Place Names Around the Island (Part 1)

hibiscus flower planning deptThis time, I thought I would take you on a trip around the island. The following song is from Na Mele o Hawai`i Nei, 101 Hawaiian Songs, collected by Samuel H. Elbert and Noelani Mahoe. Other information is either from Place Names of Hawaii, by Pukui, Elbert and Mookini, or the Hawaiian Dictionary by Pukui and Elbert. Another favorite source of mine are my notes from an ethnobotany class taught by Beatrice Krauss that I took. Occasionally, I will insert info from other sources or stories I was told growing up.

Hilo, Hanakahi, i ka ua Kani-lehua
Puna, paia `ala, i ka paia `ala i ka hala.
Ka`ū, i ka makani, i ka makani kuehu lepo
Kona, i ke kai, i ke kai hāwanawana.
Wai-mea, i ka ua, i ka ua Kīpu`upu`u.
Kohala, i ka makani, i ka makani `Āpa`apa`a.
Hāmākua, i ka pali, i ka pali lele koa`e.
Ha`ina ka puana, i ka ua Kani-lehua.

Hilo is both the town of Hilo and the districts of South and North Hilo. In the song, we start in Hilo-Hanakahi which is an area towards Ke-au-kaha. Hanakahi was a famous chief of Hilo. There are typically three references to Hilo which are Hilo-one (sand Hilo), Hilo-Hanakahi and Hilo-pali-ku (Hilo of the upright cliff, east of the Wailuku River). Hilo is thought to be either named for the first night of the new moon or for a Polynesian navigator. The word Hilo has multiple meanings but one of the ones I like is to braid or twist. Hilo is also a type of grass (mau`u-Hilo), as well as a variety of sweet potato. However, be careful with this word as it can also mean gonorrhea: a running sore. Hilo is famous for its Kani-lehua rain (lehua rustling).

Regarding the meaning of Hilo as to braid or twist, I was told that that when Kamehameha landed in Hilo by canoe he instructed one of his followers to hold the canoe so it would not drift away. Later when the follower came to his assistance, Kamehameha was grateful for the help but angry that he had left the canoe unattended as it might have drifted away. The man showed Kamehameha that he had twisted cordage to hold the canoe. Since they were in Hilo, that particular type of braid/twistage was referred to as Hilo. I cannot verify this story easily but it is the story I was told as a child.

We then travel to Puna. This is the name of the district. The word “puna” can mean a spring of water: or coral, lime, plaster, calcium, coral container; section between joints or nodes as of bamboo or sugar cane; cuttle bone as of squid; it can be short for kupuna (elder) as a term of address; or it can be short for punalua (used for spouses sharing a spouse, two husbands or two wives); it can mean to paddle with the hands, as to start a surfboard to catch a wave; it can be the Hawaiian word for spoon. Since the aquifer in Puna has so much water and there are numerous springs, I like to think that the name for Puna probably reflects the number of springs in the area.

In Nā Mele o Hawai`i Nei , the reference to Puna is translated as “Puna, fragrant bowers, fragrant bowers with the scent of hala” (pandanus). The translation from Pukui, in `Ōlelo No`eau is “Puna, with walls fragrant with pandanus blossoms”. Puna was once known for its groves of hala and `ōhi`a-lehua trees. According to Pukui, in the olden days people would stick bracts of hala into the thatching of their houses to bring some of the fragrance indoors.

You are probably familiar with lau hala, the pandanus leaves which are used to make hats, mats and other plaited things. Hala has female trees which bear the pineapple looking fruit you are familiar with, however it is the male tree that bears spikes of fragrant pollen bearing flowers, or hinano.

Hīnano bracts were used to plait the finest garments called ahu hīnano. The bracts were dried and torn into very narrow strips before plaiting. These garments have a soft, fine texture and were characterized by marvelous flexibility.

Hīnano also had another use. The entire inflorescence was used as a love charm. Girls would pick them and chase a boy of her choice and catching him, beat him over the head with it. Supposedly the pollen would then coat his head and make the boy fall in love with the girl. The pollen was often collected to be used as an aphrodisiac. It could be placed in a drink and given to someone to drink, often the person drinking might be unaware of what they were drinking.

To praise a well formed person (good looking, nice body, etc.) one would say, niniu Puna, pō i ke `ala, “Puna is dizzy/overwhelming with the fragrance of the hala flower.” Perhaps the Mayor’s parents were thinking of all these things when they gave him his name, Puna-paia-ala-i-ka-hala.

Soon, I will post Part 2 of this journey, which will leave Puna and continue to Ka’ū.

2 responses to “Place Names Around the Island (Part 1)

  1. I love it. Now if property owners would take more care to include these understandings with their intensions to build and develop.

  2. Lunel Haysmer

    Mahalo for writing this — so full of information and an obvious connection to and respect for this island home

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