The Mahele Aina on Lanai

About Hawaiian Land Management and Land Tenure

In the centuries following initial Polynesian settlement of the Hawaiian Archipelago (earliest carbon dating on the larger islands ranges from ca. 175-300 A.D.), ancient Hawaiian land use and resource management evolved and adapted to the wealth, as well as the limitations of the natural resources found on each of the islands. By the 1500s, the okupuni (islands) were subdivided into land units of varying sizes. The largest division was the mokuoloko (district), of which two occur on Lanai, the “kona” (leeward) and the “koolau” (windward).

The Hawaiians further divided the mokuoloko into manageable units of land called ahupuaa, which the makaainana (people of the land) tended using what have become traditional Hawaiian practices (cf. Malo 1951:63-67).

An ahupuaa may be compared to a pie-shaped wedge of land that extended from the mountains or some other upland feature of geological significance (e.g., a valley, hill or crater) to the ocean fisheries fronting the land unit. The boundaries of the ahupuaa were physically marked by altars with images or representations of a pig placed upon them—thus the name, “ahu-puaa” or pig-altar—and internally defined by the cycles, patterns and uses of natural resources occurring within them (cf. Lyons, 1875; In The Islander).

The Hawaiians further divided the ahupuaa into smaller manageable land sections: the ili lele, parcels dedicated to using resources found in various environmental zones (such as salt making ponds on the shore and mala kalo or taro gardens in the uplands); kihapai, pauku, moo, and kuaiwi (open and wall-lined gardens plots); mala (dry land agricultural parcels); and koele (agricultural parcels worked by commoners for the chiefs). These smaller land use designations were devised by the ancient Hawaiians as a means of managing resources and fostering efficient work efforts; they were inhabited and/or managed by the makaainana (people of the land) and their extended families—the ohana.

As long as the makaainana offered sufficient tribute and observed kapu (restrictions), the common people who lived in a given ahupuaa had access to most of the resources from mountain slopes to the ocean. Such access rights were almost uniformly tied to residency on a particular land, and earned as a result of taking responsibility for stewardship of the natural environment and supplying the needs of one’s ali‘i (Chief) (cf. Malo 1951:63-67; Kamakau 1961:372-377).

An appointed konohiki (a lesser chief/landlord) had jurisdiction of the entire ahupuaa under the ancient Hawaiian system of land management, and he in turn answered to an alii ai ahupuaa (chief who controlled the ahupuaa resources). The alii ai ahupuaa answered to an alii ai moku (chief who claimed the abundance of the entire district). The ahupuaa resources not only supported the makaainana and ohana who lived on and worked the land, but also contributed to the support of the royal community of regional and/or island kingdoms. In communities with long-term royal residents, divisions of labor were strictly followed. This form of district “subdividing” was integral to Hawaiian life and the product of strictly adhered to resource management planning. The land provided the fruits and vegetables for the diet, while the ocean (near shore and deep sea fisheries) provided most of the protein.

The location and relatively small size of the island of Lanai, coupled with its limited water resources (and therefore a small population), resulted in it sitting in the shadow of Maui, both environmentally and politically. Lanai’s chiefs were under the jurisdiction of Maui’s high chiefs, and as Maui formalized its land management system, in which ahupua‘a and smaller political, religious and subsistence divisions were established, the island of Lanai was also divided into ahupuaa. Traditional lore and knowledge relate that the island was divided into 13 ahupuaa. An anomaly occurred in the designation of the three of the ahupuaa however, in that those three cross the entire island of Lanai, running from the windward to the leeward coast. This more generous form of land subdivision may have been necessary due to the stressed nature of Lanai’s environment. In any event, it ensured residents access to all resources—from coast to mountains—necessary to sustain viable populations, and to adapt to seasonal variations in weather, rainfall, and ocean conditions.

As recorded through historic surveys, the ahupuaa of Lanai, include the following named lands, beginning at the northwestern point and circling around the island running east: Kaa, Paomai, Mahana, Maunalei, Kalulu, Kaunolu, Palawai, Pawili, Kaohai, Kamao, Kealia Aupuni, Kealia Kapu and Kamoku. The total land area of Lanai equals 88,853.38 acres.

As a result of foreign pressures, the traditional system of land management and residency in the Hawaiian Islands was radically altered, and in 1848, a system of fee-simple property rights—patterned after western practices—was established in the Hawaiian Kingdom. This new land ownership system, known as the Mahele Aina (Land Division) was codified under the Kuleana Act of 1850. The links that attach to this page chronicle the history of the Mahele Aina on Lanai, and for the first time, provide readers with original source documentation of land tenure on the island. By following the links, readers will find detailed narratives of the land, people, subsistence practices, and features of the land, and also access each individual claim and award for land on Lanai.

This overview and detailed collection of records from the Mahele Aina on the Island of Lanai was compiled by Kepa and Onaona Maly (Kumu Pono Associates LLC).

E oluolu mai oukou – O ka mea maikai malama, o ka mea maikai ole kapae ia.

Lanai Mahele Documents