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

When your car is making weird noises, do you take it to the pet clinic? Or when you need a new computer, do you consult the baker at Zippy’s? Probably not. When we need help, we usually ask people who specialize in a certain kind of work. The same was true long ago, when most of the populace was made up of the people closest to the land, the makaʻāinana. Their relationship to the land enabled a multitude of specializations in traditional society. 

[Loʻi kalo worker] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Makaʻāinana were canoe builders, farmers, fishermen, net makers, lau hala weavers, and other trades. Makaʻāinana formed the specialized labor network in traditional Hawaiian society. Their specialty depended on the needs of the community, the natural landscape, and their family expertise.  

Because makaʻāinana worked intimately with the land and the ocean to produce food, clothing, transportation, supplies, and other necessities, they were stewards of the land. Makaʻāinana performed the majority of the critical day-to-day tasks of their community.

Makaʻāinana and the natural environment

[Family in front of hale] Photo by J. A. Gonsalves.Makaʻāinana often were referred to as “kupa o ka ʻāina,” those familiar with the land. Kupa describes the close relationship that makaʻāinana had with their specific ʻāina. This relationship is a product of decades of living on, cultivating, and being nourished by that land. This close relationship allowed makaʻāinana to perform their tasks efficiently.

The job force varied greatly. Each skilled occupation was informed by specific natural environments. For example, a lawaiʻa (fisher person) knew all the details of their fishing grounds. They knew the tides, the winds, the moon, and all the elements of the ocean. Lawaiʻa knew the distinct characteristics of all the sea creatures. Lawaiʻa did not simply throw lines into the ocean and try to catch fish. They went directly to the fishes’ feeding grounds to harvest.

Kuleana of makaʻāinana

ʻAʻole i ʻenaʻena ka imu i ka māmane me ka ʻūlei,
i ʻenaʻena i ka laʻolaʻo.

The imu is not heated by māmane and ʻūlei wood alone, but also by the kindling.
To be powerful, a ruler must have the loyalty of the common people as well as the chiefs.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #227)


[Man next to waʻa] Bishop Museum Archives.Makaʻāinana were the equivalent of today’s citizens of Hawaiʻi. They made up the largest class of people in traditional society. Makaʻāinana lived in an ahupuaʻa (traditional land division) system. The ahupuaʻa were governed by managers or konohiki. The kuleana of the konohiki was to oversee the land, collect the taxes, and distribute community resources. The konohiki reported to the aliʻi. The konohiki and makaʻāinana were both governed by the aliʻi.

Aliʻi were accountable to the makaʻāinana too. An aliʻi who took care of the people and was fair would have a large, productive society. An aliʻi who was greedy and did not take care of the people was often abandoned or even killed. Makaʻāinana were free to choose which ahupuaʻa to live in. If they were not happy under the rule of one aliʻi, they moved to another ahupuaʻa. Makaʻāinana were accountable to the government of the land and to the needs of the community. They ultimately served the aliʻi.

Makaʻāinana in changing times

Lāhui pua o lalo.
The many flowers below.
The commoners.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1937)


The death of Kamehameha I in 1819 was followed by a period of turbulence in Hawaiʻi. Changes included a new government, the adoption of a foreign religion, and the development of private property. In 1893, business and political interests motivated a group of foreigners to illegally overthrow the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. The daily lives of makaʻāinana were greatly affected by all of these changes. Makaʻāinana rallied in protest against the overthrow. They were also against the annexation of Hawaiʻi to the United States.

[Family working in loʻi kalo] Photo by Henshaw.

More than half of the citizens of the lāhui (nation) placed their names on the anti-annexation petitions. The Native Hawaiian population in 1897 was made up of 40,000 citizens.

Makaʻāinana organized in many ways. They signed petitions, organized large public meetings, solicited assistance from Hawaiian and American politicians, composed songs, and published newspaper editorials. In 1897, makaʻāinana helped collect more than 21,000 signatures on a petition protesting annexation. On November 20, 1898, four delegates hand carried the petitions to Washington, D.C. They met with senators and congressmen and voiced the concerns of the Hawaiian people. This historic document, called the 1897 Kūʻē Petitions, is housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There is also a copy at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi.

Makaʻāinana persevered during this period of change. They not only learned to read and write—making Hawaiʻi one of the most literate countries in the world— they also published and disseminated knowledge. More than 100 million pages of printed material were written in part by makaʻāinana. Their efforts have preserved much of our national narratives, mele, and moʻolelo.

[Kūʻē petitions] 1897 Hawaiʻi petition against annexation.

Makaʻāinana today

He aliʻi nō mai ka paʻa a ke aliʻi; he kanaka nō mai ka paʻa a ke kanaka.
A chief from the foundation of chiefs; a commoner from the foundation of commoners.
(ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #540)


Today, many Native Hawaiians continue to fulfill the kuleana of makaʻāinana. This is done by honoring, protecting, and cultivating that which allows kānaka to survive—the ʻāina.

The ʻāina feeds us. The term “makaʻāinana” means “people who attend to the ʻāina.” ʻĀina is central to the kuleana of the makaʻāinana. And it is the makaʻāinana who keep us in balance with the ʻāina.