Monday, May 12, 2008

Revisiting theories about Menehune

The more I read, the more it seems the legend of Menehune is more of a fabrication to to downplay the reality of ancient Hawaii: politics.

Work, work, work. Things have been busy and fun with the state tournaments. I was absolutely exhausted by Saturday night, not to mention drenched thanks to the Punahou players who missed their coach (Eric Kadooka) and got most of me drenched. On top of the sniffles I had that night, it was perfect timing for a big bowl of seafood ramen at nearby Ezogiku. I may sound like a shill for that place, but that seafood ramen is so awesome. I hold it up to other great local ramen like Tenkaippin's kotteri ramen and Taiyo Ramen's miso ramen (not so spectacular, but priced right and perfect in combination with the best gyoza in Hawaii.)

Anyway, I need a distraction when things get this busy, and ever since seeing Kalalau Valley on Kauai a couple of years ago, I can't seem to get Menehune out of my brain. Sure, the image of little people running around in the cover of nightfall, building spectacular fishponds and bridges and heiau has always been part of our local folklore. But it wasn't long ago when I read that one of the translations of the name "menehune" was "lower-class" commoners. In other words, they may not have been dwarfish at all. Hmm.

The "Lost Tribe" of Kalalau Valley feeds the imagination of visitors and locals alike, but the notion that they were little people isn't so strong on Kauai. In fact, the 1920 census notes that there were 65 residents listed as Menehune. Was this a separate ethnic group altogether? I've always believed that there's no land of peace. China grew to an enormous size through war, despite the notion that they were a civilized (true) kingdom of peace for millennia. Even in peace, they had warlords.

No different in Hawaii. The early settlers from the Marquesas Islands were not exactly best buddies with newcomers from Tahiti. Of course there were battles for the most fertile land, water (as always) and labor. It's the way of the world. Big fish eats the little fish. I think the Marquesans were pushed further up the island chain, all the way into Kalalau Valley. Though the census listed only 65 "Menehune" (known as manahune in the Tahitian language) in 1820, Kauai folks tell me there were about 200 of them during that century living in Kalalau. The place is pristine, green and water is everywhere.

Put 2 and 2 together, and it makes sense. There were no elfish people out there. It was purely political. It was war and the winners conquered. The losers moved on.

Katherine Luomala, a folklorist, contends that the legends of the Menehune are a post-European contact myth and didn't exist before Captain Cook arrived. Politics? The famous Alekoko fishpond, a.k.a. Menehune fishpond (I've been there and it's enormous!), wasn't built by Menehune. It was built overnight by commoners on the order of the chief, just as a similar pond was built on Oahu back in the day.

As a kid, I always thought of Menehune as a magical, mysterious people. But as it is with everything else in the real world, the truth is embedded with war, suffering and the awful whims of those who abuse their power.

Contact with the outside world didn't matter. Hawaii and all its treasures were always destined to be warred over. They're fighting over water rights on Maui and Windward Oahu. I can only imagine how much they fought over water during the pre-contact times.

The Menehune possibly had it good, after all. Nobody went across the thick forest of Kauai to bother them up in Kalalau Valley. I'd like to know, now that it's apparent that all of the Lost Tribe eventually assimilated into society, who they were and what kind of names they had.

They had their own language, even grew their hair long, according to one account. I want to know more.