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Social and political structure

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Social and political structure

Hawaiian society evolved into a highly stratified hierarchy. The highest authority in all arenas was the mo`i, or king, the ali`i holding the highest chiefly rank. The mo`i was the ultimate owner of all annual taxes, he oversaw important religious rites and acted as leader during times of war. The top two advisors to the mo`i were the kalaimoku, or chief minister, and the kahuna nui, or high priest.

The ali`i, or chiefs of all ranks, stood beneath this highest level. All ali`i held their position at the pleasure of the mo`i but their rank depended on the combined genealogies of their parents. Genealogical standing could be complicated. If a high chief could not find a woman of comparable rank to marry, he might marry his sister or the daughter of his brother. A child from this type of union would maintain a high rank and the status of the family. After the birth of such a child, the husband and wife could take other partners with less regard for genealogical standing.

Ali`i of lesser rank were the children of men favored by a chief who had married women of ali`i lineage. Lesser still were those called ali`i due to a special skill or strength; these were ali`i in title only and their position could not be passed to their children.

The lives of high ranking ali`i were regulated by many kapu, or restrictions. Commoners were required to prostrate themselves in the presence of ali`i, one's shadow was not allowed to fall on the person or house of an ali`i, none but an ali`i could enter his house by its private doorway, and any lower-ranking individual was to kneel in the presence of an ali`i who was eating. Ali`i were looked after by attendants; the mo`i was attended by many. Attendants to the mo`i - most often high-ranking ali`i themselves - sat with the mo`i while he ate, entertained him at night with stories and games, looked after his food, cared for his religious idols, composed chants for him, and watched over him as he slept.

Kahuna were a class of priests and highly-skilled craftsmen. Their mastery of religious rites and practices pertained to their specific profession (for instance, canoe building). Some, like the kahuna of medicine, might specialize in one area of their profession.

The largest group in Hawaiian society was the maka`ainana, or common people. These were laborers and workers who produced most of the goods in life. They did construction work, farmed, fished, and fought for their chiefs during wartimes. They were taxed annually by the mo`i and local ali`i, paying in kind with food, clothing and other goods and keeping a third of what they produced for themselves. While they stood at the lower levels of society, maka`ainana did have the right to move to a different area or rebel if the local ruling ali`i was harsh and unfair.

At the bottom of the social ladder was a small group of kauwa, or outcasts. These, like the ali`i, were born to their position.

 Sites for further information

Ruling Chiefs of Hawaii (S.M. Kamakau)

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