Hānau ka ʻāina, hānau ke aliʻi, hānau ke kanaka.
Born was the land, born were the chiefs, born were the common people.
The land, the chiefs, and the commoners belong together.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #466

Aliʻi, or rulers, made up the chiefly class in traditional Hawaiian society. There were different levels of aliʻi. For example, the mōʻī was the supreme ruler. Kamehameha became the mōʻī after he politically united the islands under one government. The kuleana of the aliʻi was to ensure order in society by caring for the makaʻāinana (people) and the akua (gods). They also had the kuleana to kālaiʻāina (divide the land). Aliʻi were given the right to rule through their moʻokūʻauhau (genealogy or family line).

The different ranks of ali‘i

Kū i ka moku.
Stands on the island.
Said of a person who has become ruler—he stands on his district or island.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1876)

The mōʻī is the supreme ruler of the pae ʻāina, or all of Hawaiʻi. The aliʻi nui were the high-ranking chiefs that governed an island or, in some cases, several islands. For example, Kaumualiʻi was the aliʻi nui of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau. The aliʻi nui were in charge of overseeing the aliʻi ʻai moku. The aliʻi ʻai moku were chiefs of the different moku or districts. Each island was divided into moku divisions. Koʻolaupoko, Kona, ʻEwa, Waiʻanae, Waialua, and Koʻolauloa are the six moku of Oʻahu Island.

Under the aliʻi ʻai moku were lesser chiefs known as kaukaualiʻi. The different levels of chiefs mirrored the land division system. The different ranks of aliʻi depended on their genealogy and skills in governance.

Kamehameha is famous for conquering all the islands. However, Kaumuali‘i, the ali‘i of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, was allowed to remain the ruler of his island kingdom until his death years after Kamehameha united the islands.

The kuleana of the aliʻi

I ʻike ʻia nō ke aliʻi i ka nui o nā makaʻāinana.
A chief is known by his many followers.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1172)

Aliʻi were obligated to care for the makaʻāinana. Aliʻi had to ensure that the makaʻāinana were protected. This is very similar to the relationship between an older and younger sibling. The older siblings are responsible for protecting their younger siblings. In return the younger siblings obey and take care of the older siblings.

By caring for the makaʻāinana, the aliʻi were caring for the ʻāina. The makaʻāinana were the caretakers and workers of the land. They, with the land, produced food for the nation. A productive ʻāina could feed a larger community.

The aliʻi directed large-scale projects that benefited the community, like the building of loko iʻa (fishponds), ʻauwai (water channels), and heiau (places of worship). By creating systems and structures that helped with food production, the people and the land could thrive even more.

An aliʻi who took care of the citizens and was fair would have a large, productive society. An aliʻi who was greedy and did not take care of the citizens might be abandoned or even killed. The makaʻāinana were free to choose which district to live in. If they were not happy under the rule of one aliʻi they might move to another district.

[Kūkāʻilimoku] Feathered image of Kūkāʻilimoku. Photographer unknown.Another important responsibility of the aliʻi was to maintain a good relationship with the akua (gods). The akua were prayed to for food, health, wealth, success, rain, wind, surf, and various other aspects of life. In order to maintain a good relationship with the akua, the aliʻi had to observe pule (prayers) and rituals of the different gods. Some aliʻi even had a personal god that they inherited to care for. For example, Kamehameha’s god was Kūkāʻilimoku. Upon the death of Kalaniʻōpuʻu, Kūkāʻilimoku was given to Kamehameha through kauoha (verbal order). The aliʻi made sure the heiau (temples) were built and cared for properly. The aliʻi were the akua on earth. They were very sacred. The aliʻi followed very strict kapu (laws) because of their sacredness. Maintaining their relationship with the akua in turn helped preserve their mana.

Kālaiʻāina means to carve the land. In this job, aliʻi had to assign lesser chiefs to rule the districts and islands. This is the first political task a new aliʻi nui would perform. Kālaiʻāina is a very critical job because the chief had to choose lesser chiefs that were loyal. These were three of the most important jobs of the aliʻi: caring for the makaʻāinana, caring for the akua, and performing the kālaiʻāina.

The role of aliʻi in changing times

I aliʻi nō ke aliʻi i ke kanaka.
A chief is a chief because of the people who serve him.
This was often used as a reminder to a chief to consider his people.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1150)

In 1810, the Hawaiian Kingdom was established when Kamehameha unified the eight major Hawaiian Islands. In 1840, Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, declared Hawaiʻi a constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy is a government system that is ruled by a monarch—the queen or king—and is guided by a constitution.

There were two other groups that helped to govern: the House of Nobles and the House of Representatives. The monarch appointed the members of the House of Nobles. The representatives were voted in by the people.

In 1843, the king established the Hawaiian Kingdom as an independent nation. As you can see, the role of the aliʻi changed over time; however, their kuleana to the makaʻāinana and the akua remained.

In 1881, Kalākaua, the last reigning king of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was the first king to travel around the world. Some of the places he went were Egypt, China, Japan, England, France and Germany.

[King David Kalākaua (front, center) in Japan] Photographer unknown.