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Menehune! Where?

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A lifelong educator, the late Frederick “Bruce” Wichman was a descendent of the Rice family of Kaua‘i.  He began collecting stories and legends, especially about the H?‘ena area, when he was a child.  In 2013, HPR’s Noe Tanigawa met him one evening in K?ke‘e where he had a home.  In part two of a look at Menehune, Hawai‘i’s “little people,” Wichman described them as short, and stocky, among other things.

Wichman discusses, among other things, how he thinks Menehune got mixed up with leprechauns, brownies, and other fairy types.

Frederick Bruce Wichman with his wife's orchid collection, on the front porch of his cabin in Koke'e.

What a privilege to sit on a cool, windy night up K?ke‘e with educator, historian, storyteller Frederick Bruce Wichman.  We met in a cabin near Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow, an area curiously free of trees, where all the mountain trails meet.  By evening’s end, I learned that the Meadow played a role in the final chapter of Menehune on Kaua‘i. 

About the Menehune, Wichman says they were short of stature, stocky.

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Menehune were a part of everyday culture in Hawai'i into the 1960's. They were school mascots, names of teams, and adorned every type of advertising campaign, including a very popular on by Bank of Hawai'i.

Wichman:  They were very mischievous, they enjoyed pulling jokes on each other, they were very industrious.  They would take on a project, but it was a group project, always.  They built the Menehune Fishpond in N?wiliwili, which was left unfinished because the chief and his sister were not supposed to watch them. The chief poked his finger through the thatch and peered and they saw him and they dropped all the rocks where they were and would never finish the project.

They never seemed like real people when I was growing up because they always worked at night, and if they couldn’t finish in one night, they gave it up…

Wichman:  But of course, the one night business is that, no one remember that the Hawaiians’ day, so called, began at 6 o’clock at night and went through until the following evening.  This also may have involved a longer period of time.  It wasn’t just, you know, the sun went down and they did the work and when the sun came up it was all finished.  They went on a little bit longer.

Did I hear Menehune were even listed in the U.S. Census?

Wichman:  Yes.  The 1914 census of Wainiha.  There were, I believe, fourteen people who claim Menehune descent.  In fact one of them was the head fisherman for Wainiha and H?‘ena.  He was a little man, a small man.  His wife was almost triple his height.  When he got drunk, she’d march in and pick him up under her arm and carry him home.  But he was a marvelous fisherman.

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Credit Creative Commons/WorthPoint
In 1954, Paradise of the Pacific magazine described Bank of Hawai'i commissioning a local artist, Constance De Bisschop, to design a menehune bank. It was made by artisans at Lanakila Crafts, and proved to be a highly popular promotion for the bank.

Wichman:  And the story of their leaving, they decided the people were intermarrying too much, so the Queen, Mohihi, decided it was time to go home again.  She gathered all the Menehune here in the Swamp (Alaka‘i Swamp), they came back to this meadow here (Kanaloahuluhulu Meadow.)  They walked along the N? Pali cliffs at the top because they wanted to come down at H?‘ena, where they had their fleet of canoes waiting on the beach, there, where the County park is today. 

They went home to where?

Wichman:  Nobody knows, we don’t know.  They sailed off and nobody’s ever heard of them since.

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.” 

There are numerous references to Menehune listed in the census of 1820, Hawai‘i’s first population census, conducted in Kaua‘i’s Wainiha Valley.  The UH M?noa website quotes the state data center as saying, a “careful census” reported 2,000 people in the valley, 65 of whom were described as Menehune. 

Still, no diminutive remains have ever been found.

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 H?‘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.”

Frederick “Bruce” Wichman was honored as a Living Treasure by the Kaua‘i Museum in 1999. 

Noe Tanigawa covered art, culture and ideas for two decades at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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