Traditional Hawaiian Sports

Besides doing “the essentials’ of life, the everyday Hawaiian commoner found some time to wile away the hours in pursuit of pastimes. One of their favorite pastimes was the pursuit of traditional Hawaiian sports. The Hawaiian people developed a very rich and interesting set of sports that we wished to share with you.

Holua is one of the most interesting of traditional sports in Hawaii, that dates back many years.The sport involved the use of a long, narrow sled, called a holua. The sled was made to navigate on a single runner. A small, long trench was dug down a hill, made smooth, and covered with grass.The participant would get on top of the sled, be given a good push, and was expected to ride the sled down hill, as far as possible. The good ones could stay on for upwards of a mile! This sport makes skateboarding look simple.

War Games were also very popular among the Hawaiians. Small battles over territory precipitated the development of a series of games that would improve the skills of warriors. Some examples of those games included wrestling, boxing, archery, and javelin throwing. These types of games were often the hallmark of the Makahiki celebration. Hawaiian boxing was, perhaps, the best example of this type of sport. In Hawaiian boxing, two contestants would continue to hit one another until one gave up, or someone was knocked out. In addition, it was considered bad form to block a punch. Each punch thrown by the competitors had to be met square in the chin, as it were! Captain Cook records a time when some of his men participated in such a contest, only to get themselves thoroughly thrashed by the Hawaiians! It was not sport for the weak of heart.

Games of skill and chance were also very popular among the Hawaiians, especially up to the point when missionaries started preaching and teaching against gambling. The Hawaiian people had their own version of “the shell game,” which was called puhenehene and no’a. Players had to guess where a stone was hidden under a bundle of kapa. A game called konane was also very popular. It is not unlike modern day checkers. Finally, a game that was like bowling was also popular. It is called ulumaika, and involved the use of stone disks that were bowled between two upright sticks.

Races were very popular among early Hawaiians, as they often are in just about every culture. Hawaiians loved racing on foot, in canoes, and in the ocean (swimming.) Again, betting was a big part of the sporting activity. Needless to say, gambling was taken very seriously by early Hawaiians.

Spear Catching and Cliff Diving were among the more extreme sports of the early Hawaiians… As in the case of he’e holua, these types of dangerous sports were done to impress the audiences that watched them. There is a wonderful old story told of King Kamehameha, where he told 5 of his warriors to throw spears at him at the same time. The story goes that he caught two spears, dodges two, and deflected the fifth.

Surfing has got to top our list for the most popular traditional Hawaiian sport. Surfing was one of the most popular recreational pastimes of the early Hawaiians. If the north shore surfing rage is any indicator, the sport of surfing is still greatly loved today.

There are two types of surfing that were popular among the early Hawaiians. The first was called he’e holua, or mountain surfing. The more traditional water surfing was called he’enalu. Both of these styles of surfing were much ritualized. Both styles were a way for the early Hawaiians to express themselves.

He’e holua is a sport that is over 2000 years old. It involved riding a 30-60 lbs sled down a hill of lava rocks. It was not unheard of that surfers could reach speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. Traditional surfboards could be up to 20 feet in length, and weigh up to 150lbs. This is perhaps the most traditional Polynesian part of the Hawaiian heritage. Many ocean based cultures, though, have a history of riding of the waves of the ocean.

The Sport of Kings is probably the most unusual sport of all. In essence, the warfare that was conducted among tribes, regardless of the overall purpose, was considered sport. Even the Hawaiian word for battlefield can be translated as “playground.” Warfare, however, was banned during the Makahiki season. Otherwise, it was fair game to fight for fun! This was the Xgames Hawaiian style!

Traditional Hawaiian sports have the people of Hawaii a way to interact, have fun, improve fighting skills, and enjoy time together. More over, it was a ritualized expression of the culture itself. Traditional Hawaiian culture played hard and fought hard.