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

When your car is making weird noises, do you take it to the pet clinic? Or when you need a new computer, do you consult the baker at Zippy’s? Probably not. When we need help, we usually ask people who specialize in a certain kind of work. The same was true long ago, when most of the populace was made up of the people closest to the land, the maka‘āinana. Their relationship to the land enabled a multitude of specializations in traditional society. 

[Loʻi kalo worker] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Maka‘āinana were canoe builders, farmers, fishermen, net makers, lau hala weavers, and other trades. Maka‘āinana formed the specialized labor network in traditional Hawaiian society. Their specialty depended on the needs of the community, the natural landscape, and their family expertise.  

Because maka‘āinana worked intimately with the land and the ocean to produce food, clothing, transportation, supplies, and other necessities, they were stewards of the land. Maka‘āinana performed the majority of the critical day-to-day tasks of their community.

Makaʻāinana and the natural environment

[Family in front of hale] Photo by J. A. Gonsalves.Maka‘āinana often were referred to as “kupa o ka ‘āina,” those familiar with the land. Kupa describes the close relationship that maka‘āinana had with their specific ‘āina. This relationship is a product of decades of living on, cultivating, and being nourished by that land. This close relationship allowed maka‘āinana to perform their tasks efficiently.

The job force varied greatly. Each skilled occupation was informed by specific natural environments. For example, a lawai‘a (fisher person) knew all the details of their fishing grounds. They knew the tides, the winds, the moon, and all the elements of the ocean. Lawai‘a knew the distinct characteristics of all the sea creatures. Lawai‘a did not simply throw lines into the ocean and try to catch fish. They went directly to the fishes’ feeding grounds to harvest.

Kuleana of makaʻāinana

‘A‘ole i ‘ena‘ena ka imu i ka māmane me ka ‘ūlei,
i ‘ena‘ena i ka la‘ola‘o.

The imu is not heated by māmane and ‘ūlei wood alone, but also by the kindling.
To be powerful, a ruler must have the loyalty of the common people as well as the chiefs.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #227)


[Man next to waʻa] Bishop Museum Archives.Maka‘āinana were the equivalent of today’s citizens of Hawai‘i. They made up the largest class of people in traditional society. Maka‘āinana lived in an ahupua‘a (traditional land division) system. The ahupua‘a were governed by managers or konohiki. The kuleana of the konohiki was to oversee the land, collect the taxes, and distribute community resources. The konohiki reported to the ali‘i. The konohiki and maka‘āinana were both governed by the ali‘i.

Ali‘i were accountable to the maka‘āinana too. An ali‘i who took care of the people and was fair would have a large, productive society. An ali‘i who was greedy and did not take care of the people was often abandoned or even killed. Maka‘āinana were free to choose which ahupua‘a to live in. If they were not happy under the rule of one ali‘i, they moved to another ahupua‘a. Maka‘āinana were accountable to the government of the land and to the needs of the community. They ultimately served the ali‘i.

Makaʻāinana in changing times

Lāhui pua o lalo.
The many flowers below.
The commoners.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #1937)


The death of Kamehameha I in 1819 was followed by a period of turbulence in Hawai‘i. Changes included a new government, the adoption of a foreign religion, and the development of private property. In 1893, business and political interests motivated a group of foreigners to illegally overthrow the Kingdom of Hawai‘i. The daily lives of maka‘āinana were greatly affected by all of these changes. Maka‘āinana rallied in protest against the overthrow. They were also against the annexation of Hawai‘i to the United States.

[Family working in loʻi kalo] Photo by Henshaw.

More than half of the citizens of the lāhui (nation) placed their names on the anti-annexation petitions. The Native Hawaiian population in 1897 was made up of 40,000 citizens.

Maka‘āinana organized in many ways. They signed petitions, organized large public meetings, solicited assistance from Hawaiian and American politicians, composed songs, and published newspaper editorials. In 1897, maka‘āinana helped collect more than 21,000 signatures on a petition protesting annexation. On November 20, 1898, four delegates hand carried the petitions to Washington, D.C. They met with senators and congressmen and voiced the concerns of the Hawaiian people. This historic document, called the 1897 Kū‘ē Petitions, is housed at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. There is also a copy at the Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawai‘i.

Maka‘āinana persevered during this period of change. They not only learned to read and write—making Hawai‘i one of the most literate countries in the world— they also published and disseminated knowledge. More than 100 million pages of printed material were written in part by maka‘āinana. Their efforts have preserved much of our national narratives, mele, and mo‘olelo.

[Kūʻē petitions] 1897 Hawaiʻi petition against annexation.

Makaʻāinana today

He ali‘i nō mai ka pa‘a a ke ali‘i; he kanaka nō mai ka pa‘a a ke kanaka.
A chief from the foundation of chiefs; a commoner from the foundation of commoners.
(‘Ōlelo No‘eau #540)


Today, many Native Hawaiians continue to fulfill the kuleana of maka‘āinana. This is done by honoring, protecting, and cultivating that which allows kānaka to survive—the ‘āina.

The ‘āina feeds us. The term “maka‘āinana” means “people who attend to the ‘āina.” ‘Āina is central to the kuleana of the maka‘āinana. And it is the maka‘āinana who keep us in balance with the ‘āina.