Pāʻani ʻĀlapa
He pōkiʻi no Makoa.
Makoa’s younger brother.
Said in admiration of a speedy athlete.
— ʻŌlelo Noʻeau #909

What do surfing, running, and riddling have in common? These pā‘ani (games, sports) are all traditional activities our kūpuna did, they all test your body and mind, and they’re all fun!

Game on!

Our kūpuna (ancestors) were fit. They fished and farmed every day. Daily living required strength, endurance, and skill. So did the pā‘ani they played.

Our kūpuna invented many fun pā‘ani. They had surfing (he‘e nalu), canoe racing (heihei wa‘a), outdoor bowling (maika), and many other pā‘ani. These sports kept our kūpuna in shape and helped them prepare for competitions and the possibility of war. Plus, pā‘ani were fun to play and watch!

Because our kūpuna were hard-working and proficient at food production, they had ample time for entertainment. Pā‘ani would be played daily. Several months of the year were dedicated to rest, entertainment, and sporting activities. This time of year is called Makahiki.

[Lele kawa] Image of Kahekilinuiahumanu cliff jumping (lele kawa). Artwork by Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker.

Our kūpuna were thrill seekers. They would cliff jump (lele kawa) into the ocean and slide (he‘e hōlua) down the mountain going up to 50 miles per hour.



[Modern-day heʻe hōlua] Photo courtesy of Tom Pōhaku Stone.

Running for your life

What if your PE teacher assigned the class to run around the entire island of Maui?! You could do it in just one day if you were as fast as Kalamea, the kūkini of Lonoapi‘ilani’s court. Kūkini were professional runners for the ali‘i (chiefs). They could run in a few hours what would take days for most people. They delivered important messages that could spell life or death for people. Some kūkini were kapu (protected, sacred), and no one was allowed to stop them while they were on the chief’s business. Kūkini also gathered intelligence on opposing forces. For them, their sport was their occupation. [Makoa] Kamehameha's swiftest runner. Artwork by Brook Kapūkuniahi Parker.

Another famous kūkini is Makoa, who ran an 80-mile errand in a single morning. He started in Kawaihae, ran to Hilo, then ran back to Kawaihae to deliver an ‘ama‘ama fish to Kamehameha. When Makoa delivered the ‘ama‘ama, it was still alive. Now that’s fast and fresh! 

Hawaiian professional athletes have achieved national and international acclaim. These include Natasha Kai (soccer), Duke Kahanamoku (swimming), Akebono (sumo wrestling), and Shane Victorino (baseball). To compete at the highest level of their sport, these athletes had to keep their bodies and minds healthy. That means exercising, practicing, and eating well.

[Natasha Kai] US Olympic gold medalist. Photo by kkimphotography. [Duke Kahanamoku] US Olympic gold medalist. Photographer unknown.

[Akebono] Grand champion sumo wrestler (yokozuna). Photo by Philbert Ono.  [Shane Victorino] World Series champion. Photo by Matthew Crowne.

Playing mind games

Our kūpuna also played games that challenged their minds and kept them sharp. [Kōnane] Kōnane at Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau. Photo by Ruben Carillo.

One game was called ho‘opāpā. Ho‘opāpā is a battle of wits or strength. A version of ho‘opāpā involves two people asking each other clever nane, or riddles. Contestants needed to think quickly and have a strong vocabulary and a wealth of knowledge. The winner was the last to answer a nane correctly. One of the most famous ho‘opāpā players was a boy named Kalapana who became an expert while still a child to beat the Kaua‘i chiefs who killed his father. 

Keiki games

The ocean was the playground for kānaka (Hawaiian people). Keiki were introduced to the ocean at a very early age. Most babies could dog-paddle before they could walk.   


[Sunset] A time for playing nāʻū. Photo by Ruben Carillo.A fun game that involves lung capacity and the setting of the sun is called nā‘ū. Children of Kona, Hawai‘i, would see who could hold their breath the longest while saying “nā‘ūūūūūūūū” in an effort to keep the sun from going down.

Keiki would chant local place names to the beat of a stone being tossed up and down. Memorizing the chants trained their minds to be alert. Some keiki games required skill and coordination, like playing marbles and jacks with pebbles.

Here are two nane you can try on your family and friends:

Ku‘u pūnāwai kau i ka lewa—my spring of water, floating in the sky.
Answer: niu (coconut).

Ku‘u hale, ho‘okahi o‘a, ‘elua puka—my house has one beam and two doors.
Answer: ihu (nose).

Pāʻani benefits

Pā‘ani helped our kūpuna stay strong, smart, and active. Participating in pā‘ani, combined with good diet and farming and fishing activities, kept our kūpuna healthy. By being healthy, they could better care for the land and each other.

How do we stay fit like our kūpuna?

[Heihei waʻa] Photo by Kanaka Rastamon.We still do many of the traditional pā‘ani of our kūpuna. Schools and communities compete in games that test skill and strength, like the Makahiki games on Moloka‘i. Heihei wa‘a is a sport enjoyed by local high schoolers and international teams. He‘e nalu has been internationally practiced for almost a century, testing strength, balance, ocean knowledge, and courage. And we have runners who might be approaching Makoa-level speeds!

Playing traditional pā‘ani keeps our minds and bodies healthy. It also connects us to our kūpuna and helps us appreciate their skill, strength, ingenuity, and sense of fun. These pā‘ani remind us that exercising is fun. By being fit like our kūpuna, we too can better take care of the land and each other.

[HCRA medal] Championship medal from the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association. Photo by Ruben Carillo.