Menehune: Clever, Burly Little People

Dec 25, 2018

In Hawai'i, references to Menehune used to be everywhere. The "legendary little people" were said to be about three feet tall, stocky, mischievous and industrious. Menehune likenesses were on menus, bank statement books, shot glasses, advertisements, store signs, etc. and people referred to them routinely.
Credit menehune hale

Hawai‘i’s Menehune are not very much like Christmas elves, but children in the islands all knew stories about them, growing up.  Menehune were said to be about 3 feet tall.  They lived in the mountains and when they felt like it, they helped Hawaiians of old to build temples, roads, walls and fishponds.  HPR’s Noe Tanigawa reports, the island of Kaua‘i is rich with Menehune stories, and evidence of their industriousness.

Historian, storyteller, Frederick Bruce Wichman. From his daughter, Lisa Wisotzky, "Dad is up at Kokee sitting on the front porch with my mother's orchid collection in the background. This is how I remember him best; no longer young but distinguished!"
Credit Lisa Wisotzky

The late Frederick Bruce Wichman was an educator, storyteller, and historian steeped in the lore of his beloved island, Kauai.  In 2013, we met one evening in a cabin up Koke’e, and I asked,

Was this the last holdout of the Menehune up here?

Wichman:  Yes.  The first known settlers to this island, the legend states, that he had certain projects he wanted done.  So he sent back to wherever their homeland was, for the Menehune and brought them in.  They came with their chief, their high priest, eventually they ended up with ten divisions of men and seven of women, each with their own particular skill. 

So they’re known as doers?

A Menehune bank, a promotional item by one of Hawai'i's financial institutions.
Credit creative commons/wikimedia

Wichman:  Yes.  That’s what they were.   The earliest heiau are all mentioned as being Menehune, two at Wailua and one here at Wai’awa that’s still completely visible.  The engineering is incredible, like with the Menehune ditch. 

The ditch was built to provide water to Waimea town. 

Wichman:  The Menehune built the ditch by cut rock.  They carved it so that each of these things are about 8 inches square on the ends and about 3 feet long.  Each of them is left with a little peg at one corner and the one below it has a puka that this thing drops into.  So each one of these things is really hooked in.  They built this thing up 20 feet from the river bottom.  It’s still there.  You can see the top three feet, and the quarry is still visible.

Ola, the chief who commissioned the ditch almost voided the contract until he managed to come up with one shrimp for each Menehune, right?

Wichman:  But this is typical of the Menehune.  If they didn’t like the project they wouldn’t do it. And if they got interrupted, they wouldn’t finish it. 

They’re legendary people, right?

Wichman:  No.  They were real people.   They had engineering skills far beyond what Hawaiians ended up with.  One heiau in Wailua, has rocks they estimate at about 30 tons, that have been moved there.  Nobody has the faintest idea how they got them there.

A saying recorded by scholar Mary Kawena Pukui goes, "The menehune were once so numerous on Kaua‘i that their shouting could be heard on O‘ahu."  But where did they go?  More on that next.

There is still discussion about the possible origins of the Menehune.  One theory is that Marquesans were early arrivals in Hawai‘i, who were driven up the island chain by a subsequent influx of Tahitians.  Kaua‘i has been referred to as their “last stand.”  Wichman describes their leave taking in the next episode.

A lifelong educator, Frederick “Bruce” Wichman was a descendent of the Rice family of Kaua‘i.  He began collecting stories and legends, especially about the Hā‘ena area, when he was a child.  Wichman wrote and published four collections of Kaua‘i stories in his effort to ensure that these accouns, these cultural records, would not be lost:  “Kauai Tales,” “Pele Ma: Legends of Pele from Kauai,” “Kauai: Ancient Place Names and Their Stories,” and “Polihale and Other Kauai Legends.”