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  • Some Traditional Native Hawaiian Bird Hunting Practices on Hawai‘i Island
  • Noah Gomes (bio)

Why did native Hawaiians hunt birds in the remote wilderness of the islands’ interiors? There is evidence that formerly abundant native bird resources were utilized by Hawaiians for multiple purposes prior to contact with Captain Cook in 1778 and during the period of the Hawaiian kingdom in the 1800s. The most famous of these uses was the spectacular and regal feather work worn by Hawaiian nobility (ali‘i). Birds were also an important source of meat. According to the nineteenth century Land Boundary Commission testimonies of traditional Hawaiian bird catchers, ‘ua‘u (Pterodroma sandwichensis) and nēnē (Branta sandvicensis) were an important food source in some districts of Hawai‘i Island, demonstrated in this article through the mapping of testimony data, and anecdotal evidence of intense resource competition among traditional bird hunters.

The Land Boundary Commission Testimonies


The Kingdom of Hawai‘i transitioned from the traditional Hawaiian land tenure system to a western system of land ownership during the [End Page 33] reign of King Kauikeaouli Kamehameha III, between the years 1846–1855, an event known as the Māhele.1 Some of the larger traditional land divisions such as ahupua‘a and ‘ili kūpono passed largely or completely intact into the new system of ownership. The Commission of Boundaries was established in 1862 by the government of the Hawaiian Kingdom to provide a means of legally settling and establishing the boundaries of ahupua‘a and ‘ili kūpono that had been previously awarded to land owners by the then defunct Land Commission without a formal land survey.2

In order to find the boundaries of these lands the Boundary Commissioners collected testimony from the remaining kama‘āina (long term residents) who remembered where the traditional land boundary points were located. Naturally these testimonies would have been given through the medium of Hawaiian language. The surviving records are, however, predominately English translations of those original testimonies. The testimonies were collected over the course of several decades beginning in 1864 and ending in 1914.3 While the primary purpose for collecting the testimonies was to establish the traditional boundary markers of ahupua‘a and ‘ili kūpono, fragments of Hawaiian cultural and historical traditions were also recorded by the commissioners. Bird hunters were required by their trade to spend long periods of time deep in the mountains. They were particularly valuable interviewees to the Commission because of their detailed knowledge of the upland boundaries of ahupua‘a, places only rarely traversed by other groups of people. These land Boundary Commission testimonies have become a valuable source of information regarding traditional Hawaiian bird hunting on Hawai‘i island.4

Analysis of Testimonies

The Distribution of Bird Hunting on Hawai‘i Island

Even in the mid-to-late 1800s there were still many different traditional forms of bird hunting that were practiced by Hawaiians. As Nathaniel Emerson writes in his article Bird-Hunters of Ancient Hawai‘i, “The methods used by one hunter in the capture of the birds differed from those used by another. They also varied somewhat, no doubt, in different districts, on the different islands, at different seasons of the year and even in the different hours of the day.”5 It can also be said [End Page 34] that differences in technique varied greatly according to the kind of bird being targeted by a hunter. Some birds were valuable for their feathers, used in the splendid regalia of the ali‘i, while other birds were valued as food. There were also birds that had multiple uses. While traditional bird hunting is perhaps best remembered today for its association with Hawaiian feather work, many commonly sought after birds including both the ‘ua‘u and nēnē were heavily utilized as a source of wild meat.6

It is important to understand that 59 percent of all ahupua‘a that have testimonies mentioning bird catching do not provide the names or information on which specific species were captured. Fortunately the remaining 41 percent of testimonies do mention birds by name, giving us a rough idea of...


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