Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Fragments of Memory: Tales of a Wahine Warrior

Academic journal article Frontiers - A Journal of Women's Studies

Fragments of Memory: Tales of a Wahine Warrior

Article excerpt

As a child of the native Hawaiian diaspora, I have always maintained a deep connection to the homeland. In 2004 by serendipity and through family connections, I met native elder Mahilani Poepoe, and through her I heard of the story of Hawaiian warrior woman Chiefess Manono and decided to track her fragmented narrative. The following are two ways to tell her story.

First, only the facts that few would challenge:

  In 1819, in a valiant last effort to save the old Hawaiian religion,
  Manono, the warrior wife of Chief Kekuaokalani, fought bravely
  and died at the Battle of Kuamo'o. After Chief Kekuaokalani was
  killed on the field, Manono was hit in the temple by a musket ball
  and fell dead upon the body of her husband.

My own reconstruction takes considerably more liberties in bringing to life Manono's experience:

  Born in the 1780s in Wahine Pe'e on Maui Island, Manono was one of
  three children of the chief of the Kohala District on the island of
  Hawai'i. At a young age she fell in love with and married Chief
  Kekuaokalani, the young kahu (minister) of Kuka'ilimoku from
  the island of Hawai'i. The couple lived in the mountains on the
  island of Maui tending to their taro patches and raised their four
  children. Manono passed the test of bravery during adolescence
  by leaping off a cliff and by successfully participating in
  competitions at Waikapu, Maui (disguised with bound breasts
  and a mahi ole-feather helmet). She thus gained access to privileged
  warrior status. When she was in her forties, the kahunas chanted for
  Manono's need to fulfill her destiny in becoming a na koa (a warrior,
  a practitioner of the art of lua). The warrior mission required she
  cut her hair, bind her breasts, dress in a malo (loin cloth), and
  then await further instructions from the guardians at the
  mountains of Keanae. Mano (shark) guided her canoe to the island
  of Kawiki hea when she traveled there to learn that she must assume
  the important responsibility of becoming the caretaker of the female
  child Ka'ahumanu, who would eventually become King Kamehameha
  I's favorite and most politically powerful wife. Over six feet tall
  and possessing great beauty, the athletic Manono was covered with
  tattoos and had the ability to toss an ihe (short spear) farther than
  many of her male counterparts. These impressive characteristics
  qualified her to serve as the head guardian at the women's royal
  court, where she was assigned to protect Ka'ahumanu and raise her to
  be a warrior woman as well as training leagues of Hawaiian female
  warriors. These included women such as Kahanohi, Akekea, and
  Kahikilani, all beautiful women sworn to protect the ali'i (royalty).
  The death of Kamehameha I in 1819 placed his eldest son Liholiho
  on the throne as Kamehameha II. The native society was divided
  about keeping the traditional social structure known as the 'aikapu
  system or abandoning it. In 1819 the ancient Hawaiian religion was
  formally abolished under the figurehead leadership of Liholiho,
  Ka'ahumanu (a prime minister with administrative power), and high
  priest Hewahewa. Ka'ahumanu wielded her power and within six months
  convinced Liholiho to break the sacred kapu system, which had been
  the rigid code of Hawaiians for centuries, starting with breaking
  the segregated eating kapu for women. King Liholiho accomplished
  this simply by sitting and having a meal with the women. When the
  Hawaiians saw that Liholiho was not struck down by the wrath of
  angry gods, the entire 'aikapu system crumbled and was abandoned.
  Exposed to Christianity with the arrival of early Protestant
  missionaries, Ka'ahumanu, who eventually changed her name to
  Elizabeth, passed stringent laws against murder, theft, smoking, and
  breaking the Sabbath. She implemented her new Christian beliefs
  by encouraging Liholiho to burn the idols and dismantle all of
  the heiaus (temples), establishing the 'ainoa system (new laws)
  throughout the islands. … 
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