Kahuna is a Hawaiian
Hawaiian language
The Hawaiian language is a Polynesian language that takes its name from Hawaii, the largest island in the tropical North Pacific archipelago where it developed. Hawaiian, along with English, is an official language of the state of Hawaii...

 word, defined in the as a "Priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, expert in any profession." (See also Ancient Hawaii
Ancient Hawaii
Ancient Hawaii refers to the period of Hawaiian human history preceding the unification of the Kingdom of Hawaii by Kamehameha the Great in 1810. After being first settled by Polynesian long-distance navigators sometime between AD 300–800, a unique culture developed. Diversified agroforestry and...


Forty different types of kahuna are listed in the book, Tales from the Night Rainbow. Kamakau lists more than 20 in the healing professions alone, including for example Kahuna la'au lapa'au, an expert in herbal medicine and kahuna haha, an expert in diagnosing illnesses.

With the revival of the Hawaiian culture beginning in the 1970s, some native Hawaiian cultural practitioners call themselves kahuna today. Others, particularly devout Christians, disdain the term. The word has been given an esoteric or secret meaning by modern followers of Max Freedom Long
Max Freedom Long
Max Freedom Long was an American teacher and New Thought philosopher.-Early career:Shortly after graduating from UCLA in 1917, Long moved to the island of Hawaii to teach in elementary schools. When he arrived, he claimed that some Native Hawaiians were practicing what he called magic...

 and Huna to emphasise a priestly or shamanic standing.

Legal status of Kahuna

Many myths have grown up around kahuna. One is that kahuna were outlawed after the white man came to Hawai'i. For the purpose of this discussion, it is useful to divide kahuna into 3 categories: "craft" kahuna, such as kalai wa'a, an expert canoe maker, and ho'okele, an expert navigator; "sorcerers" including kahuna 'ana'ana; and healers. Craft kahuna were never prohibited; however, during the decline of native Hawaiian culture many died out and did not pass on their wisdom to new students. As an example, when the Hōkūle‘a
Hōkūlea is a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a waa kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe. Launched on 8 March 1975 by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, she is best known for her 1976 Hawaii to Tahiti voyage performed with Polynesian navigation techniques, without modern...

was built to be sailed to the South Pacific to prove the voyaging capabilities of the ancient Hawaiians, master navigator Mau Piailug
Mau Piailug
Pius "Mau" Piailug was a Micronesian navigator from the Carolinian island of Satawal, best known as a teacher of traditional, non-instrument wayfinding methods for deep-sea voyaging...

 from Satawal
Satawal is a solitary coral atoll of one island located at in the Caroline Islands in the Pacific Ocean, and forms a legislative district in Yap State in the Federated States of Micronesia...

 was brought to Hawai'i to teach the Hawaiians navigation, as no Hawaiians could be found who still had this knowledge.

It is often said that the missionaries came to Hawai'i in 1820 and made kahuna practices illegal. In the 100 years after the missionaries arrived: all kahuna practices were legal until 1831, some were illegal until 1863, all were legal until 1887, then some illegal until 1919. Since 1919, all have been legal, except sorcery which was decriminalized in 1972.

The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820. The most powerful person in the nation, Kaʻahumanu, did not convert until 1825. But it was not until 11 years after missionaries arrived that she proclaimed laws against hula, chant, ‘awa (kava), and Hawaiian religion. (Kamakau, Ruling Chiefs, p. 298-301)

As both healing and sorcery were based in prayer to the ancient gods, the kāhuna went underground for the next 30 years. During that same time, as a result of the high death rate among Hawaiians from introduced diseases, some died before they were able to pass on their wisdom. But many others quietly kept the traditions alive within their families.

King Kamehameha V
Kamehameha V
aloghaKamehameha V , born as Lot Kapuāiwa, reigned as monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1863 to 1872. His motto was "Onipa`a": immovable, firm, steadfast or determined; he worked diligently for his people and kingdom and was described as the last great traditional chief...

 came to power in 1863. He disdained the law and encouraged the revival of native practices. (Chai) Many kahuna who had been quietly practicing came forward. On Maui, a group of eight Hawaiians founded the 'Ahahui La'au Lapa'au in 1866. They were not only kahuna, several were also members of the Hawai'i Legislature. They interviewed twenty-one kahuna to compile a complete resource of prayers and remedies for the Legislative record. (These interviews have been republished in the book, Must We Wait in Despair? by Malcolm Naea Chun.)

In response to this and other initiatives, in 1868 the Legislature established a Hawaiian Board of Health to license kahuna la'au lapa'au. Kahuna practices including lomilomi massage and la'au kahea healing remained legal for the next twenty years. But the following year, "sorcery" was made illegal, and it remained illegal until 1972.

Both Kamehameha V and his successor, King Kalakaua
Kalākaua, born David Laamea Kamanakapuu Mahinulani Nalaiaehuokalani Lumialani Kalākaua and sometimes called The Merrie Monarch , was the last reigning king of the Kingdom of Hawaii...

, invited kahuna to come to Honolulu to share their wisdom. They compiled oral and written histories and documented the prayers, chants, hulas, and remedies for healings. Kalakaua convened groups of kahuna to consult with each other to preserve their heritage. This and many other moves by Kalakaua outraged the Christian residents. In 1887 they forced the “Bayonet Constitution” upon the King. The Legislature outlawed all kahuna practices, including "praying to cure," a law in effect for the next thirty-two years.

In 1919 the Legislature passed a law once again licensing kahuna la'au lapa'au to practice, and since then it has been legal to practice herbal medicine. The Legislature repealed the anti-sorcery laws in 1972 (well before the federal government’s American Indian Religious Freedom Act
American Indian Religious Freedom Act
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Public Law No. 95-341, 92 Stat. 469 , codified at , is a United States federal law and a joint resolution of Congress that was passed in 1978. It was enacted to protect and preserve the traditional religious rights and cultural practices of American...

 of 1978) and since then all forms of practice are legal.

In 2001, a licensing law was put in place which allows native practitioners to be certified by Papa Ola Lokahi and the community health centers (not the State). Some have come forward to be licensed, while others refuse to participate in what they see as fundamentally a Western process. (Chai)

While all this legal maneuvering has been going on, many traditional practitioners have continued to practice as they and their ancestors have always done.

Non-Hawaiian uses

The use of the term in reference to surfing
Surfing' is a surface water sport in which the surfer rides a surfboard on the crest and face of a wave which is carrying the surfer towards the shore...

 can be traced back to the 1959 film Gidget
Gidget is a fictional character created by author Frederick Kohner in his 1957 novel, Gidget, the Little Girl with Big Ideas. The novel follows the adventures of a teenage girl and her surfing friends on the beach at Malibu. The name Gidget is a portmanteau of "girl and midget"...

, in which "The Big Kahuna", played by Cliff Robertson
Cliff Robertson
Clifford Parker "Cliff" Robertson III was an American actor with a film and television career that spanned half of a century. Robertson portrayed a young John F. Kennedy in the 1963 film PT 109, and won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in the movie Charly...

, was the leader of a group of surfers. The term then became commonplace in Beach Party film
Beach Party film
Beach party movies were an American 1960s genre of feature films created by American International Pictures with their surprise 1963 hit, Beach Party, and copied by virtually every other studio...

s of the 1960s such as Beach Blanket Bingo
Beach Blanket Bingo
Beach Blanket Bingo is an American International Pictures beach party film, released in 1965 and was directed by William Asher. It is the fifth film in the beach party film series...

, where the "Big Kahuna" was the best surfer on the beach. Eventually, it was adopted into general surfing culture. Hawaiian surfing master Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku was a Hawaiian swimmer, actor, lawman, early beach volleyball player and businessman credited with spreading the sport of surfing. He was a five-time Olympic medalist in swimming.-Early years:The name "Duke" is not a title, but a given name...

 may have been referred to as the "Big Kahuna" but rejected the term as he knew the original meaning of the word.

For other uses, see Kahuna (disambiguation)
Kahuna (disambiguation)
A kahuna is a Hawaiian priest, sorcerer, magician, wizard, minister, or expert in any profession.Kahuna may also refer to:* Kehuna, the formation of the Kohanim * FC Kahuna, a musical production team...

See also

  • Kehuna, the formation of the Kohanim (Jewish priests of patrilineal descent of Ahron)
  • Ho'oponopono
    Hooponopono is an ancient Hawaiian practice of reconciliation and forgiveness. Similar forgiveness practices were performed on islands throughout the South Pacific, including Samoa, Tahiti and New Zealand. Traditionally hooponopono is practiced by healing priests or kahuna lapaau among family...

    , ancient Hawaiian forgiveness process, often practiced by a kahuna
  • Maven
    A maven is a trusted expert in a particular field, who seeks to pass knowledge on to others. The word maven comes from Hebrew, via Yiddish, and means one who understands, based on an accumulation of knowledge.-History:...

    , a term from a different tradition with similar connotations
  • Morrnah Simeona
    Morrnah Simeona
    Morrnah Nalamaku Simeona was recognized as a kahuna lapaau in Hawaii and taught her updated version of hooponopono throughout the United States, Asia and Europe.-Kahuna lapaau:...

    , regarded as a kahuna la'au lapa'au
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