Pāʻani ʻĀlapa
He pōkiʻi no Makoa.
Makoa’s younger brother.
Said in admiration of a speedy athlete.
— (ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #909)

What do surfing, running, and riddling have in common? They are all traditional activities our kūpuna did, they all test your body and/or mind, and they’re all fun! How do you exercise your body and mind?

Game on!

Our kūpuna (ancestors) were fit. They fished and farmed daily. This required strength, endurance, and skill. So did the pāʻani (games, sports) they played.

Our kūpuna invented some fun pāʻani. They had surfing (heʻe nalu), canoe racing (heihei waʻa), and outdoor bowling (maika), among many other fun pāʻani. These sports kept our kūpuna in shape and helped them prepare for competitions and the possibility of war. Plus, they were fun to play and watch!

Because our kūpuna were so proficient at food production, they had ample time for entertainment. Pāʻani would be played daily, and several months of the year were dedicated to rest and entertainment, including sporting activities. This time of year is called the Makahiki.

Our kūpuna were thrill seekers. They would cliff jump (lele kawa) into water and slide (heʻe hōlua) down mountainsides at speeds upwards of 30 miles per hour.

Hawaiian professional athletes are represented in several national and international sports, including baseball (Shane Victorino), soccer (Natasha Kai), sumo wrestling (Akebono), and swimming (Duke Kahanamoku). In order to compete at the highest level of their sport, these athletes had to keep their bodies and minds healthy. That means exercising, practicing, and eating well.

Running for your life

What if your PE teacher told you the route for today’s class run would take you around the entire island of Maui?! Might take you a day if you’re like Kalamea, the kūkini of Lonoapiʻilani’s court, but no sweat. Kūkini were professional runners for the aliʻi (chiefs). They could run in a few hours what would take most a day or more. They delivered important messages that could spell life or death for people. Some kūkini were kapu (protected, sacred), and no one was allowed to stop them while they were on the chief’s business. They also gathered intelligence on opposing forces. For them, their sport was their occupation.

Another famous kūkini is Makoa, who was able to deliver an ʻamaʻama fish from South Hilo to Kamehameha, who was at Kawaihae, a 40-plus-mile trek. But Makoa started out from Kawaihae then went to Hilo then back to Kawaihae, so double that number and that’s the distance Makoa traveled in a single morning. When delivered, the ʻamaʻama was still alive. Now that’s fast and fresh! 

Playing mind games

Our kūpuna also played games that challenged their minds and kept them sharp. One game was called hoʻopāpā. Hoʻopāpā is a battle of wits or strength. A version of hoʻopāpā involves two people asking each other clever nane, or riddles. Contestants needed to think quickly and have a strong vocabulary and a wealth of knowledge. The winner was the last to answer a nane correctly. One of the most famous hoʻopāpā players was a boy named Kalapana who became an expert while still a child to beat the Kauaʻi chiefs who killed his father. 

Keiki games

The ocean was the playground for kānaka (Hawaiian people). Keiki were introduced to it at a very early age. Most babies could dog paddle before they could walk.   


A fun game that tested lung capacity and one’s ability to control the setting of the sun is called nāʻū. Children of Kona, Hawaiʻi, would see who could hold their breath the longest while saying “nāʻūūūūūūūū” in an effort to keep the sun from going down.

Keiki would chant local place names to the beat of a stone being tossed up and down. Memorizing the chants trained their minds to be alert. Some keiki games tested skill and coordination, including playing marbles and jacks with pebbles.

Here are two nane you can try on your family and friends:

Kuʻu pūnāwai kau i ka lewa—my spring of water, floating in the sky.
Answer: niu (coconut).

Kuʻu hale, hoʻokahi oʻa, ʻelua puka—my house has one beam and two doors.
Answer: ihu (nose).


Pāʻani benefits

By exercising their bodies and minds in these pāʻani, our kūpuna stayed strong and smart. Combined with good diet and their regular farming and fishing activities, these pāʻani helped our kūpuna stay healthy. By being healthy, they could better care for the land and each other.

How do we stay fit like our kūpuna?

We still do many of the traditional pāʻani of our kūpuna. Schools and communities compete in games that test skill and strength, like the Makahiki games on Molokaʻi. Heihei waʻa is a sport played among local high school students and international teams. Heʻe nalu has been internationally practiced for almost a century, testing strength, balance, ocean knowledge, and guts. There are even runners who can probably reach Makoa-level speeds.

Playing traditional pāʻani is a way to keep our minds and bodies healthy. It also connects us to our kūpuna and helps us appreciate their skill, strength, ingenuity, and sense of fun. These pāʻani remind us that exercising can be fun and that by being fit like our kūpuna, we too can better take care of the land and each other.