Kānaka ‘Ōiwi Knowledge and Seasons: Decolonizing Climate Change Education in Hawai‘i

Part Two: “As Above, So Below” (What’s the Moon Got to Do With It?)

Matt McConnell

One can easily imagine that Kānaka ‘Ōiwi i ka wā kahiko must have carefully adjusted their planting, fishing, and other day-to-day actions to meet the needs of their diverse environment. Today we have at least one similar example of this kind of ancestral knowledge being incorporated into resource management: Ke Ala O Ka Mahina, or Kaulana Mahina: The Kānaka ‘Ōiwi  Lunar Calendar. 

Image Credit: “The use of traditional Hawaiian knowledge in the contemporary management of marine resources”

A few versions of this calendar are published every year but the most popular seems to be through Kamehameha Publishing (you can check out an older version that is interactive here. You can also see how the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council uses this calendar in conjunction with tide charts to inform fishing regulations here). Unlike Western calendars, which have arrived at set periods for the months somewhat arbitrarily through a long history of civic, economic, and religious use, ke ala o ka mahina reckons the months strictly by their namesake: The phases of the moon. Each malama (month) is a period of 29 or 30 nights (depending on the visibility of the final waning crescent night of the moon prior to a new moon), and these nights are separated into three main Anahalu (phases): Ho’onui (or Mua), which means waxing/increasing, PoePoe which means full or rounded, and Emi (or Hope) which means waning/decreasing (Dacus). Each moon is named for its effect on plant and fish life cycles and corresponding kapu (“taboo”, rules that forbid specific behaviors, while appropriate behaviors are encouraged). Today the Mele Helu Pō (Hawaiian moon phase song) and other mele mahina (moon songs) are an increasingly popular learning tool in schools and the Hawaiian lunar calendar is an increasingly popular topic of education in general, featuring prominently, as just one example, in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s Hawaiian Hall. You can even buy calendars that synchronize the lunar phases and their kapu with the Gregorian calendar.

How did these monthly “do’s and don’ts” of everyday life, as dictated by the moon, change depending on the season? In ancestral times it seems that the Hawaiian year was divided into twelve to thirteen malama, with a malama pili (thirteenth month) being added where necessary to adjust the lunar calendar to stay in step with the solar year (necessary for the same reason Western calendars have leap years: The number of months in a year doesn’t divide evenly into the number of days in the year, so if you don’t pay attention to the stars and the position of the sun you will eventually end up with your months occurring in the wrong season). The calendar from Kamehameha Publishing names the months of the year as Welehu, Makali‘i, Kā‘elo, Kaulua, Nana, Welo, Ikiiki, Ka‘aona, Hinaea‘ele‘ele, Māhoe Mua, Māhoe Hope, and ‘Ikuā. The year is given as beginning on a Hilo moon (the first visible crescent of light of a waxing moon) near the end of October so that Welehu lasts most of November and Makali‘i begins near the end of November and lasts most of December and so on. 

This lunar calendar is silent on the impact of the months/seasons on the mahina kapu; it depicts each phase of the moon as dictating the same behaviors month after month. However, the calculation of an extra month would hardly be necessary if the ancestors of Kānaka ʻŌiwi were only concerned about the phases of the moon and not the seasons! So why has the importance of seasons in Kanaka ‘Ōiwi knowledge systems faded into the background of present day conversations while the phases of the moon have taken center stage? One possibility is that the reality of how seasons were tracked, celebrated, and adapted to was simply very complicated. For example, the Kamehameha Publishing calendar seems to make an assumption that the beginning of the new year, commonly referred to as Makahiki, occurs at the same time on every island (or even every location on the same island). In reality this was almost certainly not the case. Priests on each island, perhaps from the western side of each island, would watch for the Makali‘i (Pleiades) star cluster to appear in the eastern sky just after sunset and the next Hilo moon would herald the beginning of the new year and a four month long celebration of agricultural fertility during which all armed conflict was forbidden (along with many types of work, especially when Lono-Mākua was visiting one’s district). However, the start date might depend on whether or not one used the earliest sighting of Makali‘i or its first “dark sky” rising (Craighill and Green). With this variation it is possible that the Makahiki might begin in mid October to early December depending on the year, the location the stars are viewed from, and the exact method of determining the start of the new year. David Malo, however, suggests that in fact there was even more variation than this. 

In Hawaiian Antiquities Malo, a preeminent Kanaka ‘Ōiwi historian living during and serving in the highest courts of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, describes multiple accounts of the names of the months from Hawai‘i Island, Maui, Molokai, O‘ahu, and Kaua‘i (Malo, 34). Each of these lists differs from the last both in terms of the names of the months and their order. More confounding still, Malo seems to indicate that the perceived seasons and start of the new year were subject to variability as well. While most accounts refer to only two seasons, Kau or Kauwela (the dry season, from wela, meaning literally hot) and Ho‘oilo (the cool, rainy season, meaning literally to germinate, or sprout), there may have been a third season on Molokai (Makali‘i), although this “third season” could also refer to the four months of Makahiki celebration. Kauwela is governed by Kū, associated with war, governance, action, and critical decisions. During this time the ocean is vibrant and food is plentiful. Ho‘oilo begins with the Makahiki (referring to the time when the constellation Makali’i arrives on the eastern horizon during sunset, ushering in a celebration lasting four months when work and war cease). Lono governs this time, and it is associated with agricultural fertility. 

Makahiki celebration. Image Credit: Ke Ola magazine.


The tables Malo provides here seem to indicate that while Ho ‘oilo began sometime in November on Hawai‘i Island, it began in January on both Molokaʻi and Oʻahu. Malo offers that the kapu mahina were observed only for eight months of the year, concluding in September, and then suspended during the four months of Makahiki (with the festival beginning in October and lasting until February). Here Malo is apparently referring to standard practice on Hawai‘i Island, since the names in ‘Ōlelo Hawai‘i (Hawaiian language) for these months on Hawai‘i Island do not match those on O‘ahu (or any other island), and since Malo appears to arrange the lists so that Makahiki and the wet season begin in November on Hawai’i Island and January on O‘ahu (not to mention April on Kaua‘i) (Malo, 33).

With the ancestral knowledge of seasons in Hawai‘i left so unclear, we might be tempted to assume that the information Malo gathered was just inaccurate, or representative of a fractured and incongruent knowledge system, or perhaps that bits and pieces were omitted due to Americanization or Christianization. Aspects of all of these points may well be true, but assuming that the Kānaka ‘Ōiwi knowledge of seasons is no longer relevant on account of this argument simply does not do justice to what we know to be true of the incredibly intimate and adaptive understanding of  the natural world that was a core tenet of life in the Hawaiian islands in ancestral times. 

Image Credit: Ka Na’i Aupuni, Buke II, Helu 117, Aoao 1. Okatoba 18, 1906. 

We know, for example, that Hapaiali‘i, a heiau (temple) restored in 2007, is a solar calendar with standing stones that align with the setting sun at all the equinoxes and solstices (Louis and Kahele, 39). We also know that the island of Kaho’olawe served important astronomical and navigational purposes, with a poho (depression carved into a stone) called Pōkāneloa that served as a sundial on the vernal equinox, which still casts a shadow that aligns with multiple other poho, at least one of which marks the setting angle of the descending sun (probably because the ascending and descending angle of all celestial bodies becomes nearly perpendicular to the horizon at the equator, allowing someone making such measurements to determine their latitude on the globe) (Louis and Kahele, 41). Specific “paths” the sun takes during these solstices/equinoxes were known as ke alanui polohiwa a Kanaloa, ke alanui polohiwa a Kane, and ke alanui i ka piko o Wakea, corresponding to midwinter, midsummer, and the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, respectively. These sun paths correspond to the tropic of capricorn, the equator, and the tropic of cancer. There is now also evidence that Kānaka ‘Ōiwi  tracked the sun’s farthest northward progression to the island of Mokumanamana and turned the entire island into a heiau, connecting the temples previously discovered on Mokumanamana. 

Researchers examine Pokaneloa on Kaho‘olawe. Image Credit: Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission. 

Some scholars now theorize that this is not just evidence of an ancient habitation of these farther afield islands, but evidence of a seasonal procession to and from the islands for ceremonial purposes, in which case Pō (the nights) in the Kumulipo (The Hawaiian creation epic) are identified as the land north of Po‘ai‘olu‘akau. Tracking the sun as well as the stars was clearly an important practice for navigating thousands of miles of open ocean, but it seems inarguable that it was also culturally important for navigating the seasonal round of the year, as is indicated by the fact that the Kumulipo places the beginning of its telling (and thus perhaps all time) at the time of the rising of Makali’i, suggesting an annual telling of the Kumulipo in sync with the beginning and end of the agricultural year, such that the story of creation also becomes the story of the renewing of every year in the cyclical, spiraling procession of time, with the people journeying in this procession ever facing the past; the ancestors, and the source, with their backs to an uncertain future (Louis and Kahele, 47).

We continue to employ an Anglo-centric perspective of the challenge of climate change that views time as linear and a destination that we are facing, but like every generation before us, we can only guess at what will happen next. We know severe droughts have become more common and occur in both the wet and dry seasons, affecting all five major islands (The Climate Reality Project). Freshwater stream and river flow rates have been trending downward for nearly a century, especially in recent decades, and annual rainfall is projected to decrease 5% to 10% for the wet season with a 5% increase in the length of the dry season by the end of the century, with an annual surface air temperature increase of anywhere from 1.5°F to 3.5°F by 2055 (The Third National Climate Assessment). Even in the tropics, these changes take seasonal, increasingly unpredictable, forms. 

Beachfront properties near Ehukai Beach, commonly known as Pipeline, are lined with black material to protect against further erosion. Image Credit: Honolulu Civil Beat.


When we think about how the next generation will face the challenges that have been left to them with climate change we are confronted with the importance of three things: Noticing how the world is changing, learning how to adapt to this change, and changing our own behavior so that human relationships with the land can become more reliable and sustainable in the long term. ‘Āina-based learning activities like Malama Pu’uloa promote kilo, the observation and practice of, “a deep, sustained observation…shared, discussed and used to create one of the most effective resource management systems in the world.” (the world kilo means to watch, observe, examine, or forecast). Kilo is applied to island-specific day planners that follow the phases of the mahina, based in part on the work of scholar Kalei Nu‘uhiwa. If you are interested in learning more about her work on the mahina calendar check out this video

I hope that this exploration of the Kānaka ‘Ōiwi knowledge of seasons might encourage science educators of all age groups to think about how looking to ancestral knowledge is still of vital importance today: Teaching the next generation to see themselves as intimately connected to a dynamic system, and to relate to the natural world based on both moon phases and their connection to local habitat, island-wide conditions, and the position of the observer in the stellar and solar year. The continental American perspective that Hawaii is a “seasonless” paradise is not only a myth, but a dangerous one that downplays the scope of change in the environment over time and the indigenous knowledge that has, and still does, exist as to how to sustain a relationship in balance with that environment. 

Special thanks to Shona Ortiz, whose work served as an inspiration for these posts.


Craighill, E. S. and Green, Elizabeth. Native Planters in Old Hawaii: Their Life, Lore, and Environment. Bishop Museum Press; 1972

Dacus, Liz. “Mahina, the Hawaiian Moon Calendar, and Shamanic Astrology.” http://shamanicastrology.com/wp-content/uploads/Hawaiian-Moon-Calendar-by-Liz-Dacus.pdf Accessed March 2021

Friedlander, Alan. “The use of traditional Hawaiian knowledge in the contemporary management of marine resources”, in Proceedings of Putting fisher’s knowledge to work. January 2001. 

https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Hawaiian-moon-calendar-showing-months-seasons-and-moon-phases-that-are-used-to-guide_fig2_277284508 Accessed March 2021

Louis, Renee Pualani and Moana Kahele. Kanaka Hawai’i Cartography: Hula, Navigation, and Oratory. Oregon State University Press, 2017.

Malo, Davida. Hawaiian Antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii). Vol. 2. Hawaiian gazette Company, Limited, 1903.

Nā Pule Kahiko: Ancient Hawaiian Prayers; Gutmanis, June; Editions Limited; 2009

Poepoe, Joseph Mokuohai. “Moolelo Hawaii Kahiko”, Na’i Aupuni, Buke II, Helu 117, Aoao 1 10/18/1906. https://nupepa-hawaii.com/2013/11/21/poepoes-chart-of-the-traditional-month-names-1906/. Accessed April 2021

“Pokaneloa”, Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission. http://www.kahoolawe.hawaii.gov/pokaneloa/Pokaneloa%20Comm%20Presentation%20Aug%202012.pdf Accessed April 2021

The Climate Reality Project,  https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/how-climate-crisis-affecting-hawaii Accessed March 2021

Yuen, Leileihua. “Makahiki: The Hawaiian Winter Holiday”. Ke Ola (The Life): Hawai‘i Island’s Community Magazine

Accessed March 2021

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