The Hawaiian of the present day reads his Bible and newspaper, writes letters, wears clothes, owns property, serves in the Legislature or Parliament, votes, teaches school, acts as justice of the peace and even as judge, is tax collector and assessor, constable and preacher. In spite of all this, or rather with it, he retains the oddest traces of the habits and customs of another age. For instance, he will labor for wages; but
he will persistently and for years give away to his relations all his pay except what he needs for his actual subsistence, and if he is prosperous he is pretty sure to have quite a swarm of people to support. A lady told me that having repeatedly clothed her nurse in good apparel, and finding this liberal soul, every time, in a day or two reduced to her original somewhat shabby clothing, she at last reproached her for her folly.
"What can I do?" the woman replied; "they come and ask me for the holaku, or the handkerchief, or whatever I have. Suppose you say they are yours—then I will not give them away." Accordingly, the next new suit was formally declared to belong to the mistress: it was not given away. An old woman, kept chiefly for her skill in lomi-lomi by an American family, asked her master one day for ten dollars. He gave her two five-dollar
gold pieces, and, to his amazement, saw her hand them over immediately, one to a little girl and one to a boy, who had evidently come to get the money—not for her use at all. A cook in my own family asked for the wages due him, which he had been saving for some time; he received
As you ride along in the country, you will see your guide slyly putting a stone or a bunch of grass on a ledge near some precipice. If you look, you will see other objects of the same kind lying there. Ask him about it and he will tell you, with a laugh, that his forefathers in other times did so, and he does the same. It is, in fact, a peace offering to the local divinity of the place. Is he, then, an idolater? Not at all; not
necessarily, at least. He is under the compulsion of an old custom; and he will even tell you that it is all nonsense. The same force leads him to treat with respect and veneration a chief or chiefess even if abjectly poor, though before the law the highest chief is no better than the common people.
They are hearty and even gross feeders; and probably the only christianized people who live almost entirely on cold victuals. A Hawaiian does not need a fire to prepare a meal; and at a luau, or feast, all the food is served cold, except the pig, which ought to be hot.
Hospitable and liberal as he is in his daily life, when the Hawaiian invites his friends to a luau he expects them to pay. He provides for them roast pig, poi, baked ti-root, which bears a startling resemblance in looks and taste to New England molasses-cake; raw fish and shrimps, limu, which is a sea-moss of villainous odor; kuulaau, a mixture of taro and cocoa-nut, very nice; paalolo, a mixture of sweet-potato and cocoa-nut; raw and cooked cuttle-fish, roast dog, sea-eggs, if they can be got; and, if the feast is something above the ordinary, raw pickled salmon with tomatoes and red-pepper.
The object of such a luau is usually to enable the giver to pay for his new house, or to raise money for some private object of his own. Notice of the coming feast is given months beforehand, as also of the amount each visitor is expected to give. It will be a twenty-five cent, or a fifty cent, or a dollar luau. The pigs—the centre-piece of the feast—have been fattening for a year before. The affair is much discussed. It is indispensable that all who attend shall come in brand-new clothing, and a native person will rather deny himself the feast than appear in garments which have been worn before. A few of the relatives of the feast-giver act as stewards, and they must be dressed strictly alike. At one luau which I had the happiness to attend the six men who acted as stewards were arrayed in green cotton shirts and crimson cotton trowsers, and had green wreaths on their heads. I need not say that they presented a truly magnificent appearance.
To such a luau people ride thirty or forty miles; arriving often the evening beforehand, in order to be early at the feast next day. When they sit down each person receives his abundant share of pig, neatly wrapped in ti-leaves; to the remainder of the food he helps himself as he likes. They eat, and eat, and eat; they beat their stomachs with satisfaction; they talk and eat; they ride about awhile, and eat again; they laugh, sing, and eat. At last a man finds he can hold no more. He is "pau"—done. He declares himself "mauna"—a mountain; and points to his abdomen in proof of his statement. Then, unless he expects a recurrence of hunger, he carefully wraps up the fragments and bones which remain of his portion of pig, and these he must take with him. It would be the height of impoliteness to leave them; and each visitor scrupulously takes away every remaining bit of his share. If now you look you will see a calabash somewhere in the middle of the floor, into which each, as he completes his meal, put his quarter or half dollar.
In the evening there are dancing and singing, and then you may hear and see the extremely dramatic meles of the Hawaiians—a kind of rapid chant, the tones of which have a singular fascination for my ears. A man and woman, usually elderly or middle-aged people, sit down opposite each other, or side by side facing the company. One begins and the other joins in; the sound is as of a shrill kind of drone; it is accompanied by gesticulations; and each chant lasts about two or three minutes, and ends in a jerk. The swaying of the lithe figures, the vehement and passionate movements of the arms and head, the tragic intensity of the looks, and the very peculiar music, all unite to fasten one's attention, and to make this spectacle of mele singing, as I have said, singularly fascinating.
The language of the meles is a dialect now unused, and unintelligible even to most of the people. The whole chant concerns itself, however, with a detailed description of the person of the man or woman or child to which or in whose honor it is sung. Thus a mele will begin with the hair, which may be likened in beauty to the sea-moss found on a certain part of Kauai; or the teeth, which "resemble the beautiful white pebbles which men pick up on the beach of Kaalui Bay on Maui;" and so on. Indeed an ancient Hawaiian mele is probably, in its construction, much like the Song of Solomon; though I am told that the old meles concerned themselves with personal details by no means suitable for modern ears. A mele is always sung for or about some particular person. Thus I have heard meles for the present king; meles for a man or woman present; meles for a chief; and on one occasion I was told they sang a mele for me; and I judged, from the laughter some parts of it excited, that my feelings were saved by my ignorance of the language.
On all festive occasions, and on many others, the Hawaiian loves to dress his head with flowers and green wreaths. Les or garlands are made of several substances besides flowers; though the most favorite are composed of jasmine flowers, or the brilliant yellow flowers of one kind of ginger, which give out a somewhat overpowering odor. These are hung around the neck. For the head they like to use wreaths of the maile shrub, which has an agreeable odor, something like that of the cherry sticks which smokers like for pipe stems. This ornamentation does not look amiss on the young, for to youth much is forgiven; but it is a little startling, at a luau, to see old crones and grave grandfathers arrayed with equal gayety; and I confess that though while the flowers and leaves are fresh the decorated assembly is picturesque, especially as the women wear their hair flowing, and many have beautiful wavy tresses, yet toward evening, when the maile has wilted and the garlands are rumpled and decaying, this kind of ornamentation gives an air of dissipation to the company which it by no means deserves.
Finally, the daily life of the Hawaiian, if he lives near the sea-coast and is master of his own life, is divided between fishing, taro planting, poi making, and mat weaving. All these but the last are laborious occupations; but they do not make hard work of them. Two days' labor every week will provide abundant food for a man and his family. He has from five to ten dollars a year of taxes to pay, and this money he can easily earn. The sea always supplies him with fish, sea-moss, and other food. He is fond of fussing at different things; but he also lies down on the grass a good deal—why shouldn't he?—he reads his paper, he plays at cards, he rides about a good deal, he sleeps more or less, and about midnight he gets up and eats a hearty supper. Altogether he is a very happy creature, and by no means a bad one. You need not lock your door against him; and an election and a luau occasionally, give him all the excitement he craves, and that not of an unwholesome kind.
What there is happy about his life he owes to the fine climate and the missionaries. The latter have given him education enough to read his Bible and newspaper, and thus to take some interest in and have some knowledge of affairs in the world at large. They and their successors, the political rulers, have made life and property secure, and caused roads and bridges to be built and maintained; and the Hawaiian is fond of moving about. The little inter-island steamer and the schooners are always full of people on their travels; and as they do not have hotel bills to pay, but live on their friends on these visits, there is a great deal of such movement.
It would hardly do to compare the Hawaiian people with those of New England; but they will compare favorably in comfort, in intelligence, in wealth, in morals, and in happiness with the common people of most European nations; and when one sees here how happily people can live in a small way, and without ambitious striving for wealth or a career, he can not but wonder if, after all, in the year 2873, our pushing and hard-pushed civilization of the nineteenth century will get as great praise as it gets from ourselves, its victims.
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Notes About Book:
Source: Nordhoff, Charles. Northern California, Oregon, and the Sandwich Islands. Harper and Brothers, Publishers, 1875.
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