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Lua: Hawaiian Martial Arts

Petroglyph of a lua warrior fighting with a canoe paddle.

Petroglyph of a lua warrior fighting with a canoe paddle.

Throughout history, cultures have defended themselves by training warriors to protect their families and homeland. Israelis developed street fighting called krav-maga, the Japanese created martial arts like jujutsu and karate and the ancient Persians taught koshti in the Middle East to help natives defend their land. The ancient Hawaiians developed their own method of defense, called kapu kuialua or merely lua, meaning “double hits.”

Lua was a form of hand-to-hand combat based on breaking the bones and joints of one’s opponent.
When each island was ruled by different tribes, the chieftains would seek to gain greater province, waging battles against each other. Their warriors developed methods on how to approach the enemy, with weapons and without, and disabled them by swiftly breaking their bones and rendering them useless on the battlefield.

“Huna A Mea Huna”

This Hawaiian phrase means “keep secret that which is sacred.”   This motto epitomized the reason why lua training was conducted under the most clandestine of circumstances. This fighting technique was practiced only the most skillful of warriors at the dead of night. They would train in the rainforests and in the surf to gain dexterity and balance. Only a select group of men known for having control over their tempers and minds and possessing great determination and physical strength would be able to learn lua. The word “kapu” means forbidden and for many years teaching kapu kuialua to non-royals was prohibited. Only when in dire need of defensive troupes would commoners be allowed to learn some of the fighting techniques. For many years, a reverence for this art persisted even in modern day, allowing only native Hawaiians to be permitted to study lua.

The ancient warriors typically would shave their heads and cover their bodies in coconut oil, so as to be able to quickly escape and slip out of their enemies’ grasp. With dozens of specific holds, pinches and striking moves, they were trained to powerfully hit a nerve on their opponent. By quickly shocking the muscle or joint, it would be rendered useless, allowing the attacker to have the upper hand. Lua warriors would then work from the digits on the hand, up the arm, breaking bones along the way, disabling the enemy from being able to protect himself as well as inflict blows on anyone else.

The purpose of the hand-to-hand training was to enable warriors to be able to defeat opponents even if they would lose their weapons. The hand-to-hand technique of lua typically involved bone breaking with wrestling, boxing, slapping and pinning after an initial exchange of verbal taunts.

The fighters, typically dressed only in a loin wrapping, would often begin battle with certain weapons of choice. Among these were wood-carved canoe paddles, strangling cords, knuckle dusters, piercing weapons made of shark teeth, wooden knives, spears, clubs, daggers, double eye pokers and wooden batons or staffs.

King Kamehameha was said to be the greatest lua warrior of all, able to dodge an onslaught of spears, using high kicks, leaps and shattering strikes that would defeat his opponent in a few simple motions. However, under his rule, Hawaii endured great changes, resulting in the collapse of the kapu system in the 1800’s. The invasion of European settlers also introduced weapons like firearms and canons, causing hand-to-hand combat to be less necessary. By the20th century, the art of lua was nearly forgotten.

Current Practice

Though the combative art has been considered by many to be a lost Hawaiian tradition, the dedicated work of several notable masters has provided a new appreciation for lua training. Since 1991, four men who had studied lua in the 1970’s joined together and began offering lua classes on each of the main Hawaiian Islands. The teachers, Jerry Walker, Mitchell Eli, Moses Kalauokalani and Richard Paglinawan have since educated hundreds of students in the art of lua thanks to the financial support of the National Parks Service, the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program and the Bishop Museum.

Demonstrations, competitions and makahiki ceremonies are held annually at so that Hawaiians and visitors alike might observe the skillful sparing in action. One such ceremony occurs during the month of August near Kawaihae on the Big Island of Hawaii near the heiau called Pu’ukohola.


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