In ancient Hawaiian society, the aliʻi were the hereditary nobles (social class or caste). The aliʻi consisted of the higher and lesser chiefs of the various levels within the islands. The noho aliʻi were the ruling chiefs. It was believed that the aliʻi descended from the gods. They governed with divine power called mana which was derived from the spiritual energy of their ancestors. There were eleven classes of aliʻi of both men and women. These included the kahuna (priest/priestess, experts, craftsmen and canoe maker) as part of four professions practiced by the nobility. Each island had its own aliʻi nui which governed their individual systems.Aliʻi continued to rule the Hawaiian islands until 1893 when Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by a coup d'état backed by the United States Government.
Aliʻi nui were ruling chiefs (in Hawaiian, nui means grand, great, or supreme.). The nui title could be passed on by right of birth.
Social designations of noho aliʻi (ruling line)
Samuel M. Kamakau writes extensively about the aliʻi nui and kaukau aliʻi lines and their importance to Hawaiian history.
Aliʻi nui were supreme high chiefs of an island and no others were above them (during the Kingdom period this title would come to mean "Governor"). The four largest Hawaiian islands (Hawaiʻi proper, Maui, Kauaʻi, and Oʻahu) were usually ruled each by their own aliʻi nui. Molokaʻi also had a line of island kings, but was later subjected to the superior power of nearby Maui and Oʻahu during the 17th and 18th centuries. Mōʻī was a special title for the highest chief of the island of Maui. Later, the title was used for all kings of the Hawaiian Islands and the Hawaiian monarchs.
Aliʻi nui kapu were sacred rulers with special taboos.
Aliʻi Naha were a rank of chiefs who were products of half blood sibling unions; famous Naha chiefs include Keopuolani.
Aliʻi Wohi were a rank of chiefs who were products of marriage of close relatives other than siblings, one famous Wohi chief being Kamehameha I. These chiefs possessed the kapu wohi, exempting them from kapu moe (prostration taboo).
Kaukau aliʻi were lesser chiefs that served the aliʻi nui. It is a relative term and not a fixed level of aliʻi nobility. The expression is elastic in terms of how it is used. In general, it means a relative who is born from a lesser ranking parent. A kaukau aliʻi son's own children, with a lesser ranking aliʻi mother would descend to a lower rank. Eventually the line descends, leading to makaʻāinana (commoner).Kaukaualiʻi gain rank through marriage with higher-ranking aliʻi. One kaukau aliʻi line descended from Moana Kāne, son of Keakealanikane, became secondary aliʻi to the Kamehameha rulers of the kingdom and were responsible for various hana lawelawe (service tasks). Members of this line married into the Kamehamehas including Charles Kanaʻina and Kekūanāoʻa. Some bore Kāhili, royal standards made of feathers, and were attendants of the higher-ranking aliʻi. During the monarchy some of these chiefs were elevated to positions within the primary political bodies of the Hawaiian legislature and the king's Privy Council. All Hawaiian monarchs after Kamehameha III were the children of Kaukaualiʻi fathers, who married higher ranking wives.:112
Aliʻi ʻAimoku were subordinate district aliʻi, but controlled their petty fiefs. But these petty fiefs could sometimes encompass one-sixth of an island, since the islands were usually divided into six districts. These feudal lords were aliʻi nui of their district and were styled as "Aliʻi-o-Name of District".
Internecine warfare between heirs of rulers was common in ancient Hawaiʻi. Warfare between chiefs was also common.
Commoner or lesser Aliʻi served the higher-ranking Aliʻi, not for pay, but instead, due to their duty to allegiance to the nation.
Higher aliʻi gave lesser aliʻi parcels of land, which those lesser aliʻi would in turn govern. The lesser aliʻi divided the land into plots to be farmed and cultivated by makaʻāinana families. Harvests were returned to the lesser aliʻi, each taking a portion before being sent to the supreme aliʻi.
Both the reigning dynasties of the united Kingdom of Hawaiʻi (1810–1893) were of aliʻi class. As each relative of those dynasties was entitled to the title aliʻi, they have later, posthumously, been popularly labeled (mostly erroneously) princesses and princes, although only a limited number of royal relatives ever received the princely title from the monarch.