They’re believed to be the ancient race of Hawai‘i. On a quest to trace their mythological origins, a writer sets out to look under every storied stone of their history.
I never expected to hear what I had just been told: There are people on Kaua‘i who claim to be descendants of the Menehune. Hanging up the phone after talking with the executive director of Kaua‘i Museum, my head began swirling with questions about Hawai‘i’s mythical race of people. It was a revelation I hadn’t thought possible when I first set out to dig into the legends. Now I’m staring at the name and phone number of a person with Menehune ancestry whom I had been told to call next.
Often portrayed in superstitious tales meant for children, Menehune get a bad rap as Hawai‘i’s version of the bogeyman. Generations of keiki have been haunted with warnings about them: Don’t stay out past dark or else the Menehune will get you. Don’t piss off a Menehune or you’ll be turned to stone.
On the other end of the spectrum, Menehune are considered cartoonish and cuddly, like Smurfs. In their roles as school mascots or water-company logos, they’re caricatured as miniature Hawaiians with pearly white smiles dressed in red malo (loin cloths) and red mahiole (helmets) throwing shakas.
But what I have learned, from my high school teachers and from years of reading about Menehune, is that their history is quite complicated. There are numerous theories about this race of people, including some that argue they were real. The idea of Menehune as spritely dwarves has dominated popular imagination for more than a century, but as with most things, there’s another side to the story.
Hawaiian documentation of history was an oral tradition, so there’s nothing written about Menehune prior to European contact. In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, nearly all the written material on Menehune comes from non-Hawaiians. The majority of these stories were gathered and published by Hawai‘i politician William Hyde Rice, in Hawaiian Legends, and Thomas Thrum, the compiler and publisher of the reoccurring Hawaiian Almanac and Annual.
At roughly the same time that these publications by Rice and Thrum debuted, “The Brownies,” a comic strip by Canadian illustrator and author Palmer Cox about mischievous fairy-like little men, inspired by Scottish folklore, was reaching peak popularity. “The Brownies,” which launched in the late 1870s, was beloved in the United States, Europe, and Hawai‘i through the 1910s. The popularity of Menehune stories followed closely.
It was 1895 when Thrum, who was born in Australia and immigrated to Hawai‘i in 1853, first printed accounts from native sources about the “race of dwarfs” called Menehune in his almanac. This earned him the nickname the “Father of the Menehunes.” Both Thrum and Rice also published descriptive accounts of the Menehunes’ appearance based on two translated stories. One was by J.A. Akina, who described them as a small people of about two to three feet tall, and the other was from J. H. Kaiwi, whose grandparents described them as short and round, with red skin, hairy bodies, and big eyes hidden by bushy eyebrows. Early 20th century tales like these are what shaped the modern image of Menehune.
Though Thrum often compared Menehune to “The Brownies,” and even went so far as to call Hawai‘i the original home of The Brownies, an account by Moke Manu that Thrum translated and published in the Hawaiian Almanac and Annual describes the race as the “original people of the Hawaiian Islands.” This alludes to another theory passed down by Hawaiians, which was that the Menehune, part of the first wave of settlers in Hawai‘i, was a race of people that lived in the islands prior to the 11th century, before the second wave of Polynesian migration from Tahiti.
Wainiha Valley on the island of Kaua‘i was home to the last recorded Menehune. This is deduced from early census data from the reign of Kaua‘i King Kaumuali‘i, who died in 1824. “Laau, the Menehunes, 65” was all that was noted by the konohiki, or the headman of an ahupua‘a, who had counted the population living in the community of Lā‘au.
There is no other known official document that places the Menehune in any of the other Hawaiian Islands. However, there are engineering feats scattered across the state that are credited to them, such as Ulupō Heiau in Kailua on O‘ahu, Alekoko Fishpond (also known as Menehune Fishpond) in Līhuʻe on Kaua‘i, and Kīkīaola ditch in Waimea on Kaua‘i.
I’ve visited Kīkīaola ditch a couple of times. Its rock construction is unlike any other in Hawai‘i, featuring smooth, neatly cut blocks of basalt. Also atypical of Hawaiian construction are stone artifacts left on Mokumanamana, also known as Necker Island, in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Mokumanamana is described in legends as having been a refuge for Menehune.
“A lot of stories connected to Menehune are that they have this ability to create things overnight, like stone structures, fishponds, all these different kinds of things,” says Marques Marzan, cultural advisor at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, when I call him to find out if Bishop Museum has any artifacts from Menehune. He thinks the supernatural traits associated with Menehune come from these seemingly magical feats.
Soon after, I visit Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian Hall to see a conch shell named Kihapū. It is also the only thing in the museum’s collection that Marzan thinks is related to Menahune, and the only physical object I had heard associated with them that has nothing to do with engineering. “It was ordered by High Chief Kiha that Puapualenalena, a supernatural dog, take it from the Menehune and deliver it to him,” Marzan explains.
The conch shell, to my surprise, is rather extraordinary. It is at least twice the size of conch shells I have seen, and its surface is so incredibly smooth that it produces a silvery sheen. It does have a supernatural quality to it, I think. I watch it gleam and wonder what its magical abilities are.
Then I ask Marzan a question that has long been on my mind: Does the Bishop Museum have any archaeological evidence in the form of skeletal remains that suggest a population of little people? Having had thousands of Hawaiian skeletons under its care, and decades of notable archaeologists and anthropologists in the field studying the history of the Hawaiian Islands, the museum can at least put to rest the debate of miniature people dwelling here, I figured. “There haven’t been any skeletal remains found of little people in the island chain,” he responds.
With that part of the puzzle settled, I continue my quest for answers. A tugging sense tells me I needed to look harder at Kaua‘i. After all, the census that last put them there was taken on that island.
The island is also the setting of one of the most fascinating tales of how the Menehune departed Hawai‘i. According to Akina in Rice’s Hawaiian Legends, half a million Menehune gathered on the island of Kaua‘i for a great exodus after the king of the Menehune, worried by the number of marriages between Hawaiian women and Menehune men, decided it was best to leave to keep their race pure. The men were not permitted to take Hawaiian spouses or younger children with them. One man, Mohikia, protested. He may be why there were a few people who claimed Menehune as their race on the Lā‘au census. Perhaps others disobeyed the king and stayed behind, too. Or maybe it was the part-Menehune children who were left behind who were counted. So the theories go.
I call the Kaua‘i Historical Society for information about Menehune and to find out if it has a copy of Kaumuali‘i’s census, but all I get is a giggle from the person who answers. Try the Hawai‘i State Archives, I’m told. Instead, I call Kaua‘i Museum, and that’s how I get the breakthrough from Chucky Boy Chock, the museum’s executive director, that makes me forget about everything else: the name and phone number of a man who claims to be part-Menehune.
Before I call, Chock warns me that some families who claim ancestry shy away from talking about it publicly. With more than a century’s-worth of Menehune stories now living in popular imagination—and the majority of them quite unbelievable—it would deter me from talking, too. My hands nervously clench my cellphone as I cold-call someone whose family lineage comes from Wainiha Valley, Kaua‘i. The phone rings. I hope whoever picks up will be willing to share their family’s story with a complete stranger.
He answers. I tell him Chucky Boy said I should call.
“Manahune is mixed in our bloodline,” he says of his family. There is no hesitation in his voice. “The real name is Manahune, not Menehune. Menehune is what the first settlers called them, because they couldn’t say or pronounce it. But Manahune is the real name. I don’t have much stories, I just know a lot about them. Basically, the Manahune was the Marquesas people, the first people of Hawai‘i. So the Hawaiians never liked them, so they got shunned out to the mountains.” The call ends then because he has to return to work. Though he suggests I call him back, when I do, he doesn’t answer.
A couple days later, I stumble upon another lead.
Aletha Kaohi was born and raised in Waimea Valley on Kaua‘i. Now 88 years old, she is a manager at the West Kaua‘i Visitor Center. I reach out to her after finding her name on a flier for a talk-story session with the Kaua‘i Historical Society about the “Tales of the Menehune.”
What I don’t know when I place the call is that her lineage is Hawaiian and Menehune. When Kaohi’s father was about 90 years old, he passed the genealogical and cultural knowledge he had onto her. “Upon his death, when he was very ill, he said to me, ‘You have to tell our story. Our story is different. Our story is from the ancient people,’” Kaohi says to me. Her voice is sweet but her tone is serious as she shares a pivotal moment in her life.
“The Western idea of Menehune is that they are mythical. There are no small peoples in Hawai‘i. Archaeologists will tell you that. There is no remains of a race of very small people,” says Kaohi. “Menehune were the first people. And I’m a descendant of the first people. My great grandmother traces her lineage back to the Marquesas.” She believes Westerners created the stories of Menehune as little people, producing this false representation of them. “They may have been smaller in structure, but they were strong people, and they were commoners.”
Kaohi, like the man I spoke to before, believes Kaua‘i’s first settlers journeyed to Hawai‘i from the Marquesas Islands in the Central Pacific. But Manahune, she says, is a Tahitian word for commoner. (The Marquesan word for commoner is the same as the Hawaiian one, maka‘āinana).
“I believe the Menehune name was given by the Tahitians,” she says.
“Tahitians were once known as Manahune. They bore the name with honor until Tahiti was conquered by warriors from [the Society Island of] Ra‘iātea, when it took on a very different meaning.” According to her, “manahune” then became synonymous with an oppressed lower class of people. Later, when Tahitians migrated to Hawai‘i and found people living there who had come from the Marquesas Islands, the Tahitians repeated what happened to them. They called these inhabitants they defeated “Manahune.”
“Why do you think this hasn’t been heavily taught?” I ask her.
“People love those mythical stories,” she says. “You got to show them the facts. For another thing, Hawaiian culture was suppressed up until the 1970s. Totally suppressed. I tell people, the Hawaiians were invisible.” Her own family of kāhuna ‘anā‘anā, or sorcerers, had to stop practicing when Hawaiian religion was forbidden in the early 1800s. “I’d say in 20 years, Hawai‘i’s history is going to be rewritten from translations of Hawaiian newspapers,” she adds. “Our history was written by a white man, not a Hawaiian, but the Hawaiians wrote articles in there using what we call the hidden meaning of words. Hawaiians understood those hidden meanings. The missionaries didn’t.”
For now, she shares her sacred stories at public talks and suggests that everyone else share theirs in order to preserve Hawaiian culture, history, and traditions and bring light to new interpretations and discoveries about the past.
I find myself wrapped in thought and wonder after listening to Kaohi’s story. Like her, I hope to see a new history of Hawai‘i rewritten from newspapers one day. Listening to her conviction, I can’t help but believe the authenticity of her family story, passed down orally for generations in the Hawaiian tradition. However, theories about the Menehune will continue to be argued unless new evidence surfaces. I hope that doesn’t deter other Native Hawaiians from telling their own histories with pride and ultimately reclaiming what it means to be Menehune.