Sometime around 300 ce, several groups of Polynesians migrated to Hawaii from present-day French Polynesia in large ocean-going canoes. These were the ancestors of Native Hawaiians. By 1100, they had settled the eight major islands in the Hawaiian archipelago (large chain of islands): Hawaii, Maui (pronounced MOW-wee), Kahoolawe (kah-hoe-ah-LAH-way), Lanai (luh-NY), Molokai (moh-loe-KY), Oahu (oh-WAH-hoo), Kauai (ku-WY) and Niihau (NEE-haoo). From 1100 to 1650, the Native Hawaiians developed a distinctive society. Their culture had many of the same characteristics as those of ancient Polynesia, but the Hawaiian civilization had many unique characteristics as well.
Native Hawaiians did not have private property. The kings or chiefs held all the land of an island for the whole community. Each island was divided into large units called moku, which were usually shaped in a wedge that extended from the shore to the mountain tops. The moku were further divided into narrower sections called ahupua’a (pronounced ah-hoo-poo-AH-ah), which also extended from the shore to the mountain top. Ahupua’a were intended to be self-sustaining, that is, they could support the people who lived within them with their variety of resources.
The people who lived within the ahupua’a formed an ‘ohana, or extended family system, by which upland farmers exchanged their farming products with coastal residents who gathered protein-rich foods from the sea. To farm the inland regions, farmers built extensive terraces with irrigation ditches that brought water over great distances. They grew taro, a tropical plant grown primarily as a root vegetable. Taro was pounded into poi, a staple of the Hawaiian diet. Other crops were sweet potatoes, yams, and bananas. People who lived along the shoreline were skilled at fishing or collecting seaweed and shellfish. Stone-walled fishponds were
constructed along the shoreline so that an abundance of fish was always available.
Native Hawaiians were born into a particular social class and this defined their work and status. The great majority were workers responsible for farming and fishing. Above them in status were the priests and skilled experts who specialized in areas such as canoe building, medicine, navigation, house construction, and communication with the supernatural world. The exalted chiefs got their divine power from the gods. As symbols of their divinity, the chiefs wore elaborate feather capes and helmets, considered the finest example of feather work in the world.
The four main gods of the Hawaiians were Kane, Kanaloa, Ku, and Lono, but there were thousands of other deities. The Hawaiians believed that a supernatural power infused all things, living and nonliving. Tributes (gifts of money and other precious items) were offered to stone or wood representations of gods that were placed in stone-platform temples erected throughout the islands. Sacred dance, music, and chants were performed. During the annual harvest season, peace prevailed and festivities such as athletic competitions including surfing, boxing, wrestling, and bowling were widespread.
The chief of each district or island also required tributes of food, feathers, and other valuables, to be paid regularly like taxes. Rivalries for these tributes sometimes resulted in warfare among the chiefs.
In 1778, English sea captain Captain James Cook (1728–1779) arrived on the Hawaiian islands, the first of the Europeans. At that time, the native population was an estimated 800,000 to 1 million. The immediate result of European contact was the introduction of foreign diseases and the rapid decline of the native population. By 1831, the native population had dropped to 130,000. Only 40,000 native Hawaiians survived in 1890.
European contact introduced iron and modern weapons to native Hawaiians. Kamehameha I (c. 1758–1819; pronounced kah-MAY-hah-MAY-ha), a young chief on the island of Hawaii, used foreign guns to launch several wars of conquest against rival chiefs in the 1790s. By 1810, he had successfully united all eight islands under his control, thereby establishing the Hawaiian Kingdom. Over the next eighty years, eight Hawaiian monarchs ruled the Hawaiian Islands.
In March 1820, the first American Protestant missionaries arrived in the islands. Converting several prominent chiefs to Christianity in 1825, the missionaries were soon able to exert their influence through the promotion of churches and schools. Temples and religious images throughout the island were destroyed.
To more effectively convert the native Hawaiians to Christianity, American missionaries decided to translate Christian texts into Hawaiian. Since Hawaiians had no written language, the missionaries and their native advisers established an English alphabet of twelve letters (a, e, i, o, and u and h, k, l, m, n, p, and w) to write the Hawaiian language. By 1830, common schools were established throughout the islands, and eventually 75 percent of the native population was able to read and write the Hawaiian language.
Loss of land
Political, social, and economic control over the kingdom increasingly shifted into the hands of foreigners throughout the nineteenth century. Traders stripped the Hawaiian forests of the fragrant sandalwood tree between 1810 and 1830. Private land ownership was established in 1848 abolishing the ahupua’a system of land management. Sugar cane planters arrived in the 1860s and bought up huge areas of land. The sugar industry eventually dominated the islands’ economy, pushing the native farmers from their taro terraces and fishponds.
On January 17, 1893, American sugar interests, with the assistance of U.S. officials and troops, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani (1838–1917), thus ending the independent reign of the Hawaiian monarchy. When the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1898, the Hawaiian language was no longer used in public schools. Tens of thousands of sugar-plantation laborers were imported from China, Japan, Okinawa, Portugal, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.
By 1900, the declining native Hawaiian population had become a minority group in its own homeland. Concern for the survival of the remaining native people led the U.S. Congress to pass, in 1920, the Hawaiian Home Commission Act, which set aside some public lands for native Hawaiian homesteads.
In the 1960s, many native Hawaiians found employment in the tourism industry. But tourism created many challenges for the native Hawaiians. Many of their traditional values were made into slogans, and their ancient arts were turned into nightclub acts for visitors. Large-scale resort development in rural areas encroached upon the few remaining Hawaiian communities where modified ‘ohana family systems struggled to survive.
In the 1970s, interest in preserving Hawaiian language, culture, and lands increased. Hawaii became the first bilingual state in the nation in 1978 when both Hawaiian and English were recognized as official languages. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), an elected representative body of native Hawaiians from various districts on the islands, was established to address the many social, economic, and cultural challenges still facing native Hawaiians who continued to have the lowest median income of the state's ethnic groups and the highest health and social welfare risks. In 1986, John Waihe’e (1946–) became the first native Hawaiian to be elected governor of the state.