalakalua, the messenger left Waipunalei late in the morning and arrived in Waipi`o some hours after nightfall. When he had delivered the message and got the commitment by the kahuna to visit with Kaleioku, the two fed him meat and poi, commenting that “…there is a wearying journey before you.” Half an hour later, the story goes, the messenger was “…scaling the hills east of the valley…,” an undertaking that seems formidable to many these days, even if there were not the distance to and from Waipunalei to cover!
Plans were laid to deprive Hakau of his army by a plot to trick him into sending them into the uplands to gather feathers and plants to create a ceremonial offering to sway the gods to support his efforts to exterminate `Umi. Sentinels were stationed on seven different high points between Waipi`o and Waipunalei to prepare materials for signal fires. When you drive the highways between Kukuihaele and Waipunalei, keep an eye on the landscape around you: where would those signal fires have been placed? The easternmost is said to have been perhaps three miles from Pakalana heiau in Waipi`o, and westernmost was a “…rocky pinnacle about four miles from Waipunalei.” Is it possible to rediscover those hilltop fire-signal station? In any event, the fires were lit when Hakau made the fatal commitment of his forces, and great events were set in motion.
An army of as many of 2,000 warriors was formed into three units, each moving by a different route from Waipunalei to Waipi`o. `Umi led on the central path, and his long-time supporters, Omaukamau and Pi`imiawa`a, the makai and mauka routes. His Hawaiian Majesty Kalakaua comments that the paths were rough, overgrown, and difficult of passage. In another context, he describes Hamakua as “…scored at intervals of one or two miles with deep and almost impassable gulches.” Even today we can appreciate the challenges, as discussed in another article, “Hamakua i ke ala ulili – the land of the steep trails.” Add to these difficulties the fact that they were moving at night!
The separate routes of the armies were to converge at their intersection with the alanui, the main trail running from Kukuihaele to Waimea. Could this route have been very different from the “Mud Lane Road?” Probably not, and it’s fascinating to think of these masses of warriors gathering just above Waipi`o. They rested while the final confirmation of Hakau’s vulnerability was determined before descending to the Valley floor. They were unable to move as units on this last part of their journey because of the steep, narrow, winding paths. Once into the Valley, they reformed and moved on Hakau’s compound. Hakau’s attempt to re-summon his troops by blowing the Kiha-pu, the sacred war trumpet, yielded only strangled sounds of distress — an appropriate prelude to his own imminent death.
The stories of `Umi go on to describe the active life of a great figure in the history and culture of Hawai`i. We who appreciate the majestic slopes, streams and shoreline cliffs of windward Hawai`i Island can enjoy the understanding that many critical aspects of this great figure’s story took place in the lands under our feet, the lands of Hamakua.