​'Awa in Hawaii - A Historical and Cultural Perspective

We know that kava is called 'Awa in Hawaii and we know kava grows in other places in the Pacific area. But in Hawaii we feel that 'Awa is special, why is this so? In this article I will give you some Hawaiian History and then I will show you the many uses of Kava in Hawaii.

Awa is a Hawaiian heritage plant that was dispersed throughout the Pacific by ancient voyagers who traveled by canoe (Abbott 1992). It has been under cultivation for more than 3,000 years (Lebot et al. 1997). We know that 'Awa had to be planted by someone because it does not produce seeds. That means that the Hawaiian 'Awa, the old 'awa patches in the Hawaiian forest, are actually Hawaiian artifacts and part of Hawaiian history. 

It takes from two to three years for ‘Awa to mature, and it will keep on growing for many years and be a bequest to one's descendants. Some of the old 'Awa patches in the Hawaiian forest are huge and a single plant can be larger than a full size truck. They are very old and they were planted by the early Hawaiians. We are lucky to still have the 'Awa varieties we have today due to the efforts of people that went looking for the different cultivars, propagated them, and preserved them. Thanks go out to people like Ed Johnston and Jerry Konanui, and Jeri Ooka. I also have been involved in this process and it is gratifying work.

'Awa was a big part of Hawaiian history and our culture, some 'Awa was reserved for the royalty while some was used by the common folk. It is significant to note that in Hawaii, 'awa was important in many aspects of Hawaiian life. Uses of 'Awa ranged from ceremonial observances and offerings-including ceremonies in the affairs of state-to residential use.

Awa was the food of the gods in the same way that Poi is now. No religious ceremony was complete without the 'Awa (Ms M K Pukui ca 1942) . Writing in the 1860s, Hawaiian historian
Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau (born in ca. 1815) wrote that 'Awa was one of the choice foods of the planter. 'Awa is a handsome plant, with nicely rounded leases and stems and shiny jointed sections. From of old there are places made famous by the intoxicating quality of their 'Awa,
such as Ko'uko'u on Kauai, Hena on Oahu, Lanakila on Maui, and Puna on Hawaii.

Only the most common varieties were used by the common people. the rarer kinds were reserved for the chiefs. For the gods and on ceremonial occasions the moi (royal), hiwa (black), and papa (recumbent) were used. The order of serving was important. At the entertainment of a guest, it was considered an insult to the host if the guest refused the cup or passed the cup handed to him, as guest of honor, to an inferior chief. Before war, all chiefs drank a cup of ‘Awa together. It was passed from hand to hand in order of rank (Martha Beckwith 1970)

 'Awa was very important to the Hawaiians and they had cultivated many different varieties. In folklore some of the ‘Awas are described as follows:

 'Awa ili lena (yellow barked 'awa) was an ‘awa which the gods consumed till they were drunk and bleary eyed. It was drunk till their eyes were reeling. It is the 'awa that grows along the sacred cliff of Waipi'o in the breast (the ledge) of Ha`iwahine, at the long plain of `Apua.

Ka 'awa 'iii Lena a ka manu i kanu ai iluna o ka la'au was the yellow skinned 'awa planted by birds atop the tree branches (grown in Puna).

 Ka 'awa kau la'au a ka manu i Kealakomo was the 'awa of Kealakomo that was placed upon the branches by the birds (grown in Puna).

The famous 'awa of Ka'awaloa grew amongst the 'ili-ahi (sandalwood trees) at Manu'a. The type of 'awa grown here was the 'awa hiwa (black 'awa) called Mo'i, and it was known as the 'awa kapu o Manu'a (sacred 'awa of Manu'a). The fragrance of 'ili-ahi permeated the 'awa patch.

On Maui, the 'awa of Hana was known for its potency. A drink of the 'awa would
put one in a state of comfortable sleep.

Uses for ‘Awa
Dr. Isabella Aiona Abbott (Abbott and Shimazu 1985, Abbott 1992) compiled literature references on Hawaiian medicinal plants and reported that `Awa was among the twelve most important medicinal plants in old Hawaii. So how was it used:

Kamakau's writings mention this--the Hawaiian people liked 'awa as a means of reducing weight.
When a man saw himself growing too fat, or perhaps constantly being sick, then 'Awa was the thing to restore health or to slim the body. The Hawaiians used 'Awa in there prayers and offerings too.

It was said that the people would deliberately drink too much ‘Awa to get a severe case of dermopathy. Then they would stop. When the skin finished peeling, they were left with a shiny new layer of skin. It was a skin peel of sorts.

It is not uncommon to learn from Kupuna (ancient ones) around the Hawaiian Islands, that following a hard day's work in the agricultural fields or upon the ocean fishery, their own Kupuna often found comfort and restoration in a cup of 'awa. The tonic for aching muscles and mind.

Describing 'awa in the Keahialaka-Oneloa vicinity of Puna in the 1920s to 1930s:
“Awa, you see 'urn, you can see. They want plant that, it was common. When get ma 'i [sick], they went to go get that. Some for inu [drink], some for la'au [medicine], eh. The old people, some take the coconut juice, water. Because they mahi 'ai [farm], the kino 'eha [body is sore], and the 'awa would help the soreness and help them sleep and then wake up ready to work the next day.

Another traditional use of 'awa was as a bait to lure the legendary deep-sea niuhi shark (a name given to various shark species), which was caught with a noose. The 'awa was wrapped in leaves of kī (Cordyline fruticosa, ti) along with cooked pig liver or dog and dropped in the ocean on consecutive days, ultimately luring a shark close to the canoe where, somewhat sedated by the 'awa, the shark was then more easily caught.

So we can see that 'Awa played an important roll in the daily lives of the ancient Hawaiian people.
The 'Awa was used by the Hawaiians for hundreds of years and then white man came and the missionaries put 'Awa on the same level as alcohol and they tried to ban it. They had success to a certain degree and the use of 'Awa was looked down on. But as time went on, it was discovered that alcohol had far worse effects than ‘Awa and attitudes changed. In the wise words of an anonymous Hawaiian from 1871: “The one who is drunk with ‘Awa is relaxed and does not make trouble like the one who is drunk with rum who is loud and wants to fight”.

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