The State of Aloha

There’s an old story about Kamehameha that’s been passed on from generation to generation for so long that it’s at a near mythic status. It happened when Kamehameha was a young and fearsome chief or alii on Hawaii island.

These were the days when chiefs waged wars among themselves. Hawaii island was particularly fierce with warring factions trying to take control of the whole island. In Puna south of Hilo among the black lava fields, Kamehameha and his men came across a group of men peacefully fishing.

The reasons are lost to history, but Kamehameha decided to attack these people. He rushed the group with his spear. A warrior like Kamehameha, trained to kill, and ready to attack must have been terrifying. The people fled. One man picked up a child to get away as fast as he could. Two other fishermen stood their ground to give the man and child time and space to get away.

Fortunately for the men, Kamehameha was trapped. His foot had become lodged in a crevice in the lava rock. The great warrior chief found himself at the mercy of these commoners. One of the fishermen took a paddle and whacked the chief over the head with it.

He hit Kamehameha so hard that he broke it over his body. According to some versions of the story, the chief lost consciousness. In others, the men whacked him and ran away. The point is that they spared him. Kamehameha knew they could have easily killed him.

Over his years of conquest and warfare across the islands and after establishing himself as the ruler of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Kamehameha never forgot the lesson he learned from the fishermen in Puna.

One version of the story goes that his men found the fishermen and brought them before the ruler — now Kamehameha the Great. He spared them and declared a new law for the kingdom.

Most translations for “Ka Kanawai Mamalahoe” describe the edict like a poem:

“O, my people,

Honor the gods.

Respect alike (the rights of)

men great and humble.

See to it that our aged,

Our women, and our children

Lie down to sleep by the roadside

Without fear of harm.

Disobey, and die.”

Ka Kanawai Mamalahoe, or the Law of the Splintered Paddle, is one of the first laws of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The spirit of that law has never really left the islands.

In 1978, the Hawai’i Constitution was amended to include the nearly 200-year-old edict Ka Kanawai Mamalahoe. The late ’70s enjoyed a resurgence of Hawaiian culture, music and thought. Native Hawaiians had mobilized and were politically active and attuned to changing the state government.

At the Constitutional Convention that year, Native Hawaiians put forth several amendments that would protect resources and advance the cause of the islands’ first peoples. It included the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the recognition of traditional and customary rights, and Article 9, Section 10.

“The law of the splintered paddle, mamala-hoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I — Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety — shall be a unique and living symbol of the State’s concern for public safety.”

The provision went on to empower to the state to protect people from crime.

For many the incorporation of Ka Kanawai Mamalahoe into the Constitution is more than a symbolic gesture. These days, Kamehameha’s words commanding us to leave the elderly, women and children lying on the roadside unharmed have become particularly important.

The presence of houseless people occupying public lands, fields, streets and sidewalks throughout the islands has prompted debate among politicians, business owners and property owners. Counties have passed ordinances making it a crime for people to sit or lie down on sidewalks and on the side of the road.

Right here in Maui County, the mayor ordered the clearance of the shanties that grew around Amala Place on the way to Kanaha Beach Park, disrupting the lives of several houseless folks. And now houseless people have sued the county with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union. Advocates for the homeless have turned to Kamehameha’s edict as a way to chastise our local and state government’s treatment of those who live outside.

But it’s more than protecting the vulnerable. The 1978 amendment did not incorporate the first part of Ka Kanawai Mamalahoe: respecting the rights of all “great and humble.” In other words, decades before the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause in the United States Constitution, Kamehameha demanded equality under the law. It means that no matter who you are in our ever-stratified society with its division of wealth and standing, we must respect each other whether we are high chiefs or regular folks who happen to live on the side of the road.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, currently with the Office of the Public Defender, who grew up on Maui. His email is 808stateofaloha@gmail.com.


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