Hawaii and Kava (‘awa)

The people of the Hawaiian Islands have a rich history with Kava.  It has carried over from ancient times and is still in place today.  Before that discussion ensures (much to our delight) let’s look at the Hawaiian Islands and their history.


Hawaii is the most recent addition to the United States of America, joining the union as the 50th state on August 21, 1959.  The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago 2,000 miles southwest of the continental United States.  The archipelago is made up of hundreds of islands encompassing nearly 11,000 square miles of land scattered over a 1,500 mile stretch of the South Pacific.

There are eight main islands which most people think of when Hawaii is mentioned; Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, O’ahu, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Kaho’olawe, Maui, and Hawai’i.  On these eight islands live the majority of Hawaii’s 1.3 million year round residents.  Hawaii, the largest of the main islands, is often referred to as the “Big Island” so as not to confuse people with the name of the state.  The Hawaiian capital, as well as its largest city is Honolulu.  This seat of government is situated on the southeastern shores of O’ahu.

Many properties of the Hawaiian Islands make a unique addition to the United States.  Beyond being the only state geographically located outside of the North American continent Hawaii is the only archipelago state, the only state to grow coffee, and the only state with a royal palace (which oddly enough is also situated on the southeastern shores of O’ahu).

The Hawaiian Islands were created by a series of volcanic eruptions, the first being Kaua’i.  Kaua’i rose from the ocean floor six million years ago, and the geographical gestation cycle continues today.  As the magma spills through the earth’s crust, it slowly accumulates on the ocean floor.  In time, great mountains of magma breach the ocean’s surface and form volcanic islands.  To help with a visual, the tallest mountain in the Hawaiian chain is Mauna Kea located on the “Big Island”.  With a peak of nearly 14,000 feet, Mauna Kea is a formidable mountain no matter how you measure it.  However, if measured from its true base at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, Mauna Kea is taller than Mount Everest.  As the tectonic plate on which the Hawaiian Islands rest moves slowly to the northwest, new islands are created.  Thus over six million years, the Hawaiian Islands have been birthed from the sea.  Although the volcanic activity has slowed over the millennia, there is an active volcano on the “Big Island”, making it even bigger.

Hawaiian History

The isolation of the Hawaiian Islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the wide range of environments to be found on high islands located in and near the tropics, has resulted in a vast array of endemic flora and fauna.  Although there are competing theories as to how Hawaii was first settled, all theories see the Polynesians as the first group to arrive in this island paradise in 300 AD.  These people, descendants of the seafaring Austronesians, most likely traveled form the Southern Marquesas Islands to begin permanent settlement of the Hawaiian chain.

The debate really comes at what followed.  One school of thought argues that the migration was slow and steady, involving people from Bora Bora, Raiatea, among other islands.  The second theory is 1,000 years after the initial migration from the Marquesas there was a second migration from Tahiti.  The Tahitian, as told in Hawaiian folk lore, conquered the Marquesas and put in place a hierarchy commanded by high chiefs, the Kapu system (a Hawaiian system of laws which takes on almost religious significance), human sacrifice, and the heiau (of Hawaiian temple).  Questions have arisen about the Tahitian invasions as there few solid clues which link the folk tale to reality (as there is virtually no genetic or linguistic connection between the two cultures).  Whatever the case, the Polynesian culture thrived on these islands.

The Kapu System

Kapu is usually translated to mean forbidden, though it also means sacred, consecrated, or holy. It refers to the ancient system of laws and regulations. An offense that was kapu was usually punished with death and often denoted a threat to spiritual power (or mana.)  Kapus were strictly enforced.  Breaking one, even unintentionally, often meant immediate death.  The concept is related to that of taboo (or tabu) which is found in other Polynesian cultures.

Most famous of the Kapu are restrictions placed upon contact with chiefs, but these also apply to all people of known spiritual power. It was kapu to enter the chief’s personal area, to come in contact with his hair or fingernail clippings, to look directly at him and to be in sight of him with a head higher than his.  The wearing of red and yellow feathers-the sign of royalty-was kapu, unless you were of the highest rank.

The kapu system also governed contact between men and women. In particular, men and women could not eat meals together. Furthermore, certain foods such as pork, some types of bananas, and coconuts were considered kapu to women. As these examples might suggest, the term kapu in Polynesia carries connotations of sacredness as well as forbidden. Probably the best way to translate it into English is as meaning ritually restricted. The opposite of kapu is noa meaning free.

Kapu restrictions were also used to regulate Hawaiian fishing in order to maintain the long term viability of ocean life in the 1700 and 1800s. Certain fishes and/or designated areas were kapu at the times when overfishing could damage the environment. This is similar to the modern regulation of fishing and hunting through licensing but was well before the modern era.

Hawaii and Kava

The Hawaiian people have always showed a strong sense Aloha Aina or love of the land.  To quote one native Hawaiian,   “We, who live in the Islands walk upon its earth, breathe its air, drink its water, and eat the food it provides. Hawaii is within us, a part of us. If we defile Hawaii, it is as if we defile ourselves.”  Due to this sense of Aloha Aina, and with the strict kapu system to enforce it, the Hawaiian people were on the forefront of environmental regulation and showed great insight into sustainable living.

The kapu system was used in Hawaii until 1819, when King Kamehameha II, acting with his mother Keopuolani and his father’s queen Ka’ahumanu, abolished it by the symbolic act of sharing a meal of forbidden foods with the women of the court.

Called Awa in Hawaii, kava in ancient times was consumed only by Hawaiians of high social ranking or those with special spiritual powers (you guessed it, another kapu).  However, in time kava was used for far more than formal ceremonies.  As the drink made its way down the hierarchical structure, Hawaiian awa was used to calm the body and mind, to kill pain, to clean wounds and skin infections, to relax tense muscles, soothe rheumatism, and combat fevers.  Kava bars have also made a huge comeback in Hawaii, as both mainland tourists and locals realize the relaxing properties of the local awa Hawaii offers.  There may be nothing better than a cup of kava watching the sunset over the pacific.  Aloha!

One Response

  1. Mahalo nui loa for the historical information. It is “mana”

    I grew up in Hawaii, in the Puna District where we farmed aina from our kupunas.

    As the article stated, we understood the legacies from our kupunas. We loved
    the aina. We were blessed with fruits of the aina: abundance of water, kalo,
    honey gathered from the ohia tree, ulu(with our own gum), pineapple, banana,
    and more. We farmed; dad market through the motorcar(railroad) what was
    farmed. Poi pounding was early Saturday morning. Everything was natuaral,
    environmentally safe.

    We attended the Catholic Church in Pahoa or Kalawina Church in Opihikao.
    We had our own farmed animals for food, for work and more. Much of what
    we were blessed with were from the fertile land. The aina was sacred.

    In reference to the awa, we were “makau” to find ourselves close to the
    flourishing growth of the awe. As a child, they appeared to preference dark
    areas for growth, towering and intertwining one another. They were healthy
    and never disturbed.

    The memories are deep rooted and sacred. Our parents provided a legacy of
    “aloha for the aina”.

    Even here, being on the slope of a dormant volcano, dad fell through the puka
    where an animal had disappeared to discover the remains of form in mummy
    wrappings. We loved the aina.

    Another keiki of the aina. Aloha.

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