Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Were there menehune in Hawaii?

The widely accepted belief that two sets of migrations occurred in Hawaii sometimes leads me to think about the legend of the menehune.

In most translations, menehune are understood to be little people who were the original settlers of the islands. One version I've read states that the menehune weren't physically smaller than the later settlers, but that they were smaller in stature politically. They didn't have the power to stop their adversaries, and thus departed from one island to the next until stopping on Kauai, the last bastion of a liveable environment.

It is true that there are many tales of the menehune on Kauai, including the giant inland fishpond outside Lihue that was built by them. (Menehune were said to have been prolific fishpond builders across the islands, able to build them overnight at the command of alii, or chiefs.) I've been there and I tend to believe that it was a working, thriving fishpond that, indeed, fed the populace of the island at one time. Even the nickname of the high school on the island's west side, Waimea, is Menehune.

An old friend, Manny Henriques, drove me up and down the island when I was there a couple of years ago on a work assignment. We went out to Kekaha, and I got to see many interesting spots along the way, including several of the rural post offices. Then we headed up the mountain to see Waimea Canyon, and beyond that, Kalalau Valley. The valley is on the north side of the island, so the drive was quite a voyage. The place is unspoiled and mostly uninhabited — Manny says some hippies live off the land there. It was the site of Jurrasic Park, a wide, lush valley that Manny said was once home to the "Lost Tribe."

Even as a Hawaii resident, I'd never heard of this. Manny explained that even as recently as 150 years ago, there was a large contingent of people in the valley, perhaps 200 strong. Were they descendants of menehune? No one knows for sure today, but King David Kalakaua actually wrote a book called The Legends and Myths of Hawaii. He supposedly writes that the menehune were real, and that the Lost Tribe consisted of 65 individuals according to a census.

Manny says that the Lost Tribe eventually integrated themselves into society. I just wish someone had documented information about the Lost Tribe. It's a theme that replicates itself in similar ways across the Pacific, even around the world. Some theories make a lot of sense. Other theories are fascinating, but require a lot of imagination. More on those theories later.

Perhaps one of the best sources of information comes from Tales of Molokai: The Voice of Harriet Ne, which can be found online in a review by Big Island resident June Gutmanis.

As with many Hawaiians of an older generation, Ne thought of the Menehune not as mystical, night-working, little people given to disappearing before sunrise, but as a people of small stature who had come to Hawai‘i before the Hawaiians and who were often friends with local families. According to her, once, while visiting on Kaua‘i, she went to a cave where the Menehune were said to live. After waiting for a time, she met a group of Menehunes returning to their home. She described
them as being short and quite fair. Both men and women wore long hair made into pugs with sticks through them.

On another occasion, while visiting a Mrs. Johnson in Puna, Hawai‘i, Ne met two Menehunes who came to visit her friend. As a favor, they caught a special kind of fish for their hostess. Ne relates that when the Menehune were talking together, they spoke in a strange language that she had heard before.

I'll post more info about menehune as I find it.


William said...

I enjoyed your story.

I live in Hilo, but back in 1969 when I first came to Hawaii, I lived at Schofield Barracks with my soldier husband. We wives used to have coffee together several times a week. One of the women was married to a non-commissioned officer who managed the NCO club across Kaena Pass at the Waianae recreational camp. He would come home through the pass after midnight every night. This couple was from the mainland and knew next to nothing about the history and myths of the islands.

One morning as we drank coffee and chatted, my neighbor said quite innocently, "Who are those small people that live in Kaena Pass?"

I could feel all the hairs on my arms stand up. I said, "What small people?"

"Oh, you know," she said, "those little Hawaiian people that live up in the mountains that you see beside the road at night."

After I finished choking, I told her the legend of the menehunes.

Do you suppose it could be possible?

William said...


My name's not William. It's Lisa. But William and I share this email address.

Gabi Plumm said...

Found both stories fascinating as my partner and I have been researching the earliest Hawaiians who were here long before Pa'ao and really before history started to be written. the Menehunes are fascinating and I believe there is a story to be told there that has been largely pushed under the carpet and turned into myth and mystery by talking of sprits and hobgoblins. Others say that 'yes the menehune were there before the present day Hawaiians, but no one 'spoke of them anymore'. Odd. But is is not odd when you see that the Menehunes have been described as an engineering people who built these huge fishponds as well as large ditches (almost canals) in Kaua'i. and today we not only saw the remains of the Menehune Ditch right next to the Waimea River on the South side of Kaua'i (south of the canyon) and saw that is was cheerfully carrying flowing water down towards the sea and taro plants where growing happily in it, but also met a gentleman who said his name was Bob, and had lived in that valley all his life with the ancestors who were Menehune, ergo he was too! He was not particularly tall, fairly slight in build, and wore his dark hair in a top knot with a stick through it!!
I cannot help but think there is much more to this story than has been told. We were also told today by the lady who runs the Waimea Visitor Centre that the Census of 1990 mentioned several people who had marked their nationality or ethnicity as Menehune! They are alive and well and I am sure like most Hawaiians long to be acknowledged!

Matt Anderson said...

I love the Menehune mythology! We have more information on them at: https://lookintohawaii.com/hawaii/8035/menehune-information-all-islands-hi