By Léo Azambuja
The Hawaiian poi dog, or ‘īlio, was brought to Hawai‘i by early Polynesian settlers. For centuries, it was as an important food source, besides being used for religious and cultural purposes.
After Westerners started moving to Hawai‘i in the early 19th century, the poi dog mixed with other breeds, contributing to its disappearance by the early 20th century. Though some of the Hawaiian poi dog’s genetic traits may have carried on, it has been long considered an extinct breed.
“As far as that goes — characteristics of the poi dog — I think there might be some, still today … like the flatness of the head in certain dogs,” said Benjamin Osorno, animal care supervisor at Kaua‘i Humane Society. “I see that once in a while in the shelter, there are a couple (dogs) here that possibly are direct descendants of the ancient Hawaiian poi dog.”
Sometime between 300 and 800 A.D., Polynesian seafarers first arrived in Hawai‘i. Alongside pigs, chickens, rats and a couple dozen plant species, those first Hawaiians also brought a small dog. At its best description, this sluggish, dim-witted dog had short legs, a potbelly, pointed years and a flat head.
Lt. James King, who served under Capt. James Cook, wrote in 1779 that the Hawaiian dog was the same species of dogs he had seen in Tahiti, “having short crooked legs, long backs, and prickly ears.” Ancient Hawaiian petroglyphs later found on the Big Island and on O‘ahu match that description.
King added the dogs were “exceedingly sluggish in their nature,” though this may be because they were fed and left to herd with hogs. He wrote he did not remember one instance in which a dog was made a companion. “Indeed, the custom of eating them is insuperable bar to their admission into society,” King wrote.
Similar to other dog breeds kept by indigenous people throughout Polynesia, the Hawaiian poi dog wasn’t much of a barker, rather, it had a distinctive howl. And like other dog races in Polynesia, the Hawaiian poi dog is believed to have been related to the earliest domesticated dogs.
The term “poi dog” stuck after Westerners saw Hawaiians feeding their dogs mainly with poi and sweet potato. The dogs likely had a flat head because the food they were fed — poi, sweet potato and perhaps breadfruit too — didn’t require much chewing.
Today, the term “poi dog” is liberally used in Hawai‘i to describe most mutts, but the Hawaiian poi dog was a distinct dog breed that played a vital part in old Hawai‘i’s daily life, religion and cultural practices.
Hawaiians had different names for dogs of different colors; a red poi dog was called an ‘īlio i‘i, whereas a light brown dog with green eyes was called an ‘īlio apowai, according to the late historian Mary Kawena Pukui. An old Hawaiian legend describes a brindle dog as the pet of a mo‘o, or lizard, woman. For that reason, brindle dogs were called ‘īlio mo‘o, or lizard dogs, and were superstitiously looked upon by Hawaiians.
The poi dog was an important part of Hawaiians’ food supply. When dogs would reach two years old, they were ready to be eaten. Hawaiians would strangle, skin and clean the dogs before placing them in an imu, or underground oven, to be baked for about 45 minutes.
The kapu system forbade women to eat pork, so the dog became one of the preferred staples of the ruling class, especially among the women. Dogs were also one of the favorite foods in large feasts. One account by the Rev. William Ellis in the 1820s describes a feast where dogs — about 200 of them — were the main meat dish.
Cook’s journals describe leg ornaments made with dog teeth and worn just above the calf by male hula dancers. Those ornaments were made of nettings about nine-inches-deep, and covered with canine teeth of dogs. The dancers would wrap those ornaments around each leg, with some ornaments having teeth from more than 300 dogs. Since the ornaments were used in pairs, a hula dancer could be carrying teeth from more than 600 dogs.
Among many old Hawaiian tales featuring dogs, Puapua-lenalena was a mythological dog-god from Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. There is also the tale of Kū-ʻīlio-loa, a giant man-dog killed by a demigod named Kama-puaʻa and torn apart by another demigod named Kaulu, resulting in today’s smaller dogs.
The dogs were considered spiritual protectors of children. It was common for a puppy to be given to a newborn, and some say the mother would also breastfeed the puppy to stimulate the animal’s protective instincts. If the child died, the puppy would be killed and buried with the child, perhaps to protect the child’s spirit. If the child outlived the puppy, its teeth would be placed in a necklace worn by the child as protection.
Dogs also added teeth — literally — to the unification of the Hawaiian Islands by Kamehameha the Great. Just before Big Island ali‘i Kalani‘ōpu‘u died in the late 18th century, he gave control of the island to his son, Kīwalaʻō. To his nephew, Kalani‘ōpu‘u gave the guardianship of war god Kūkaʻilimoku, an image made of twine work covered with red, yellow and black feathers, with eyes of mother of pearl and a mouth decorated with 94 dog teeth.
The outcome was a war between cousins soon after Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s death. After defeating his cousin, Kamehameha went on with his plans to conquer the entire archipelago. In 1810, Kaua‘i King Kaumualiʻi agreed to rule Kaua‘i as a vassal king to Kamehameha, consolidating the entire archipelago under one ruler.
British Royal College of Surgeons fellow F. D. Bennett travelled the world studying whales between 1833 and 1836. He was one of the few scientists of his time who wrote about Polynesian dogs and actually saw them. Like King, Bennett wrote the Hawaiian poi dog resembled the dogs in Tahiti. But less than 50 years after King’s account of the poi dog, the unique Hawaiian breed had already sealed its fate.
“The aboriginal, or poe (sic) dog, characterised by its small size, brown colour, foxy head, long back, crooked or bandy fore-legs, and sluggish disposition, is now a rare, and will probably be soon an extinct species lost amidst a mongrel race of dogs partaking of every foreign variety,” Bennett wrote.
Though dogs were still considered a “delicate food” even by high-ranking chiefs in the 1830s, Bennett wrote all kinds of dogs were favorites with Hawaiians, who never killed them pointlessly or treated them with cruelty. And the “Europeans who have sufficiently overcome their prejudice to indulge in this native luxury,” Bennet wrote, assured him the poi dog meat resembled lamb, and was a dish a few who have tasted would despise.
In 1967, Honolulu Zoo Director Jack Thorp tried a short-lived, selective-breeding project based on physical traits to bring back the Hawaiian poi dog. It took three generations for the zoo to produce a female with similar characteristics of the poi dog. In 1976, the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a left Honolulu toward Tahiti, carrying Hoku, one of the dogs from the project.
Kaua‘i Humane Society Executive Director Scott Pisani, said nowadays, many of the island’s mutts – so called poi dogs — tend to have a bit of hound in them, mixed with whippet and some type of terrier. Pisani said some of the Hawaiian poi dog’s genetic traits — physical and behavioral — might have survived through generations in recessive genes, and only manifest themselves every now and them.