Traditional Hawaiian Medicine and Westernization

When you’re ill, do you use modern medicine or traditional medicine?

For medical needs, Ancient Hawaiians relied on the kahuna, or a “priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession” (Pukui and Elbert).

After the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom, the Provisional Government prohibited kahunaism. However, from 1890s to the 1910s, many native Hawaiians still used traditional medicine, believed in the kahuna’s supernatural power, and ignored medical doctors.

A medium for the dominant white culture, English-language newspapers in Hawaii and the U.S. mainland doubted kahunaism. They reported Hawaiians who illegally practiced it and Hawaiians who disregarded Western medicine, often with fatal results.

Alcoholic Cure

Kaoli, a native Hawaiian woman, suffered from a serious ailment, so Lilinoe, a woman kahuna, prescribed brandy mixed with chewed ti and awa leaves. But Kaoli died a few days later. After a few days, the kahuna returned to sprinkle a mixture of water and salt around a room to chase away the devils.

The next day, a “small native boy” requested a burial permit at Duputy Marshal Chillingworth’s office without a physician’s certificate or even the cause of death. Thus, the deputy marshal investigated the case.

Other Stories

English-language U.S. newspapers report other stories:

A child died under the care of a kahuna for two days for an ailment “resembling congestion of the lungs.”

– Another kahuna, Namakaekeahi (the eyes of fire), tried to save an ill woman, Kiha, by praying over her and giving her decoctions. When the deputy marshal went to the house, he found Kiha’s “badly swollen,” dead body.

– However, somebody in Wailuku said that a kahuna cured him:

“When I came out, the bottle of gin and the $3.00 had vanished, and so had my ailments, and I have felt as healthy as a kid ever since.”

Were Kahuna to Blame for the Deaths of Hawaiians?

The Hawaiian population dropped from 160,000 in 1820 to 35,000 in 1895, mainly due to foreign diseases. A man attributed the decrease to the kahuna, saying nine in every ten patients die under kahuna care. In addition, native Hawaiians who do see Caucasian physicians do not improve because they follow the kahuna’s instruction of not taking the medicine.The Kansas City Daily Journal declares the kahuna is a fraud:

“[The kahuna] pretends to be a doctor, and literally can kill or cure. He is a professional murderer, for he can be hired to place the ban upon some victim and by working upon their imagination often succeeds in his design. Thus a well and healthy man was informed by an enemy that a certain Kahuna had condemned him to death. The man resisted for some time, but finally imagination got the better of him and he took to his bed and died. Such a state of affairs cannot be imagined in civilized communities and is only possible to any great extent when the peculiar belief has held for many years.”

The Hawaiian Gazette laments the kahuna’s “insiduous meddling”:

“Oftentimes the nurses and physicians have been confronted by the kahuna obstacle. The child is obedient to the will of the parents when the latter believe more in the kahuna than in the science of the physician and the nurse. They have encountered several instances where the kahuna has been listened to instead of the doctor.”

While English-language newspapers doubted the kahuna’s effectiveness, they do not necessary represent the views of majority of Hawaii’s people, especially non-White people.

– Alice Kim

History of Kahuna

As medical practitioners, the kahuna specialized in facilitating pregnancies, delivering babies, treating broken bones, and massaging.

After 1819, the kingdom ended the social class of the priest, killed hundreds of kahuna, forced the surviving kahuna to quit their practice, and destroyed temples and idols. With the arrival of missionaries in 1824, Queen Kaahumanu embraced Christianity, imposed it to the kingdom, and banned Hawaiian religious practices.

When King Kamehameha V reigned from 1863 to 1872, some kahuna could practice under license from the Board of Health. Under King Kalakaua’s reign from 1874 to 1891, the Kingdom of Hawaii did not heavily enforce the kahuna laws, and some types of kahuna recovered.

Search Strategy

Keyword: kahuna


“Hawaiian Mortality and Kahunas”
The Hawaiian gazette., February 10, 1891, Page 4, Image 5

“Vengeance of the Kahuna: Four Persons Clubbed or Burned to Death by a Hawaiian Sorceress”
The Indianapolis journal., March 09, 1892, PART ONE, Image 1

“A Kahuna Case: Treatment of the Sick, a Death and an Arrest”
The Hawaiian gazette., May 12, 1899, Page 3, Image 3

“Caught a Kahuna”
The Maui news., September 06, 1902, Image 3

“Death Knell for Mosquito: Pest Must Be Destroyed or Yellow Fever Will Devastate Islands”
The Hawaiian gazette., November 18, 1910, Page 7, Image 9

“Consulted a Kahuna”
The Maui news., June 22, 1901, Image 3

“After a Kahuna: Native Claims License to Treat Patients by Sorcery”
Evening bulletin., April 07, 1898, Image 1

“Kahunaism: Native Woman Dies While Being Treated with Prayer”
Evening bulletin., July 26, 1899, Image 1


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