Keeping Maui's History Alive


Article by Rubellite Kawena Johnson

T'he Hawaiian kanikau - 'a dirge, lamentation, chant of mourning' - is a mele with the express purpose of celebrating those who have gone "i ke ala i ho'i 'ole mai", or, "on the pathway of no return", to use one of the stock phrases of the poetry. It comes from two words: 'kani' meaning to 'sound', and 'kau', meaning "to set, or "to place", and also "to chant, as for a person or place". The kanikau, however, is a dirge not only for the dead; it can be a lament for anyone who is leaving for a long time, or having left is perhaps never to return or to be seen again.

The kanikau was, of itself, a poem in praise of the life of a person. In contrast, the mele inoa or "name song" is a celebration of a person's descent, more of a preparation for a life of worth and dignity, with a dimension of family or ancestral pride. The kanikau is more deeply involved with a person's having lived, with his or her connection to others who may remember him or her in circumstances where they were raised together, went to school together, and in walks of life where the person was truly known. A kanikau for the ali'i also expressed pride in the greater Hawaiian family and nation.

Formerly, professional wailers would come to a wake and offer chants - kanikau - for the deceased. The art of the kumakena was, perhaps, a professional and public oratorical form of sending a person into the next world with social approval and stylized bereavement. We would assume that they were also rewarded with some sort of hookupu after the event.

What makes the Hawaiian kanikau a subject of inquiry is that the tradition of wailing for the deceased became a literary tradition, made possible by journalism. Hawaiian newspapers, first established at Lahainaluna Seminary on Maui, became the principal outlet for the kanikau. Between 1834 and 1900, kanikau were the most voluminous compositions found in the Hawiian language newspapers. On a daily basis, kanikau written by the people would appear in these newspapers. As the art of writing became a ready skill and the poetry of the kanikau was widely practiced, the liberal policy of Hawaiian language newspapers was an open door to publication of these creations. The kanikau of the written tradition is a public event, but without formal oratorical presentation at funerals; a greater public saw the performance and read the poetry. Many people even had the advantage of writing their own farewell pieces.

Questions for recent study include: what distinguished the kanikau from other kinds of mele, and what rules or style and content were part of the art form. What, in particular, characterizes the kanikau art form? And why did it last for only a century? Hawaiian language newspapers were affected by the 1929 crash, but was failure of the economy the only reason for the end of kanikau writing?

Why are we interested in the kanikau? This is perhaps the only place in the world with a kanikau tradition. It drew out Hawaiians in many numbers, to show how well they could say to the world they knew someone who deserved space and more mention in the newspapers of their day than an obituary. They lived in style; they were remembered with style.

Rubellite Kawena Johnson is Professor Emeritus of Hawaiian Language at the University of Hawai'i, author of 'Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Hymn of Creation," and recipient of the Living Treasure Award from Honpa Hongwanji; and she holds the Hawai'i Award for Literature from the SFCA and the Hawai'i Literary Arts Council.