Ancient Hawaiian Holua (Lava Sledding)

photo of a man on a papa holua – Hawaiian Holua (Lava Sledding)
photo of a man on a papa holua

He’e holua, usually referred to simply as holua, is a traditional Hawaiian mountain sledding sport deeply tied into native culture and mythology. In this dangerous sport, athletes take their 12-foot papa holua sledges and launch themselves headfirst down long, steep courses, often reaching speeds over 50 miles per hour. In competitions, the goal is to slide as far as possible; the stopping point of each competitor is marked at the bottom of the track to determine the winner.

Historically, the sport was tied closely with Hawaiian royalty, and competitions were held exclusively for chiefs and chiefesses on special occasions. Beyond these, he’e holua was somewhat popular among all social groups; men, women, and children all enjoyed this traditional sport to some degree, though men were the foremost practitioners. Traditionally, betting was an inseparable part of these competitions. Participants and spectators alike would place wagers on their preferred contestants prior to the start of most matches, layering the thrill of proprietary risk onto an already exhilarating sport.

Nomenclature

The term holua is used liberally in the sport’s nomenclature, and can refer to the sledge, the course, or the sport itself. For clarification, the sport and the sledge are sometimes called by their full names, he’e holua and papa holua, respectively. Courses are simply called holua, while especially long ones (typically 2 miles or more in length) are called holualoa. Each course, however, has a proper name as well, such as Keauhou Holua, discussed under Courses further down.


History

Dormancy and Resurgence

Though he’e holua has started to pick up a following again in modern times, the sport experienced a period of dormancy lasting approximately 150 years. Much of traditional Hawaiian culture underwent somewhat of an undoing in the 19th century, resulting in the decline of many sports and games. This can likely be contributed to two primary factors related to Western cultural appropriation. The most commonly referenced is the influence of Western missionaries throughout this period, who discouraged all practices that they deemed pagan, dangerous, or unproductive. As holua and other traditional sports (such as boxing, mokomoko, or even the bowling sport ulu maika) revolved heavily around pagan worship and gambling, these practices were discouraged.

It isn’t to be misunderstood that the decline of these sports was entirely due to a hostile suppression, however. Underlying all of this, native Hawaiians had developed an increasing affinity for Western culture throughout the 19th century. As old sports and games faded in popularity, new ones took their places. Because of this, most of these traditional sports fell out of practice completely. Only a few of them remained in practice at some level – surfing is a notable example. However, due to modern efforts, this historic sport has undergone a resurgence in practice, likely aligning fairly closely with its ancient ancestor.

Prehistory

As information regarding he’e holua has primarily been passed down through oral rite, it is very difficult to ascertain much of a historical timeframe of the sport’s practice. Hawaiian oral tradition claims that the sport’s origins lie from 1,200 up to 2,000 years ago, though since the islands are thought to have been originally settled by migrant Polynesians around the 4th century at the earliest, any history beyond 1,600 years would be very unlikely. Further, a lack of written records makes it very difficult to ascertain at what point in Hawaiian history holua actually began to develop.

Working backwards, holua must reach back to the 18th century at the latest because it was already considered a traditional sport in the early 19th century, during the breakdown of traditional Hawaiian religion, customs, and games. In addition, legends surrounding the sport focus on the mythological goddess Pele, who, although a lesser deity, was central in traditional Hawaiian religion. It is doubtful that Pele was a recent invention by any means, and it is plausible that the practice of he’e holua would stretch back along a timeframe similar to that of the goddess’ conception and development in Hawaiian culture. Were this the case, it would not be unreasonable to assume that he’e holua has a history reaching a few centuries prior to the early 1800s, meaning that its full history could easily span more than four or five hundred years. However, this is nothing but educated speculation; it isn’t feasible to determine the length of holua’s history prior to the 19th century.


Equipment

Papa Holua

The papa holua is a long, narrow sledge – typically measuring about 12 feet long, 4 inches wide, and 3 inches deep – on which the holua riders slide down the course. It’s made of two primary components: the runners and the handles. The two runners are traditionally made of hard kauila, uhiuhi, or mamane wood, carved with curved bottoms and upward-sloping blades at the front, much like ice skates. Crossbars are intermittently positioned between the runners to keep them fixed about 3 inches apart. In a process called kahinu, these runners are greased with candlenut (natively called kukui) oil to further facilitate sliding along the course.

modern papa hole – Hawaiian Holua (Lava Sledding)
modern papa holua
This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported from Wikimedia Commons. Author: W Nowicki

The upper structure of the papa holua is a bit shorter, typically about three-fourths of the length of the runners, and sits on the hind-portion of the sledge. It consists of two long poles that serve as handles, set about 4 inches apart from each other by intermittent crossbars, much like the runners. Vertical supports are secured between the sets of horizontal upper crossbars and runner crossbars, and fibrous cord is looped from holes in the runners around the handles for further support. Because the runners are closer together than the handles, the rider must be skilled at keeping the papa holua balanced.

Courses

a section of the remains of Keauhou Holua – Hawaiian Holua (Lava Sledding)
a section of the remains of Keauhou Holua
This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported from Wikimedia Commons. Author: W Nowicki

Over 40 holua courses have been discovered on the Hawaiian islands, built before the decline of the sport in the 19th century. They were built on steep hillsides and mountainsides, and could vary in length from 200 feet up to 4 miles in extreme cases. As they were mostly intended for single-file use, they were sometimes only 15 feet or so in width, though they could be expanded up to 60 feet in width total. Natives would use dirt and rocks wherever the natural landscape proved unsuitable for the slide, filling in dips and crevices as needed. Afterward, the prepared course would sometimes be covered in grass and loose dirt to provide an even smoother ride.

Of these discovered archaic courses, one of the most notable is Keauhou Holua, located on the island of Hawaii. This holua was built along natural lava block flows – part of the reason he’e holua is sometimes called “lava sledding.” Though the course is mostly disintegrated today, it once stretched from the water’s edge upwards for nearly a mile.


How to Play

drawing of holua form – Hawaiian Holua (Lava Sledding)
drawing of holua form

To start down the course, the rider would hold their holua in one hand, sprint a short distance, and launch themselves headfirst down the hill, landing on the sledge. The rider would lay stomach-down, grasping the handles beneath them and dragging a toe here and there to adjust trajectory as necessary. Hawaiian oral tradition relates that skilled riders of old used to crouch on the holua, holding the handles on either side and hanging one foot off the back to adjust as needed, though this style is no longer widely practiced. Reaching speeds surpassing 50 miles per hour, this was naturally the most intense portion of the sport; a slight mistake could result in grave injury. At the bottom of the slope, the track would flatten out, bringing the rider to an eventual stop.

Bibliography

Clark, J. R. (1985). Beaches of the Big Island. University of Hawaii Press.

Kamehiro, S. L. (2009). The arts of kingship: Hawaiian art and national culture of the Kalākaua era. University of Hawaii Press.

Krauss, B. H. (1993). Plants in Hawaiian culture. University of Hawaii Press.

Malo, D. (1903). Hawaiian antiquities (Moolelo Hawaii). Palala Press.

Howell, R. A., & Howell, M. L. (1989). Holua: Myth or Reality? North American Society for Sport History, Proceedings and Newsletter, 44.

Kent, H. W. (1986). Treasury of Hawaiian words in one hundred and one categories. Masonic Public Library of Hawaii.