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Menehune have long fascinated islanders — mainly as magical little people but also for their supposed work as stoneworkers who built a major aqueduct and a fishpond on Kauai.
The word Menehune was initially used to describe human beings of normal size who were early settlers of Hawaii. Some residents today proudly claim Mehehune as their ancestors.
Author Jan TenBruggencate says a friend on Kauai told him her hanai grandfather had the word Menehune stamped on his birth certificate, which she had seen but can no longer find.
TenBruggencate’s co-worker said her mother saw a Menehune in Waimea that she followed up a trail until it disappeared.
TenBruggencate’s newly published book “Menehune Mystery: The Original Tales and Origins of the Myth” traces how the Menehune myths started in Hawaii and rapidly evolved to the stories we hear today.
TenBruggencate is a former newspaper reporter who grew up on Molokai but moved to Kauai in 1971. He became intrigued by Kauai’s rich tradition of Menehune myths, prompting him to spend 35 years researching them.
Small people stories abound in many cultures such as the trolls of Norway, the leprechauns of Ireland and the brownies of British folklore. Oceania was no different. It had its own small people.
In 19th century Hawaii, Menehune were described as spirits of the forest or hard-working human beings depending on where and when you heard the accounts.
In Oahu accounts, the Menehune tended to be real people but on Kauai they were more often depicted as supernatural creatures.
TenBruggencate believes there were two fundamental traditions that eventually blended to become modern Menehune mythology.
The first sprang from the early European and American settlers to Hawaii who, in the 1800s, began using the name Menehune to describe Native Hawaiians. He says it was like the word “manahune” that foreigners and Hawaiian sailors and missionaries heard in Tahiti, where it defined common people who did not own land — similar to the Hawaiian word for commoner “makaainana.”
On Kauai, that name became “Melehuna” or “Melehana” for people with supernatural connections. Their stories were eventually incorporated into the rich and complex myth-making and story-telling tradition of the Hawaiian Islands, already alive with all kinds of spirits, ghosts, personal family gods who were animals or fish, demons and shape shifters.
As TenBruggencate and earlier researchers noted, by the 1900s, the Menehune had gone from being real people to elves and finally to cartoon characters. By mid-century, they had become emblems of commerce to sell everything from bottled water to macadamia nuts.
“Stores now use figures of Menehunes to advertise, candy, lingerie and automobiles. Commercial artists portray them as wide-eyed, ingenuous, merry miniature men and women, completely lost in the task of the moment whether pounding a native drum or climbing up a cocktail glass, “ wrote anthropologist Katherine Luomala in her 1955 book “Voices on the Wind: Polynesian Myths and Chants.”
Luomala also wrote the seminal 1951 Bishop Museum research paper: “The Menehune of Polynesia and Other Mythical Little People of Oceania.”
TenBruggencate gives much credit to Luomala and other early researchers whose work he has advanced with new information he discovered with the help of researchers who translated articles about Menehune from Hawaiian language newspapers dating back to 1834.
Scholars led by University of Hawaii professor Puakea Nogelmeier recently digitized more than 100 Hawaiian language newspapers, which were made available on the internet starting in 2012.
TenBruggencate notes the term Menehune or similar-sounding versions do not appear in the Hawaiian language newspapers until 1861.
He says the early native Hawaiian newspaper writers on Oahu describe Menehune as real human beings who came to Hawaii early on as skilled craftsmen eventually responsible for large public works projects.
In Hawaiian language newspapers, the term used on Kauai for Menehune — “Melehuna” or “Melehune” — is translated to mean mythical forest beings, not entirely human but related to humans.
TenBruggencate asks whether “the confusion between those definitions help create the confused archive of Menehune stories?”
He says in the 40 years after the Menehune or Melehuna were first mentioned in the Hawaiian newspapers, descriptions of them changed rapidly and sequentially, each story building on the next; they were human dwarfs, then non-human elves, then spirit people dwelling in forests by day and slipping out at night to work on human projects. And after that, they become little wisps who hum and are able to make themselves invisible.
Storytellers increasingly began to give credit to the Menehune as supernatural creatures for completing major construction projects actually built by Native Hawaiians. Myths and stories contended that Alakoko (Menehune) Fishpond near Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai was created by the little people. In the Kauai legends, the Melehuna were paid for their work on the fishpond with taro and one shrimp each.
TenBruggencate writes, “That suggestion has been called offensive to the actual Hawaiian workers who excavated, hauled and set those stones and whose hands bled from the multiple cuts caused by course volcanic stones. That bleeding may have led to the name Alakoko or “road of blood” or Alekoko, “rippling blood.”
Another set of myths made Melehuna responsible for the construction of the remarkable Kauai aqueduct Peekauai, or Kikiaola, or as it is called today “Menehune Ditch.”
TenBruggencate says a number of observers, mostly haoles, claimed Hawaiians lacked the talent to cut and shape basalt slabs that were fitted together to create a 24-foot wall for the ditch to carry water from Kauaiʻs Waimea River around a steep cliff to the dry land on the other side.
Writer Sidney A. Clark in his 1939 book “Hawaii” stressed that only Menehune, not Hawaiians, must have been the ditch builders.
In a telephone interview, TenBruggencate called the lack of respect for the Hawaiiansʻ masonry “racist and offensive.”
He said Hawaiians were remarkable stone workers. “Volcanic stone was like putty in their hands. They made stone weapons, stone tools, ulu maika stones for games. Cutting and shaping stone blocks for the ditch would have been child’s play for them.”
TenBruggencate says the early Menehune stories were respectful yarns that attempted to recreate an authentic history of the islands.
But later versions included increasingly racist descriptions of both the Hawaiians and Menehune.
At a time of widespread and institutionalized racism in America, some writers began to characterize Menehune as black. Statues and drawings depicted them with very dark skin.
In his 1960 book “Island Civilizations of Polynesia” praising the quality of Menehune stonework, anthropologist Robert Suggs labeled them “black dwarfs.”
Perhaps the most negative aspect of the Menehune stories is in their later versions which often fragmented and trivialized the complexities of what really happened in Hawaii.
By taking us back to their origins, TenBruggencate hopes to restore credit due to the early Hawaiians for their magnificent stonework as well as to acknowledge their mythical Menehune surrogates for enlivening so many stories.
He echoes the words of Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck): “The Menehune were real live people of Polynesian stock and they are entitled to the honor and glory of being the first to cross the ocean wastes to Hawaii.”
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