For generations the small, slowly growing population clustered around shore sites near streams that supplied them with water. Such sites are best for inshore fishing.
In the course of native settlement, as the early Hawaiians spread from fishing sites on the shore to inland areas and fanned out over the plains and hills from original centers of settlement, households with ties of relationship became scattered.
Neighborly interdependence, the sharing of goods and services, naturally resulted in the settling of contiguous lands by a given ʻohana rather than in a scattering over an entire district. In this way there came to be an association of particular ʻohana with various areas.
The heads of the ʻohana groups were called haku or haku ‘āina. He came by his responsibility through seniority and competence. His authority was a matter of common consent rather than formal sanction; he was not appointed, he was not elected. (Handy, Handy & Pukui)
“(I)n the earliest times all the people were aliʻi … it was only after the lapse of several generations that a division was made into commoners and chiefs”. (Malo)
Kamakau noted, in early Hawaiʻi “The parents were masters over their own family group … No man was made chief over another.” Essentially, the extended family was the socio, biological, economic and political unit.
Because each ʻohana (family) was served by a parental haku (master, overseer) and each family was self-sufficient and capable of satisfying its own needs, there was no need for a hierarchal structure.
Kamakau states that there were no chiefs in the earliest period of settlement but that they came “several hundred years afterward … when men became numerous.”
As the population increased and wants and needs increased in variety and complexity (and it became too difficult to satisfy them with finite resources;) the need for chiefly rule became apparent.
As chiefdoms developed, the simple pecking order of titles and status likely evolved into a more complex and stratified structure. The actual number of chiefs was few, but their retainers attached to the courts (advisors, konohiki, kahuna, warriors, etc) were many.
In ancient Hawai‘i, most of the common people were farmers, a few were fishermen. Tenants cultivated smaller crops for family consumption, to supply the needs of chiefs and provide tributes.
Access to resources was tied to residency and earned as a result of taking responsibility to steward the environment and supply the needs of aliʻi. The social structure reinforced land management.
The traditional land use in the Hawaiian Islands evolved from shifting cultivation into a stable form of agriculture. Stabilization required a new form of land use and eventually the ahupua‘a form of land management was instituted.
A typical ahupuaʻa (what we generally refer to as watersheds, today) was a long strip of land, narrow at its mountain summit top and becoming wider as it ran down a valley into the sea to the outer edge of the reef. If there was no reef then the sea boundary would be about one and a half miles from the shore.
Ahupuaʻa served as a means of managing people and taking care of the people who support them, as well as an easy form of collection of tributes by the chiefs.
For hundreds of years since, on the death of all mō‘ī (kings or queens), the new ruler re-divided the land, giving control of it to his or her favorite chiefs.
Each ahupuaʻa in turn was ruled by a lower chief, or aliʻi ʻai. He, in turn, appointed an overseer, or konohiki. (The makaʻāinana (common people) never owned or ruled land.)
Konohiki were appointed to supervise the distribution of land, of planting and harvesting, water rights, the building and maintenance of irrigation ditches and new lo‘i. It was the konohiki who served as tax collectors in the Makahiki festival.
Under the aliʻi system of collecting tribute in the form of produce, these subdivisions of the chiefdom became tax units, each marked at its border with a heap (ahu) of stones, an altar upon which was put a symbol of Lono the god of rain, in the form of the rudely carved head of a hog (pua‘a.)
Within a given ahupua‘a the heads of the respective ʻohana were responsible for seeing that their people met the tax levy prescribed by the konohiki, the ali‘i’s land supervisor.
Under the aliʻi it was competence in meeting the requirements of this levy on produce that determined the rights of the planters to continue to cultivate and dwell on their land.
In addition to his responsibility as an overseer of the lands and their use in the ahupua‘a, the Konohiki was also in charge of along-shore and offshore fishing rights (sometimes referred to as ‘konohiki rights.’)
He enforced the seasonal kapu that protected various kinds of fish during seasons of spawning. He supervised the division and distribution of the catch in communal fishing, when prescribed portions went to the aliʻi and his entourage, to the kahuna, and to the households whose members had participated.
There was a high degree of stability or permanence of tenure despite the general turnover of authority and titles to the land whenever a new aliʻi came into power, owing to the fact that particular ʻohana enjoyed the rights of occupancy and use and faithfully fulfilled their obligations.
In many cases their ancestors had pioneered the area and cultivated it since the earliest era of Hawaiian settlement. Actually it was to the advantage of an aliʻi to maintain the occupancy of diligent cultivators of the land.