Hānau ʻia i Kaulua, he koa wiwo ʻole.
Born in Kaulua, a warrior brave is he.
Said of one born in the month of Kaulua.
— ‘Ōlelo No‘eau #465

[Lua at dusk] Photo by Ruben Carillo.Have you seen a boxing match on TV? Do you have a relative that practices mixed martial arts? Or maybe you even study karate or judo or tae kwon do. Martial arts have become very popular, both as a competitive sport and as an alternative to traditional exercise regimens. Cultures from all parts of the globe have developed their own martial arts. Here in Hawai‘i, our traditional form of martial arts is called lua or ku‘i a lua.

Warriors among us

Warriors were a major part of Hawaiian society. They protected very important things, like the land, its resources, and the sovereignty of the ali‘i (rulers). They had very important kuleana. If a dispute arose between two ali‘i, the koa would be called upon to defend their ali‘i and their people, even if it meant going to war.

[Aliʻi warrior] Iles Sandwich/Costume Militaire. Unknown artist.Most warriors were from the ali‘i class. Hawaiian warriors were called koa. Koa practiced a style of fighting called lua. A koa was selected as a child by experts who knew the skills necessary to be a warrior. The trainees were raised in a pā lua, or training school for lua. In the pā lua, they learned techniques in bone-breaking, boxing, spear-fighting, and wrestling. They also learned strategies of war.

Koa became proficient in the use of many weapons, like spears, clubs, daggers, and sling stones. The favorite weapon of the ali‘i was the leiomano. Leiomano were wooden clubs lined with teeth from tiger sharks.

When a koa completed his training, he would go through a ceremony called an ‘ailolo. The ‘ailolo is a special eating ceremony to signify the completion of his training. It is similar to the ‘ūniki ceremony of hula practitioners, which can be thought of as a sort of graduation. The following is a portion of the chant that is recited during an ‘ailolo ceremony.

‘Ailolo Ceremony 
O Ku‘ialua o ke akua pooluaO Ku‘ialua, the two-headed god,
O ka opae limu iki,Deft in twisting with the hands,
O niu li‘i la, o niu halala,Whirling slowly, whirling fast,
O pelupele a-, a opeope a,Bending, folding,
E lele mai hunahuna mai ka lani,Till pieces fall from the sky,
He koae ula, koae kea,A red koa‘e bird, a white koa‘e bird,
O ku‘i o luaBoth (are forms) of Ku‘i,
Ke ki palaha o ku-lele-po e,(May the foe) be flattened like the ti leaves

of the Kulelepo




The origin of lua and koa

A‘o i ke koa, e a‘o nō i ka holo.
When one learns to be a warrior, one must also learn to run.
It is no disgrace to run when there is danger of being destroyed; perhaps there may be another day when one can fight and win.
Pukui (1983, 26 #219)

[Kū with man in ʻai haʻa stance ] Artwork by Art Kodani.There are different accounts of where and how lua was created. Many believe there is a strong connection between hula and lua. Some people think certain movements in hula ku‘i and ‘ai ha‘a resemble lua fighting movements.

Some believe that lua was developed after the arrival the chief Pā‘ao, who brought the god of war to Hawai‘i. This god was Kūkā‘ilimoku. He was the dominant deity that was worshipped in battles, from the time of Pā‘ao to the reign of Kamehameha the Great.

Four of Hawai‘i’s most famous ali‘i—Kalani‘ōpu‘u, Kamehameha, Kekūhaupi‘o, and Ke‘eaumoku—were also famous koa.

The pā lua and the koa’s role in society

He niuhi ‘ai holopapa o ka moku.
The niuhi shark that devours all on the island.
A powerful warrior. The niuhi shark was dreaded because of its ferociousness. It was believed that a chief or warrior who captured this vicious denizen of the deep would acquire something of its nature.
Pukui (1983, 91 #841)

[Pā lua] Lua school. Artwork by Art Kodani.

Koa were revered in Hawaiian society. Successful warriors were given lands and special privileges. Most full-time koa were ali‘i. These warrior-chiefs served as the pūkaua, military leaders.

In times of war, the common people were trained by the best warriors. Battles were well organized. The warriors would meet on the battleground, utilizing various battle formations and strategies. Sometimes disputes were settled by a challenge between two champions, reducing the amount of lives lost. If a warrior escaped to a pu‘uhonua, he would be spared from any harm. Pu‘uhonua are places of refuge respected by all members of society.

The success of koa was related to their personal power, which is called mana. Koa gained mana every time they defeated an opponent.

Kamehameha the Great established three lua schools, which were taught by Hahakea, Namakaimi, and Napuauki. Napuauki was the teacher of the famous Hawaiian historian John Papa ‘Ī‘ī.

The role of koa and lua today

He ‘a‘ali‘i kū makani mai au; ‘a‘ohe makani nāna e kula‘i.
I am a wind-resisting ‘a‘ali‘i; no gale can push me over.
A boast meaning “I can hold my own even in the face of difficulties.”
The ‘a‘ali‘i bush can stand the worst of gales, twisting and bending but seldom breaking off or falling over.
Pukui (1983, 60 #507)

The Hawaiian warrior class was crucial in traditional Hawaiian society. The greatest ali‘i were also some of the greatest warriors. Kamehameha was the last mō‘ī (supreme monarch) to go to war with other chiefs of Hawai‘i. Kamehameha successfully united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule. This led to a period of peace. No war meant less of a need for warriors.

T[Kamehameha] Kamehameha statue in Kohala. Photo by Ruben Carillo.he arrival of Westerners also brought about many changes that affected the koa and lua. Cultural practices of kānaka ‘ōiwi were questioned by the missionaries. The koa tradition was viewed as a negative profession practiced by thieves and murderers. By the early 1900s, the art of lua seemed to have disappeared. However, lua was still practiced in basements and in rural areas. ‘Ōlohe, or lua masters, continued to pass on the knowledge of their ancestors.

Today there are several pā lua that teach Hawaiian fighting styles and the traditional ways of the Hawaiian warrior class. Although there have been no wars since the time of Kamehameha’s unification of the Hawaiian Islands, the skills of the koa are still being practiced. The concepts that have shaped the martial art of lua now provide guidance for its practitioners in a new way. Besides helping to keep one physically fit, lua also helps a person to stay pono—to be fit, or in balance in all aspects of one’s life. Part of the art of a warrior is the ability to choose one’s battles on the field of life. Peace and healing are other important aspects of warrior life, as is spirituality. Practicing lua also links us to our kūpuna. By continuing to follow in the footsteps of our kūpuna, we honor the knowledge and traditions they have passed down to us.

Images of Lua

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