I hele i kauhale, paʻa pūʻolo i ka lima.
In going to the houses of others, carry a package in the hand.
Take a gift.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #1157

Have you ever noticed small bundles carefully placed on rocks or in special places? Most of us have seen these ho‘okupu around the islands, but how much do we really know about this Hawaiian tradition? 

What are hoʻokupu?

[Hoʻokupu on wooden altar] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Ho‘okupu are offerings given freely as an expression of gratitude, respect, and aloha. They can be food wrapped in a pū‘olo or ti-leaf bundle. They can be songs or chants that hold special meaning. They can be items crafted with care. They can be lei created with thoughts of warmth and affection.

The word “ho‘okupu” means “to cause growth,” which is often the reason behind giving a ho‘okupu. Ho‘okupu convey appreciation and a desire to strengthen the relationship between the giver and the receiver.

Giving ho‘okupu causes a relationship to become reciprocal. This means both sides give and receive. In this way, the relationship is in balance and can continue to flourish

When are hoʻokupu offered?

[Stone altar] ʻUla stone altar at Keauhou, Hawaiʻi. Photo by Ruben Carillo.When a fisherman returns to shore, he might offer his first catch to an akua to whom he prays for success in fishing. These ho‘okupu often occur at heiau that were built for this purpose. When visiting friends or ‘ohana, a ho‘okupu is usually given to the host family. Before a hālau hula begins gathering ferns to make lei, they will offer a ho‘okupu to the akua of the forest. Someone receiving the aid of a kahuna lā‘au lapa‘au (a medical expert who heals with plant materials) might offer a generous pū‘olo of food as a ho‘okupu to that kahuna. Whenever you want to express thanks, you can do it through a ho‘okupu.

Sometimes ho‘okupu are given and received over time. For example, when two groups come together, one group might be the recipient at the first gathering, and the other group would be the recipient at the next meeting. In this way, both groups continue to mahalo each other and show that they value their relationship.

How does hoʻokupu spread the wealth?

A famous ‘ōlelo no‘eau (#1821) says, “Ko ko a uka, ko ko a kai—Those of the upland, those of the shore.” This refers to a traditional Hawaiian practice where people would visit each other and bring informal ho‘okupu. The uka (upland) people would bring kalo or poi from their area to their kai (lowland) family or friends. The kai people would, in turn, bring fish and limu to share with their uka family or friends. The notion of ho‘okupu is implicit in this common exchange of food.

Today, as in the past, artists, farmers, fishermen, and others continue to share in similar ways. This informal type of ho‘okupu is a way of ensuring that friends and family can share what is produced through innovation, skill, and hard work. Giving ho‘okupu also helps to distribute the resources in society so that people’s needs are met and less is wasted.

[Hoʻokupu] Offerings placed at kiʻi representing ʻaumākua. Photo by Ruben Carillo.

Are hoʻokupu related to taxes?

Today, if a person needs food or medical care but can’t afford it, the government often provides assistance. The government also provides services to keep our communities safe, like police officers and fire fighters. We pay taxes to the government to cover the cost of these services.

[Woman with hoʻokupu] Photo by Ruben Carillo.In the past, maka‘āinana (citizens) would offer ho‘okupu to ali‘i (chiefs, leaders). It was the ali‘i’s responsibility to divide up these ho‘okupu. Some were offered to the akua. Some were saved for the ali‘i, who had little time to cultivate their own fields for food.

Some items were shared with those who assisted the chiefs. For instance, a person in charge of caring for a fishpond might be given mats or other household items that were given as ho‘okupu to the ali‘i.

Some items were redistributed back to the maka‘āinana. One district might receive mats from another district known for that skill. The district known for making mats might receive rope from the first district and pa‘akai (salt) from another area that had an abundance of that resource.

In this way, the wealth of the community was redistributed throughout society. Traditional ho‘okupu therefore had a function similar to that of taxes.

How do hoʻokupu strengthen relationships?

By sharing with others in a balanced way over time, reciprocal relationships are created. These reciprocal relationships strengthen society as a whole and create tighter bonds among individuals, families, and communities. Sharing is caring, and so is ho‘okupu! So keep the ho‘okupu flowing, and keep those relationships growing.

Proper offerings to an akua are often the akua’s own kinolau (body forms). Offerings are given with mele pule (prayer chants). Here is a short list of akua and typical offerings that might be given to them.

  • Kū:  niu, ulua
  • Lono:  pua‘a, ‘ama‘ama, āholehole
  • Kāne:  kalo, kō
  • Kanaloa:  mai‘a, he‘e
  • Pele:  pua‘a or humuhumunukunukuapua‘a (both connecting her with Kamapua‘a); black and red kapa

ʻŌlelo noʻeau related to hoʻokupu

‘A‘ohe pilo uku. (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #205)
No reward is a trifle.
Even a small gift is appreciated.

‘A‘ohe u‘i hele wale o Kohala. (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #211)
No youth of Kohala goes empty-handed.
Said in praise of people who do not go anywhere without a gift or a helping hand. The saying originated at Honomaka‘u in Kohala. The young people of that locality, when on a journey, often went as far as Kapua before resting. Here, they made lei to adorn themselves and carry along with them. Another version is that no Kohala person goes unprepared for any emergency.

Ho‘i pū‘olo nō o kahi ali‘i. (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1045)
One returns with a bundle from the place of the chief.
When one visits the home of a generous chief, one always receives a gift.

Ua ola nō i ka pane a ke aloha. (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #2837)
There is life in a kindly reply.
Though one may have no gift to offer to a friend, a kind word or a friendly greeting is just as important.

He wahī pa‘akai. (‘Ōlelo No‘eau #972)
Just a package of salt.
Something good; a gift of anything one has grown or made.