Hānau ka ʻāina, hānau ke aliʻi, hānau ke kanaka.
Born was the land, born were the chiefs, born were the common people.
The land, the chiefs, and the commoners belong together.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #466

Ali‘i, or rulers, made up the chiefly class in traditional Hawaiian society. There were different levels of ali‘i. For example, the mō‘ī was the supreme ruler. Kamehameha became the mō‘ī after he politically united the islands under one government. The kuleana of the ali‘i was to ensure order in society by caring for the maka‘āinana (people) and the akua (gods). They also had the kuleana to kālai‘āina (divide the land). Ali‘i were given the right to rule through their mo‘okū‘auhau (genealogy or family line).

The different ranks of ali‘i

Kū i ka moku.
Stands on the island.
Said of a person who has become ruler—he stands on his district or island.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1876)

The mō‘ī is the supreme ruler of the pae ‘āina, or all of Hawai‘i. The ali‘i nui were the high-ranking chiefs that governed an island or, in some cases, several islands. For example, Kaumuali‘i was the ali‘i nui of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. The ali‘i nui were in charge of overseeing the ali‘i ‘ai moku. The ali‘i ‘ai moku were chiefs of the different moku or districts. Each island was divided into moku divisions. Ko‘olaupoko, Kona, ‘Ewa, Wai‘anae, Waialua, and Ko‘olauloa are the six moku of O‘ahu Island.

Under the ali‘i ‘ai moku were lesser chiefs known as kaukauali‘i. The different levels of chiefs mirrored the land division system. The different ranks of ali‘i depended on their genealogy and skills in governance.

Kamehameha is famous for conquering all the islands. However, Kaumuali‘i, the ali‘i of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, was allowed to remain the ruler of his island kingdom until his death years after Kamehameha united the islands.

The kuleana of the aliʻi

I ‘ike ‘ia nō ke ali‘i i ka nui o nā maka‘āinana.
A chief is known by his many followers.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1172)

Ali‘i were obligated to care for the maka‘āinana. Ali‘i had to ensure that the maka‘āinana were protected. This is very similar to the relationship between an older and younger sibling. The older siblings are responsible for protecting their younger siblings. In return the younger siblings obey and take care of the older siblings.

By caring for the maka‘āinana, the ali‘i were caring for the ‘āina. The maka‘āinana were the caretakers and workers of the land. They, with the land, produced food for the nation. A productive ‘āina could feed a larger community.

The ali‘i directed large-scale projects that benefited the community, like the building of loko i‘a (fishponds), ‘auwai (water channels), and heiau (places of worship). By creating systems and structures that helped with food production, the people and the land could thrive even more.

An ali‘i who took care of the citizens and was fair would have a large, productive society. An ali‘i who was greedy and did not take care of the citizens might be abandoned or even killed. The maka‘āinana were free to choose which district to live in. If they were not happy under the rule of one ali‘i they might move to another district.

[Kūkāʻilimoku] Feathered image of Kūkāʻilimoku. Photographer unknown.Another important responsibility of the ali‘i was to maintain a good relationship with the akua (gods). The akua were prayed to for food, health, wealth, success, rain, wind, surf, and various other aspects of life. In order to maintain a good relationship with the akua, the ali‘i had to observe pule (prayers) and rituals of the different gods. Some ali‘i even had a personal god that they inherited to care for. For example, Kamehameha’s god was Kūkā‘ilimoku. Upon the death of Kalani‘ōpu‘u, Kūkā‘ilimoku was given to Kamehameha through kauoha (verbal order). The ali‘i made sure the heiau (temples) were built and cared for properly. The ali‘i were the akua on earth. They were very sacred. The ali‘i followed very strict kapu (laws) because of their sacredness. Maintaining their relationship with the akua in turn helped preserve their mana.

Kālai‘āina means to carve the land. In this job, ali‘i had to assign lesser chiefs to rule the districts and islands. This is the first political task a new ali‘i nui would perform. Kālai‘āina is a very critical job because the chief had to choose lesser chiefs that were loyal. These were three of the most important jobs of the ali‘i: caring for the maka‘āinana, caring for the akua, and performing the kālai‘āina.

The role of aliʻi in changing times

I ali‘i nō ke ali‘i i ke kanaka.
A chief is a chief because of the people who serve him.
This was often used as a reminder to a chief to consider his people.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1150)

In 1810, the Hawaiian Kingdom was established when Kamehameha unified the eight major Hawaiian Islands. In 1840, Kamehameha III, Kauikeaouli, declared Hawai‘i a constitutional monarchy. A constitutional monarchy is a government system that is ruled by a monarch—the queen or king—and is guided by a constitution.

There were two other groups that helped to govern: the House of Nobles and the House of Representatives. The monarch appointed the members of the House of Nobles. The representatives were voted in by the people.

In 1843, the king established the Hawaiian Kingdom as an independent nation. As you can see, the role of the ali‘i changed over time; however, their kuleana to the maka‘āinana and the akua remained.

In 1881, Kalākaua, the last reigning king of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was the first king to travel around the world. Some of the places he went were Egypt, China, Japan, England, France and Germany.

[King David Kalākaua (front, center) in Japan] Photographer unknown.