views updated May 11 2018


by Elaine Winters and Mark Swartz


The Pacific Ocean surrounds the Hawaiian archipelago. There are eight major and 124 minor islands, volcanic in origin, with a total land mass of 6,425 square miles (16,641 square kilometers). The eight major islands are Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai, and Hawaii. Honolulu, the capital, is located on Oahu, and is 6,200 kilometers southwest of San Francisco. The islands' topography includes such diverse features as active volcanos, grassy pastures, and endless stretches of beach.

According to U.S. Census Bureau figures (1990), the population of the entire state is 1,108,229, with 836,231 persons living within the incorporated city of Honolulu and its immediate environs. Seventy-three percent of the entire population of the state lives on Oahu. Statewide, 135,263 persons identify themselves as native Hawaiians, though it is not known how many of these people are of mixed race. There has been a widespread diaspora of native Hawaiians, largely to the west coast of the United States and also to other Pacific Island nations.


The islands in the triangle formed (roughly) by Tahiti, New Zealand, and Hawaii are inhabited by people who possess prominent genealogical traits in common, speak related languages, and live similar lifestyles. They are descendants of Polynesians (Polynesia is Greek for "many islands"), who began settling in the South Pacific islands around 1100 b.c. They are believed to have reached the Hawaiian islands sometime between A.D. 300 and 500. They called the largest island Havaiki after one of the major islands of their former home. Dogs, pigs, chickens, tuber (taro), coconuts, bananas, breadfruit, yams, and sugar cane comprised much of the traditional Polynesian diet. The mulberry plant called wauke was pounded and bleached to make kapa or bark-cloth. Ti, a lily, provided leaves for hula skirts and roots to weave into matting or brew into a liquor called okolehao.

The population of native Hawaiians has diminished considerably since Western contact, usually dated from the arrival of the English seaman Captain Cook in 1778. From an estimated 300,000 that year, the population fell to 71,019 in 1853. This dramatic decrease was largely due to the introduction of various diseases (including cholera, chicken pox, influenza, measles, mumps, and syphilis), for which the immune systems and medical expertise of the natives were completely unprepared. Furthermore, Cook and those who came after him introduced firearms to the archipelago, making tribal conflicts much deadlier.


January 18, 1778 marked the arrival of Captain James Cook and the crews of his two ships, H.M.S. Resolution and H.M.S. Discovery, off the coast of the island Kauai. The British visitors recorded trading iron nails for fresh water, pigs, and sweet potatoes. Captain Cook named the archipelago the "Sandwich Islands," after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. Cook was killed by natives on the island of Hawaii one year after his arrival in a skirmish over a small boat that had been stolen from him.

Prior to European settlement, native Hawaiians viewed land as the common property of everyone. The economic interests of the common people, the king, and the chiefs were collaborative, mutually beneficial, and intertwined. The arrival of settlers and their Western ideas of title and ownership, however, terminated that approach to government.

In 1780, Kamehameha, the first and mightiest of four leaders with the name, began a campaign to unite the islands under a single chiefdom. Hawaiian chiefs had traditionally clashed over land and the resources of the sea, but many of their disputes were settled in ritualized combat, which resulted in relatively few casualties. Kamehameha, however, adapted the modern weapons and armaments of the British visitors to suit his own purposes and hired two of Cook's seamen as war advisors. By 1795 he had obtained complete power over the eight main islands.

With the technological know-how introduced by foreigners, called haoles, (a term that later came to apply exclusively to white people), Kamehameha was able to take advantage of political and economic opportunities. He established a trade advantage and created a personal monopoly over foreign commerce. He used Kapu, the existing system of religious and social customs, to exclude both commoners and lesser chiefs from engaging in commerce with ships that passed by, and brought fresh provisions to these ships personally. As soon as he realized the value that foreigners placed on pearls, he reserved pearling in Pearl Harbor for himself and employed commoners to dive. Furthermore, he exacted tolls for the privilege of using Honolulu's harbor. In these ways, Kamehameha accumulated enormous wealth and power over the Hawaiian people and lesser royalty.

Westerners ventured to the Sandwich Islands in large numbers. Missionaries from various Protestant sects, particularly Calvinism, were the first major group of haoles, followed by Norwegian whalers, Mormons, diplomatic representatives from various countries, plantation owners, and Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese workers.

Sandalwood became a trading commodity as soon as it became known that the Chinese held it in high regard and were willing to pay virtually any price. Kamehameha incorporated sandalwood into his tribute demands from commoners and left the collection process to lesser chiefs. The sandalwood trade, however, required substantial labor, thus drawing workers from food production. Moreover, demand for provisions by ships stopping in Hawaii drew on local food supplies, causing a famine in 1810 that significantly weakened the small nation. Hawaii's position further degenerated when all the sandalwood was sold and trade ceased altogether.

In 1794 George Vancouver, a British navigator, drafted an agreement with island chiefs to transfer ownership of the islands to Great Britain. He believed the chiefs had formally granted the islands to Great Britain, while the chiefs thought they had a defense agreement. Although Britain did not ratify the agreement, the English Empire, which held sway over lands in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, established a dominant presence in Hawaii.

In 1819 Kapu was overthrown and abandoned when Kamehameha II violated one of its cardinal rules by accepting an invitation to dine alongside women. In the ensuing chaos, many temples and works of sacred art were destroyed. As Christianity, fueled by the influx of missionaries, supplanted Kapu, such cultural hallmarks as hula dancing, surfing, and kite flying were forbidden along with other so-called pagan practices.


U.S. President William McKinley, acting according to the national spirit of Manifest Destiny, supported a policy of amplified political, military, and economic activity in the Pacific. Citing such reasons as resolving racial unrest on the islands, arresting the influence of Japan, and boosting American shipping and commerce, the United States officially annexed Hawaii in 1893, a few months after an unofficial coup d'état (supported by white plantation owners and enforced by U.S. Marines) and the imprisonment of Queen Liliuokalani. For her refusal to go along with annexation and her support of an attempted uprising against American domination, Liliuokalani is remembered by politically liberal native Hawaiians as a freedom fighter, whereas Kamehameha is regarded as an opportunist and an accomplice in the decline of native Hawaiian culture.

U.S. involvement with Hawaii reached a new plateau after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The islands were placed under martial law for the duration of the war and were used extensively as bases, bombing practice sites, and rest and recreation spots for soldiers and sailors. The memorial at the site of the sunken battleship Arizona attracts many visitors each year, as does the national cemetery at Punchbowl (an extinct volcanic crater), with its spectacular view of Honolulu and the harbor. Hawaii joined the union in 1959, thus becoming the fiftieth state. The current flag of the State of Hawaii has eight horizontal stripes (red, white, and blue), to symbolize the eight major islands, and a Union Jack in the upper left corner, to symbolize the occupation of the islands by the British.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Writing in 1916, W. Somerset Maugham described Honolulu, in a story of the same name: "It is the meeting of East and West. The very new rubs shoulders with the immeasurably old." The ethnic variety of immigrants since the arrival of Captain Cook has created many opportunities for cultural exchange and hybridization. Of the 1,108,229 people living in Hawaii, 23 percent describe themselves as white, 22 percent as Japanese, 20 percent as part Hawaiian, 11 percent as Filipino, four percent as Chinese, two percent as black, and about one percent each as Korean and pure Hawaiian. Such clear-cut terms blur when faced by another statistic, however; about half of all Hawaiian marriages now occur between men and women of different races.

While native Hawaiians almost invariably suffered as their homeland underwent its transformations, it is also true that the Hawaiian culture greatly affected the attitudes and perspectives of many immigrant groups. The most striking example of this is the spirit of aloha, which is found on all the islands and among all ethnic groups. Although many consider the term to have been corrupted by colonialist opportunism and the tourist industry, it remains an important aspect of the culture of the State of Hawaii. The word aloha means many things: hello, good-bye, peace, and, perhaps most importantly, a sense of welcome and identity within the larger community.


Storytelling is a great Hawaiian tradition. Before the Hawaiian language was written, the literature was spoken. The Hawaiian legend of the King of Ku-ai-he-lani is similar to the western tale of Cinderella ; and Au-ke-le recalls Rip Van Winkle, or perhaps Odysseus. Menehunes are small people, rather like Irish leprechauns. Legends of their mischievous ways abound. For example, menehunes are held to be responsible when something is misplaced. In various locations, on all the islands, there are elaborate fish ponds that do not appear to have been formed naturally. Native Hawaiians believe menehunes built them, and there are strict rules about these ponds. Nothing must be removed or the menehunes will come at night and take it back. The implication is that the retrieval will be unpleasant.

Many of the old superstitions and traditions in Hawaii are still observed in modern form; ti leaves, for example, are still reputed to ward off evil spirits. Today, students in dormitories decorate entries and windows with ti leaves when they think there is an evil spirit afoot. Hawaiians bring ti leaves to football games and wave them like pom-poms to keep bad spirits away from a favorite team. Feasts, or luaus, are a native Hawaiian tradition still held on every important occasion. The traditional practice involves roasting a pig in a large oven (imo ) dug into the ground. Weddings, childbirth, the completion of a canoe or a house, and a good catch or an abundant harvest are typical occasions for a native Hawaiian luau. Today, luaus are held everywhere in Hawaii. Churches frequently hold luaus as fundraising events, and the entire community joins in the festivities and the eating. Tourists expect to enjoy a luau before leaving the islands.


The Hawaiian farmer of ancient times was a superior cultivator who systematically identified and named plantsboth those cultivated as well as the wild species gathered for use when crops failed. Procedures for cultivation at every arable location on an island (approximately 15 percent of the land), for the variety of altitudes, exposures, and weather conditions were likewise developed by farmers. They practiced organic farming, meaning that the unused leaves of plants were combined with plants that grew during fallow periods in a "green" manure; that is, no animal excrement was used.

Elaborate systems of aqueducts and ditches brought water from dammed springs to planted terraces, demonstrating engineering and building skills as well as planning and organizing abilities. The remnants of these systems can still be seen from the air. Plants cultivated for food included such staples as taro, breadfruit, and yam, as well as foods that offered variety and additional nutrients, including banana, sugarcane, coconut, candelnut, arrowroot, and ti.

About three hundred varieties of taro are known to have existed in Hawaii. Early natives used the entire taro plant. The leaves were steamed alone or used to wrap potatoes or fish for steaming. The root was steamed in an imo and then peeled and pounded into a stiff paste handy for traveling when wrapped in pandanus leaves. Adding water to this paste produces poi, a starchy thick paste sometimes allowed to ferment. The entire coconut was used as well. Unripe coconuts provided nourishing liquid for journeys when no fresh water was available. The flesh of the mature nut was grated and pressed to produce a cream. Pudding was made by mixing this cream with arrowroot. The husks were halved when the mature coconut was harvested and, when empty, were used as drinking or baking cups. The fibers on the outside of the husks were pounded and then woven into rope. The leaves of the plant were sometimes used for thatching houses.

In addition to attracting laborers from China, Japan, and elsewhere, sugar production has been a major source of employment for native Hawaiians. In 1873, for instance, more than half the native male population was engaged in cultivating sugar. Women were employed stripping, grinding, and boiling cane and were paid half the wages of male natives.


Fish has traditionally supplied most of the protein in the Hawaiian diet. It is also a crucial and highly developed trade. Early Hawaiian fishermen were often accompanied by an individual responsible for actually finding the fishthe fish watchman. This skill involved understanding the sea floor, both inside and outside of the reef; the shape of the reef, including where the fish liked to hide; and what kind of net, hook, and bait were appropriate for each fish. Various traps were also devised for catching fish and other marine animals that lived in streams. Not everyone was allowed to eat every species of fish; certain fishes were for special events and then only for royalty. Priests were consulted every step of the way when it came to consumption of various foods. Rarely did women consume fish; rather, they were permitted shrimp and other shellfish.

Nautical culture was an important aspect of early Hawaiian life. There were freshwater ponds and shore ponds. The shore ponds were enclosures built of stone that encompassed both shallow and deep water; some ponds were as large as 60 acres. The walls had sluice gates made of wood. Native Hawaiians have long believed in the conservation of fresh water. In early times, after growing fish, the water was used to irrigate crops. Waste from ponds, a rich source of calcium, provided for an excellent fertilizer. (Hawaiian soil is low in calcium.) Some of these early conservation traditions have been revived and are practiced by native Hawaiians today.

Canoes were built for either transportation or racing. Racing is believed to have been reserved for royalty, and the large double canoes are thought to have been used for major inter-island travel and trading. The elaborate process of building a canoe began with a priest selecting the appropriate lumber. Suitable animal sacrifices (pigs or chickens) were offered and incantations and ceremonies accompanied each step of the process. For example, ti leaves were wrapped around the tree at various stages of the carving and building to ward off evil spirits. Canoe racing remains an active sport in modern Hawaii. One organization devoted to perpetuating the tradition of building and racing canoes is the Hawaiian Canoe Racing Association in Honolulu.


Hawaii's patchwork past is most apparent in its varied cuisine. Japanese manju (sweet black bean pastry), Portuguese sweet bread, Chinese noodles or crispy duck, and spicy Korean kim chee are as easy to find as Hawaiian poi, which is served as the traditional island staple. Hawaiians eat about twice as much fish as residents of any other state, as well as more fresh fruit. Mangoes, papayas, bananas, pineapples, oranges, and avocados are grown locally. Different areas are famed for specialty crops: open-air markets on Oahu overflow with Kahuku watermelons, Maui onions, Waimanalo corn, Manoa lettuce, and Puna papayas. During a luau, a pig is roasted in a pit lined with wood, lava rocks, and banana stumps. The pig is stuffed with hot rocks, wrapped in leaves, and buried along with pieces of fish, taro, yams, and breadfruit. A festive banquet for friends and extended family, the luau has absorbed many non-Hawaiian elements. In the 1800s, missionaries brought cakes, Chinese brought chicken, and Norwegian whalers brought salmon marinated with onion and tomato (lomi salmon). All are now standard luau dishes.


Because of Hawaii's tropical climate, early natives usually wore no more than a strip or two of bark-cloth (kapa ). Many Hawaiians also covered much of their bodies with tattoos. Warriors ornamented themselves with spectacular yellow and gold capes and helmets of woven feathers. Today, Hawaiians continue to dress casually. Some Hawaiian women wear the muumuu, a voluminous dress originally designed by modest missionaries for Hawaiian women. Today these dresses are printed in bright and colorful cotton or silk. More firmly grounded in Hawaiian culture is the lei, a colorful wreath of fresh flowers or other decorative objects worn around the neck. Originally an artful offering to the gods, leis have become an emblem of Hawaiian hospitality and warmth.


Although it has long been associated with Hawaii, the ukulele originated in Portugal. "Aloha Oe," a song written by Queen Liliouokalani, is a perennial favorite on this small, four-stringed, guitar-like instrument. Hawaiian musicians have also developed the distinctive slack-key style (a type of open tuning) for guitar, an instrument introduced to the islands from Spain. Instruments native to Hawaii include beating sticks, bamboo pipes, and rattles and drums of various kinds. According to historians, native Hawaiians also played a bamboo nose flute, a whistle made from a gourd, and an instrument having one string that was played with a bow. A variety of Jew's harp was also used.

Singing, drumming, and the hula dance are sacred forms of worship and remain integral to the daily life of some native Hawaiians. Certain superstitions continue to be observed with regard to modern hula ; for example, while black can be used to ornament a costume, one never dresses totally in black for hula, since black is the traditional color of mourning. It is believed that ancient Hawaiians blackened their faces and limbs when in mourning.


Ancient religious holidays are not known, owing to the determination on the part of missionaries to enforce the celebration of only the Christian holidays. In addition to federal holidays observed by the entire United States, Hawaii also celebrates Kuhio Day (Kuhio was a prince) on March 26, and Kamehameha Day on June 11. Hawaiians also observe "Aloha Friday" each week. On Fridays Hawaiians wear especially bright clothing and women wear a flower tucked behind one ear and perhaps a lei around their neck. The occasion is marked by a celebratory attitude and a sense of good fun.


Religion and medicine were closely related in traditional native Hawaiian life. People expected prayer to heal most things. There were several classes of Kahuna lapa'au (medical priest/healer) who treated physical and mental ailments according to a variety of traditions now mostly lost to history.

Drinking seawater followed by fresh water was considered a universal remedy. Various native plants were used as compresses for relieving pain or injury, and the leaves of plants were brewed in teas and used for healing purposes. Piper methysticum (the source of the intoxicating awa or kava ) was used in many ways. Today, this species is a sedative given in mild form to infants during teething and is used in commercial diuretics. Seasonal changes and extremes of humidity and dryness produced many respiratory problems among native Hawaiians. There were as many as 58 herbal remedies for asthma, many of which have been studied or adapted by modern medical science.

In addition to the diseases brought over by the first wave of immigrants to Hawaii, leprosy, whose origin is not known and for which there has never been a cure, had a profound effect on the public health of native Hawaiians. Because of the social stigma attached to the diseases (it was mistakenly thought to be a venereal disease) as well as its extreme contagiousness, lepers were isolated on the island of Molokai beginning in 1886. For 16 years, a Belgian priest named Demian Joseph de Veuster provided medical care for these patients, whom the medical community refused to treat, before succumbing to the illness himself in 1889.

Compared to Hawaiians of European and Asian ancestry, native Hawaiians have continued to bear the brunt of the archipelago's health problems. Whereas Hawaii as a whole boasts the longest average life span of any state (males live an average 75.37 years, females, 80.92 years), the death rates of native Hawaiians at all ages are above average. The infant mortality rate for native Hawaiians is 6.5 per 1,000 live births. In addition, native Hawaiians experience high rates of diabetes and hypertension. Health workers consider poor diet a major factor, and economic problems undoubtedly contribute to this situation.


Polynesian-based Hawaiian is dying out as a spoken language. Today, it survives mostly on the island of Niihau, in some religious services, and in words and phrases used by English-speakers (the predominant group of Hawaiians), rather than as a language of everyday use. Traditionally unwritten, Hawaiian had no alphabet until the arrival of the haole. The Hawaiian alphabet was Romanized and first written by early missionaries. It contains twelve letters: "a," "e," "i," "o," "u," "h," "k," "l," "m," "n," "p," and "w." In general, vowels are pronounced separately, except for diphthongs such as "ai " ("eye"), "au " ("ow"), and "ei " ("ay"). Thus, Kamehameha is pronounced "kah may hah MAY hah." Fewer than 2,500 people speak Hawaiian as their mother tongue, most of whom are older people. It is estimated that within 30 years, Hawaiian will survive only in isolated phrases and in place names throughout the islands. All the languages of Oceania, and particularly those of Polynesia, are linguistically related. New Zealand, Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, and Hawaii share many words, with slight variations. Some representative words in Hawaiian are ali'i (chief or royalty); kahuna (priest and/or expert healer); kapu (taboo or sacred); mahalo (thank you); mana (energy or spiritual power); and ohana (extended family).

Family and Community Dynamics

Although for centuries women had to endure cultural and domestic oppression, the segregation of men and women under the Kapu system provided women with a good deal of autonomy. They led their own lives, cooked food for themselves, had their own deities, and had their own function in matters of royal inheritance and social stature. Women's status depended on social position and birth order. Older sisters were respected and generally wielded greater authority than junior siblings, including males. Older women continue to command respect in the community, relative to younger men and women.

Traditionally, the differences in raising native Hawaiian boys and girls center around their eventual roles as adults. Boys learn to plant, cultivate, cook, and fish; girls learn to cook and are taught how to prepare tapa for decoration or clothing. In the past, children were raised by the entire extended family, a practice called hanai. Grandparents usually had more to say in the upbringing of children than did parents. When the first child was a boy, it was taken by the father's parents and raised by them and the father's siblingsthe child's aunts and uncles. If the first child was a girl, it was raised by the mother's parents and her extended family. Childless couples were unheard of in the social sense; there were always children who needed attention and instruction.

Among native Hawaiians today, the old ways, while fragmented, are still observed. For example, in neighborhoods that are predominantly Hawaiian, children move in and out of houses freely, and adults are clearly watching out for all the children in view. The concept of children belonging to and being the responsibility of the larger extended family remains vital.


Hawaiian chiefs created political alliances by marrying both commoners and other royalty. Most chiefs had many wives and provided for adopted as well as biological children. Engagements were arranged by the parents of the prospective bride and groom during their late childhood or early adolescence. When arrangements were settled by the parents, the young people were consulted, and once agreement to the match was obtained from all parties, the engagement became binding. The extended community that constituted the couple's family gave the bride and groom away. Hawaiian weddings were traditionally, and continue to be, associated with flowers. Both the bride and groom wear elaborate leis necklaces of flowers, nuts, seeds, and other plant material woven together. Traditional Hawaiian weddings are still performed with the addition of whatever civil or religious sanction is necessary for legal purposes.

There are also superstitions linked with weddings: The bride and groom are not wished good luck on their wedding day, as this can result in bad luck. The only way this unfortunate situation can be reversed is for the individual who was offered the wish to cross his or her fingers immediately after it is offered, thus counteracting the curse. In addition, pearls should not be worn on the wedding day, as they resemble tears and will cause the marriage to be filled with sorrow.


When someone died, the kahuna aumakau (priest of the appropriate ancestral deity) of the dead person came and ritually sacrificed a pig or a chicken to ensure that the soul would live with its ancestors. There were several ways of disposing of the dead. Burial in the ground was the most common method; there are ancient graveyards found on all the major islands. In another disposal ritual, the corpse was eviscerated, filled with salt, and burned. Sometimes, the flesh was scraped off the bones, and the skull, femur, and humerus were saved. The rest of the body was taken by boat far out to sea and dumped. Those in the boats were not permitted to look back once the remains were deposited into the sea, or the soul would follow them back to the land and thus not rest properly. Remnants of special, woven caskets have been found, and it is believed they were used to hold the bones of kings. Such caskets are considered extraordinary works of art and are unique to Hawaii.

The bones of the dead are revered among native Hawaiians. Water is sprinkled in the house of the deceased so the soul will not return. After attending a funeral, it is important to sprinkle one's body with water so that the soul will not follow a mourner home.


Many bilingual programs exist to accommodate children for whom English is not a first language. Many classes are given in Hawaiian, which is the second official language of the State of Hawaii. For native Hawaiian children there are the well-endowed Kamehameha Schools, which were established in perpetuity by the estate of Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of Kamehameha. The schools were intended to provide native Hawaiian children with a place where they could learn together, away from the influences of the children of various immigrant groups.


The University of Hawaii has two major campuses (Manoa and Hilo), and several smaller ones, which provide both education and employment to various strata of the native Hawaiian population. There are also several community colleges. The 1990 Census revealed that 22 percent of those between 18 and 24 years old who identify themselves as native Hawaiians are enrolled in school. There were 318 people under the age of 24 identifying themselves as native Hawaiians who had a bachelor's degree or higher. Of those native Hawaiians aged 25 or older, 1,549 are reported as having graduate or professional degrees.


The ancient religion of Hawaii incorporates hundreds of deities as well as magical and animist beliefs. Hawaiians worshipped both in their homes and in open-air temples called heiau. Ruins of these temples are still visible on all the islands. The largest wereheiau waikaua, or war temples, at which sacrifices occurred. Chief gods were Ku (god of war and male fertility), Kane (the creator and chief god), Lono (god of thunder and agriculture), and Kanaloa (god of the ocean and winds). With the arrival of other immigrant groups, particularly early explorers in the early 1800s, ancient Hawaiian religious practices disappeared completely. Today, many Hawaiians practice Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Before tourism and the establishment of the U.S. military on the islands, agriculture was the biggest industry in Hawaii. Sugar, coconut, and pineapple formed the core of the plantation system. When the large plantations were established in the 1820s and 1830s, native Hawaiian men were employed as farm workers while Hawaiian women worked in the houses of white immigrants as maids and washerwomen.

Wage labor first developed to meet foreign demand and was centered in Honolulu and Lahaina. Beginning around 1820, commoners were enticed to work for wages (although records show that such payment was usually practiced to avoid taxation). By the mid-1840s there existed a group of landless native Hawaiian laborers in Honolulu; these people were paid about a dollar a day in 1847, less than half of what haoles earned. Plantation owners, in fact, set wages at different levels for each of the different racial groups, in order to maintain distrust among them and thereby prevent workers from organizing.

A statement made by the plantation kingpin Sanford B. Dole (who also served for a time as president of the Hawaiian Republic) at a planter's convention in the 1880s captures the disregard in which the planters held their native Hawaiian employees: "I cannot help feeling that the chief end of this meeting is plantation profits, and the prosperity of the country, the demands of society ... the future of the Hawaiian race only comes secondarily if at all." Even to those commoners who were conscious of their exploitation, however, working for wages on plantations seemed a better way of life than working to pay tribute to chiefs. Plantation workers, for example, had taxes paid for them by plantation owners, and an early strike forced plantations to pay workers directly rather than through the chief.

Emigration of male native Hawaiians to the west coast of the United States occurred during the California Gold Rush. The growing absence of local labor resulting from this exodus, as well as from the dwindling native Hawaiian population, encouraged the importation of Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese farm workers; a total of 400,000 came between 1850 and 1880. Smaller numbers of European workers came from Germany, Norway, and other countries.

From the time of the missionaries until the beginning of World War II, Hawaii was economically controlled by five powerful companies: Castle and Cooke, Alexander and Baldwin, Theodore Davies, C. Brewer, and American Factors (Amfac). About one-third of the Directors of these five companies were direct descendants of missionary families or immediately related to them by marriage. Collectively, these companies formed an alliance that, by 1930, controlled 96 percent of the islands' sugar industry and every business associated with that crop. They therefore manipulated virtually all the sizable businesses and institutions on the islands: banking, insurance, utilities, transportation, wholesale and retail sales, marketing, and inter-island and mainland shipping. In 1932, the Big Five gained control of the pineapple industry, Hawaii's second most important agricultural crop prior to World War II. After the war, in which many Japanese Ameri cans served with great distinction, the Japanese vote broke the political power of the planter elite.

In the 1980s and the early 1990s, the economy of the State of Hawaii was based on tourism. Visitors to Hawaii spent almost $10 billion in 1990. The second largest employer was the U.S. Department of Defense, which spent more than $3 billion in 1990. Native Hawaiians often took jobs as domestic servants or serve in other, often menial, capacities to meet the needs of those who are staying on the islands for a short time. As agriculture diminished in magnitude and economic importance, opportunities became scarce for native Hawaiians who traditionally worked in the fields and canneries. At the same time, the economic boom through the 1980s and 1990s, when tourism peaked, began to decline. Unemployment in Hawaii was about 5.6 percent in 1998, above the national average of 4.5 percent, and the cost of living remains high, with average home prices around $300,000. These economic factors have caused many native Hawaiians to leave the islands for better opportunities on the mainland.

Statistics gathered for the 1990 census indicate that 57,185 persons over the age of 16 who identify themselves as native Hawaiians are employed. Median income for a native Hawaiian family living in Honolulu was $37,960. (No family size is given with this statistic.) That many native Hawaiian families may live on public assistance is surmised by the percentages who are reported as living below the poverty line; 14 percent of the native Hawaiian population is given as living below the standard U.S. poverty line. Some impoverished families are taken care of by those who honor the tradition of supporting extended family; many are not so fortunate. Unemployment for the entire state was calculated at 15 percent by the census taken in 1990. No figures are available for native Hawaiians as a separate category.

Politics and Government

Native Hawaiians have expressed a mix of determination and apprehension as they face the beleaguered state of their centuries-old culture. The Hawaiian language, considered a crucial aspect of cultural identity, has been the object of renewed attention. In 1978, Hawaiian won recognition as an official state language. For many, cultural survival is inextricably linked to having a political voice. More than a century after the overthrow of the last Hawaiian monarch, the issue of sovereignty has resurfaced. The organization Ka Lahui Hawai'i (The Nation of Hawaii), founded in 1987, is dedicated to mobilizing support for this objective, thus galvanizing anti-haole sentiment that dates back to the age of Captain Cook. Chief among their complaints is that native Hawaiians are the only indigenous people living within the borders of the United States not recognized as a separate nation by the federal government. Rather, they are regarded as "wards" of the State of Hawaii. Informed by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and encouraged by sovereignty movements around the globe, Ka Lahui Hawai'i asks that native Hawaiians be treated as other Native Americans and be given their own lands (in addition to homestead lands), as well as rights of self-governance.

The sovereignty movement maintains that the independent and internationally recognized government of the Hawaiian islands was illegally overthrown by the government of the United States. It is further argued that acculturationproduced by intermarriage and lack of attention to native traditions, customs, and languageis a form of racial genocide. Because native Hawaiian religion, traditions, and values are closely associated with 'aina (the land) and respect for the environment, many native Hawaiians feel that American desecration of the environment, resulting from military and commercial exploitation, constitutes a grievous crime. The island of Kahoolawe, which was rendered uninhabitable after its use as target practice by the U.S. military, is cited as a prime example of these destructive policiesas are the crowds of tourists.

In 1993, sovereignty activists picketed President Clinton while he attended fund-raising activities on Waikiki Beach. Four months later, Clinton issued a formal apology for the United States' overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and for "the deprivation of the rights of native Hawaiians to self-determination." In 1994, activists delivered a Proclamation of Restoration of the Independence of the Sovereign Nation State of Hawaii, and began work on a new Constitution, which was signed and ratified on January 16, 1995. This document called for the restoration of the inherent sovereignty of the Native Hawaiian people and guaranteed equal rights to all citizens regardless of race. In 1999, a Native Hawaiian Convention convened in Honolulu to begin the process of forming a Native Hawaiian government.

The sovereignty movement, however, is far from unified. Ka Lahui Hawaii is but the largest of some 100 organizations working for native Hawaiian issues, and members disagree on what form sovereignty should take. For some, secession from the United States is the goal; others envision a status similar to that of American Indian reservations, or one that designates certain areas in Hawaii as zones for traditional lifestyles.


The circumstances surrounding the alleged rape of Thalia Massie in 1931 represent for many native Hawaiians the racial injustice of the present as well as the past. Massie testified that two Japanese, two Hawaiians, and a Chinese Hawaiian had attacked her near Waikiki, but the trial resulted in a hung jury. Massie's husband took matters into his own hands and killed one of the Hawaiiansa crime that brought him a sentence of only one hour. In a separate instance, a convicted murderer named Keanu was purposely infected with leprosy.

For a long time after annexation, Hawaii's politics were dominated by conservative men of European descent who served the interests of the plantations. In the wake of World War II and statehood, the labor unions, especially the International Long-shoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, exerted a strong political influence, creating a tradition of support for the Democratic party and a politically liberal climate. The presence of Hawaiians of Japanese descent in the political arena has created the impression of progressive attitudes regarding race. Nevertheless, native Hawaiians have not always benefited from liberal politics. "On the issue of the original Hawaiians," wrote Francine Du Plessix Gray in her book, Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress, "the most far-sighted men would tend to maintain their paternalism."

Individual and Group Contributions


Haunani-Kay Trask, a political theorist, is professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii and author of From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii (1993). Trask is also the author of a book of poetry, Light in the Crevice Never Seen, published in 1994.


Keanu Reeves (1964 ), whose film credits include Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), My Own Private Idaho (1991), Point Break (1991), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Speed (1994), A Walk in the Clouds (1996), The Devil's Advocate (1997), and The Matrix (1999), is part Hawaiian. The artist Polani Vaughan has produced a work of his photos and verse called Na leo. Don Ho (1930 ), Hawaii's beloved singer, achieved fame for his recording "Tiny Bubbles" (1967). Keola (Keolamaikalani Breckenridge) Beamer, a descendant of Queen Ahiakumai Ki'eki'e and Kamahameha I, has played a central role in integrating traditional chants and instruments into contemporary music. He is also an expert in slack-key guitar. He tours widely, has recorded several slack-key albums, and has won numerous Hoku Awards.


John Dominis Holt is a playwright and author of fiction and nonfiction. Dana Naone Hall is the author of Malama: Hawaiian Land and Water (1985).


In the political arena, Mililani Trask is Kia'aina (governor) of Ka Lahui Hawai'i (The Hawaiian Nation). Congressman Daniel Akaka (1924 ) was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990 and John Waihee (1926 ) became Governor of the State of Hawaii in 1987.



KCCN-AM (1420).

Plays ethnic-contemporary Hawaiian music on weekends.

Contact: Michael Kelly, Manager.

Address: Pioneer Plaza, Suite 400, Honolulu, Hawaii 96814.

Telephone: (808) 536-2728.

KPOA-FM (93.5).

Plays ethnic Hawaiian music.

Contact: Chuck Bergson, Manager.

Address: Lahaina Broadcasting Company, 505 Front Street, Suite 215, Lahaina, Hawaii 96761.

Telephone: (808) 667-9110.

Fax: (808) 661-8850.

Online: http://www.mauigateway.com/~kpoa/.

KUAI-AM (720).

Plays ethnic Hawaiian music.

Contact: William Dahle, Manager.

Address: P.O. Box 720, Eleele, Hawaii 96705.

Telephone: (808) 335-3171.

Fax: (808) 335-3834.


Hawaiian Cable Vision Co.

Founded in 1969, this station serves Lahaina and West Maui with 31 channels, two community access channels, and 30 hours per week of community access programming.

Contact: Jim McBride, General Manager.

Address: Daniels Communications Partners, 910 Honoapiilani Highway, Suite 6, Lahaina, Hawaii 96761.

Telephone: (808) 661-4607.

Fax: (808) 661-8865.

Organizations and Associations

Daughters of Hawaii.

An organization of native Hawaiian women working to perpetuate the memory and spirit of old Hawaii; preserves the nomenclature and pronunciations of the Hawaiian language. Offers classes in Hawaiian.

Contact: Kim Ku'ulei Birnieor.

Address: 2913 Pali Highway, Honolulu, Hawaii 96817.

Telephone: (808) 595-6291.

Halau Mohala Ilima.

A group of professional dancers offering instruction in hula and traditional Hawaiian culture.

Contact: Mapauna deSilva.

Address: 1110 'A'alapapa Drive, Kailua, Hawaii 96734.

Telephone: (808) 261-0689.

Hana Cultural Center.

Community facility which mounts exhibits about Hana history.

Address: P.O. Box 27, Hana, Hawaii 96713.

Telephone: (808) 248-8620.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://planet-hawaii.com/hana.

Nation of Hawaii.

Organization working toward renewed Hawaiian sovereignty.

Telephone: (808) 259-3389; or (808) 259-3391.

Online: http://hawaii-nation.org/index.html.

State Council on Hawaiian Heritage.

State-funded agency which sponsors seminars in dance and presents the annual King Kamehameha hula Competition. Also sponsors conferences and seminars on traditional storytelling and ancient legends of Native Hawaiians.

Address: 355 North King Street, Honolulu, Hawaii, 96817.

Telephone: (808) 536-6540.

Museums and Research Centers

Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Founded by Charles Bishop in memory of his wife, Bernice (the last known surviving member of the Kamehameha family), it is one of the most significant scientific and cultural facilities in the Pacific Region. The collection of ancient Hawaiian artifacts is world famous. The Museum owns extensive collections and mounts frequent exhibits related to the cultural and natural history of Hawaii. There is also an Immigrant Preservation Center that houses collections and permits scholarly research of immigrant artifacts from all the major ethnic groups.

Contact: Siegfried Kagawa, President.

Address: 1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, Hawaii 96817-0916.

Telephone: (808) 847-3511; or General Information Recording (888) 777-7443.

Fax: (808) 841-8968.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www.bishop.hawaii.org/.

Hawaiian Historical Society.

Founded in 1892. Maintains historical documents from Hawaii and the Pacific Region. Publishes scholarly works on Hawaiian history. Offers free programs to the public.

Address: 560 Kawaiahao, Honolulu, Hawaii 96813.

Telephone: (808) 537-6271.

Lyman House Memorial Museum.

Historical residence containing both modern native Hawaiian history and Pre-Cook history. There is also information about native flora and fauna, geology, and local family genealogies.

Contact: Gloria Kobayashi, Curator.

Address: 276 Haili Street, Hilo, Hawaii 96720.

Telephone: (808) 935-5021.

Polynesian Cultural Center.

Presents, preserves, and perpetuates the arts, crafts, culture, and lore of Fijian, Hawaiian, Maori, Marquesan, Tahitian, Tongan, Samoan, and other Polynesian peoples.

Contact: Lester W. B. Moore, President.

Address: 55-370 Kamehameha Highway, Laie, Hawaii 96762.

Telephone: (808) 293-3333.

Online: http://www.polynesia.com/.

Queen Emma Summer Palace.

Historical building which houses ancient Hawiiana, including tapa, quilts, furniture, and other artifacts belonging to Queen Emma and her family.

Contact: Mildred Nolan, Regent.

Address: 2913 Pali Highway, Honolulu, Hawaii 96817.

Telephone: (808) 595-3167.

University of Hawaii at Manoa: School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies.

Umbrella center for ten research programs and centers on the main Manoa campus, including Hawaiian Studies. Their publication is Journal of Contemporary Pacific.

Contact: Professor Lilikala Kame'eleihiwa, Director.

Address: Hawaiian Studies Building, Room 209A, 2645 Dole Street, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822.

Telephone: (808) 973-0989.

Fax: (808) 973-0988.

E-mail: [email protected].

Online: http://www2.hawaii.edu/shaps/enter/ hawaiian.html.

Sources for Additional Study

Buck, Elizabeth. Paradise Remade: The Politics of Culture and History in Hawai'i. Philadelphia : Temple University Press, 1993.

Clarke, Joan, with photography by Michael A. Uno. Family Traditions in Hawai'i: Birthday, Marriage, Funeral, and Cultural Customs in Hawai'i. Honolulu: Namkoong Pub., 1994.

Gray, Francine Du Plessix. Hawaii: The Sugar-Coated Fortress. New York: Random House, 1972.

Stannard, David E. Before the Horror: The Population of Hawai'i on the Eve of Western Contact. Honolulu: Social Science Research Institute, University of Hawaii, 1989.


views updated May 21 2018


LOCATION: United States (primarily in the Hawaiian Islands)
POPULATION: 813,415 (2006 est. includes those who claim mixed heritage of one or more races)
RELIGION: Christianity (Roman Catholic); Buddhism
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Polynesians; Micronesians; Melanesians


The Hawaiian Islands are located about 2,000 miles southwest of San Francisco in the Pacific Ocean. They are part of the larger Polynesian island chain. This island group, known collectively as Hawaii, became the 50th state of the United States in 1959. The first Europeans to visit the islands were probably Captain James Cook, a British naval officer, and his crews aboard two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, which visited the islands in 1778. Within 40 years the native population was substantially reduced by the unfamiliar disease strains that the British brought with them to the islands. Eventually, European and American fur traders and whalers began using the conveniently situated islands as a provisions stations and missionaries also arrived to win converts to Christianity. Foreigners were granted the right to purchase property in 1840 and by the mid-19th century the United States had begun large-scale sugar farming, eventually bringing in thousands of European and Asian contract workers, thus forever changing the ethnic makeup of the islands. In 1893 a group of plantation owners, with U.S. military aid, overthrew the reigning monarch, Queen Liliuokalani. In 1898 the Hawaiian Islands were annexed and made a territory of the United States.

In the 20th century, Hawaii became a center of American military power in the Pacific. America's involvement in World War II began when a surprise Japanese air attack destroyed United States military installations in and around Pearl Harbor, an inlet near Honolulu, Hawaii's capital, on 7 December 1941. Since Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, defense has continued to play an important role in its economy, as has tourism. Descendants of the Asians who came to the islands as plantation workers have, on the whole, fared better than the Native Hawaiians, wielding both economic and political power while the Native Hawaiians became increasingly alienated and impoverished. Since the mid-1970s activists have worked to promote the ethnic, cultural, and economic interests of native Hawaiians, in a movement analogous to that of the Native Americans and Alaskan Natives on the U.S. mainland.


The state of Hawaii is made up of about 130 islands, both large and small. Only seven of the islands are regularly inhabited. Most of the islands were created by volcanic action. The highest point in Hawaii is Mauna Kea, an apparently extinct volcano on the island of Hawaii, which rises to a height of 4,205 m (13,796 ft).

Of the seven main islands, Hawaii is the largest. It was formed by five volcanoes, two of which—Kilauea and Mauna Loa—are still active. The island of Maui is made up of two vol- canic complexes joined by a low-lying strip of land. Both of Maui's volcanoes are dormant today, and one of them, Hale-akala, has one of the world's largest extinct volcanic craters. Lanai is a hilly island that rises to a height of 1,027 m (3,369 ft) atop a long-extinct volcano. The island of Molokai is made up of three distinct regions, each formed by a separate volcano. Oahu, the most-populated island, is made up of two rugged mountain ranges, the Waianae Mountains in the west and the Koolau Range in the east. Pearl Harbor, one of the best natural harbors of the Pacific Ocean, is located on Oahu's south coast. Diamond Head and Punchbowl, remnants of extinct volcanoes, are famous landmarks found not far from the city of Honolulu. The island of Kauai is characterized by high precipitation and an abundance of lush vegetation. Kauai has many streams, some of which have worn deep canyons into the rock. Niihau is a private island. Its owners encourage the preservation of traditional Hawaiian culture and discourage outsiders from visiting the island. Hawaii's largest cities are Hilo, which is located on the island of Hawaii, and Honolulu, Kailua, Aiea, Kaneohe, Pearl City, and Waipahu, all on the island of Oahu.

When Hawaii was annexed as a U.S. territory in 1898, many Native Hawaiians, particularly those of the royal bloodline, lost the ownership rights over large portions of self-governed lands. Owners and community members alike lobbied the U.S. Congress for land rights, but the interests of the prosperous sugar plantation owners were considered of greater importance. In 1921 Congress passed the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act to set aside 203,500 acres of Hawaiian land for Native Hawaiians. In 2006 the Department of Hawaiian Homelands administered 201,660 acres of these lands that were set apart exclusively for the benefit of Native Hawaiians. About 58% of these homelands are located on the island of Hawaii. As of 2006 only about 42% of the total homeland area was in use.

At the 2000 U.S. Census, there were 140,652 people who claimed Native Hawaiian as their single race. However, a total of 874,414 listed themselves as Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders as a combination of one or more races. According to 2006 estimates, there were 148,598 people claiming Native Hawaiian as their single race and 813,474 listed Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders as a combination of one or more races. About 60% of all Native Hawaiians live in the state of Hawaii. California has the next largest number of Native Hawaiians (about 20,350 in 2006), followed by Washington (5,000 in 2006).


The official language of the Hawaiian Islands is English, which is spoken at home by about 76% of the population. Few people speak the original Polynesian-based Hawaiian language. There are, however, a number of academic and cultural organizations at work to preserve the language for future generations. Most of the native population speaks pidgin, a local creole that incorporates English, Hawaiian, and other Asian and Pacific languages. Spoken with a rising inflection, pidgin is especially popular among young people and has a distinctive vocabulary and syntax of its own. Other languages spoken in Hawaii include Japanese, Chinese, and Tagalog.

aloha: a common greeting, used for both hello and goodbye. Also means affection, romantic love, or good wishes
hula: a popular native Hawaiian dance
kahuna: priest or shaman
kane: man (also husband or boyfriend)
lanai: porch
keiki: child, children
lei: garland of flowers or vines
luau: traditional Hawaiian feast
malihini: newcomer or "tenderfoot"
mauna: mountain

bimbye: eventually ("by and by")
brah: brother (equivalent of "bro" in the United States)
cockaroach: to steal, equivalent to "rip off "
da'kine: all-purpose expression, similar to "whatever" or "you know"
hu hu: angry
ono: number one; i.e., the best
pau hana: quitting time (end of the work day)


Like all Polynesian peoples, the original Hawaiians believed that their ancestors came from a mythical homeland near Tahiti, called Hawaiki. Many of the Native Hawaiian deities were associated with animals and nature. The original inhabitants of Hawaii offered human sacrifices to the active volcano, Pele, in an attempt to pacify the goddess known by the same name, thus preventing violent and disastrous eruptions. Another popular figure was Kamapuaa, who was half man and half hog. Polynesian mythology in general is a complex mix of stories about the creation of the earth and the relationships between the gods and people.

Traditionally, taboos called kapu (from which the word "taboo" is derived) were widely observed by the Hawaiian people. Typical kapu included a prohibition on letting one's shadow fall on the body of a king and a ban on men and women eating together.


The traditional Polynesian religion, which declined in the 19th century with the arrival of Christian missionaries on the islands, was animistic and based on a belief in numerous gods, half-gods, and spirits. Chiefs were believed to be descended from the gods and to have sacred powers called mana. One can still see evidence of pre-Christian religion throughout Hawaii in open-air temples called heiau. Most Hawaiians are now Christian, with a majority of those being Roman Catholic. Buddhists are the largest religious minority in the state.


Hawaiians celebrate all major Christian holidays as well as all national holidays celebrated in the United States. They also celebrate special festivals of their own, including Lei Day (May 1) and Aloha Week in late September, which is observed throughout the islands with luau (feasts), pageants, balls, and other festivities. Other festivals are unique to a particular island or locality.


Rituals marking major life events such as birth, marriage, and death are generally observed within the Christian religious tradition. Among the native Hawaiian population, the ceremony celebrating a birth was traditionally the most important rite of passage.

In ancient times, the bodies of the dead were placed in burial caves, and special care was taken to avoid having the enemies of deceased persons find and dishonor their remains after death.


Sharing possessions and giving gifts have traditionally been central to the Hawaiian way of life. If someone was in need, people always gave generously, safe in the knowledge that others would be there to help them in return. This generous attitude survives in the famous "spirit of aloha," a term that refers to the friendliness, generosity, and openness to strangers for which the Hawaiians are known. "Aloha" is also the universal greeting for "hello" and "goodbye." A popular slang greeting, equivalent to "What's up?" in the United States, is the pidgin phrase "Howzit brah?"

The traditional garland known as a lei is presented to people on any happy occasion, but especially upon arriving in or leaving Hawaii. A widespread practice in the workplace is the observance of the Hawaiian equivalent of the U.S. "casual day"—"Aloha Friday," marked by playful behavior and the wearing of bright colors and flowers.


Native Hawaiians face many of the same difficulties as other native groups within the United States. Native Hawaiians once lived in communities in which resources were shared and the management of resources was designated to a chief. After the annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory, most land ownership was transferred from native royalty to non-native individuals, leaving many Native Hawaiians displaced from their traditional homes. The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921 set aside 203,500 acres of homeland for Native Hawaiians, thus allowing the chance to obtain long-term land leases on property where they might continue to preserve a traditional lifestyle. However, eligibility was limited to those who could prove to be a descendent of not less than one-half of one of the races inhabiting the Hawaii islands before 1778. In the modern housing market, many Native Hawaiians, including those who are of mixed heritage, find themselves at an economic disadvantage in owning homes.

Native Hawaiians once had a system of health care that included holistic healing practices still around today, particularly those that combine mental and spiritual wellness with physical healing. As the foreign population grew, Western medical practices became more and more prevalent. However, many natives were suspicious of the new techniques and medicines. Today the primary barrier to adequate health care for the native population is low income. In 2003 only about 21% of all Native Hawaiians in the state had health insurance. The teenage pregnancy rate among Native Hawaiians was higher than that of other ethnic groups in the state and the number of unwed mothers was higher among Native Hawaiians as well. There has also been a higher number of infant deaths among Native Hawaiians than among other ethnic groups. The native population had higher instances of asthma and obesity than other ethnic groups within the state. About 25% of the native population smoked in 2003.

Papa Ola Lokahi, founded in 1988, is a not-for-profit consortium serving as the umbrella group for the Native Hawaiian Health Care Systems (NHHCS). Facilities within the NHHCS promote traditional healing practices with more modern techniques.


Traditional Hawaiian life centered on the extended family. Families were large and the extended family often lived under the same roof. All family members were expected to work together for the welfare of the ainga, or the whole family group. A child had many "mothers" and "fathers," and was never lonely. It was a common practice for grandmothers to adopt and raise children as their own. The children in traditional Hawaiian households were usually spoiled through overindulgence.

Marriages were traditionally arranged without consulting the couple. In most cases, such marriages were intended to strengthen ties between families or political bonds between tribes and clans. Land was usually owned by clans or extend- ed families and worked by individuals. Ownership changed mainly by inheritance or warfare. The roles of both women and men were clearly defined from an early age and children learned by observing their elders. The burden of providing for and protecting the family fell to the males, while females did the household chores and reared the children.

In modern society the centrality of family seems to have lost much of its significance among the native population. In 2004 the number of children born to unwed mothers was significantly higher among the Native Hawaiian population than that of other ethnic groups in the state.


Modern Hawaiians wear Western-style clothing, but traditional garb can still be seen and, in fact, is often worn for the benefit of the tourists who flock to Hawaii each year. For men it includes a cloth skirt called a lava-lava, or sulu. Some women wear long, loose-fitting cotton garments called muumuus. Skirts are made of tapa cloth, made by stripping the inner bark from paper mulberry trees, soaking it, and then beating it with wooden clubs. Both men and women sometimes wear the familiar grass skirts which are identified with Hawaii in popular imagination.

The early Hawaiians often decorated their bodies with tattoos, a custom which has recently seen a resurgence of popularity among young people, not just in Hawaii, but all over the United States.


Traditionally, the people of the Hawaiian Islands have depended largely on fish and native plants for food. Hawaiians catch crabs, lobsters, shrimp, and turtles in shallow water. Farther out to sea they catch bonito and tuna. On many islands they eat the fruit of breadfruit and pandanus trees and the meat of coconuts from the coconut palm. Traditional garden crops include sweet potatoes, taro (a plant with a starchy root), bananas, corn, pineapples, rice, and tomatoes. Some farmers also raise chickens and pigs.

A traditional way of preparing food is to cook it in a ground oven, a shallow pit lined with heated stones. The food is placed on the stones and covered with layers of leaves. The pit is then filled with earth to hold in the heat.


The first formal schools in the Hawaiian Islands were established by Protestant missionaries from the United States in the early 19th century. In 1840 the Hawaiian king Kamehameha III established a public school system in the kingdom of Hawaii. Today the state school system is highly centralized, with one school board overseeing all public schools in the state. The system includes several charter schools. Elementary and secondary school enrollments have remained relatively stable, although a slight decline was evident in the 1980s. Hawaii's institutions of higher education include Chaminade University of Honolulu, Hawaii Loa College, Hawaii Pacific University, and the University of Hawaii system, which includes several community colleges located throughout the islands. In 2006 about 85% of the native population aged 25 years and older had obtained a high school diploma or higher level of education. Only about 12.6% had obtained a bachelor's degree or higher.


The return of a loved one, the birth of a child, or the appointment of a new chief were always occasions for celebration in traditional Hawaiian culture. New songs were composed spontaneously to record the event, and dances were enacted to capture the spirit of the gathering. Most dances were performed either sitting or standing. The men's dances, which were vigorous and energetic, included slapping the body, stamping the feet, and twirling wooden clubs or spears in the air in mock battles. The women's dances, such as the hula, involved graceful head and body movements that illustrated the songs. Costumes varied according to the type of dance being performed, but were most often made of leaves and sweet-smelling flowers. Feathers, fine mats, grass skirts, and headdresses were worn for some dances. Traditional Hawaiian musical instruments included bamboo flutes, shell trumpets, panpipes, and slit drums.

A number of organizations seek to preserve and promote the native culture. These include the Hawaii State Foundation on Culture and the Arts and the Hawaii State Art Museum.


According to reports from the year 2000, only about 60% of the Native Hawaiians within the state (aged 16 years and older) were employed. Most of the native work force (about 71%) is employed in private sector wage and salaried jobs. Less than 5% are self-employed or own their own business. These native-owned businesses tend to be either one-person operations or have only a few employees, who are often family members. About 62% of Native Hawaiians in the state of Hawaii have household incomes under $50,000.

The people of Hawaii work at jobs that are similar to those of people in the mainland United States. In the cities they might be lawyers, doctors, or office workers. They may work in factories processing canned pineapples and pineapple juice; manufacturing stone, clay, metal or glass products; and making clothing. Some are engaged in shipbuilding.

Hawaiian farm workers specialize in sugarcane and pineapple production. Other crops include coffee, ornamental flowers and shrubs, papayas, bananas, avocados, taro, grain sorghum, macadamia nuts, alfalfa, beans, potatoes, and cabbage. Livestock farms produce beef cattle, milk and other dairy goods, hogs, chickens, and chicken eggs.

The tourist industry, which has grown rapidly in recent decades, is the leading source of employment for the people of Hawaii. Each year several million tourists visit the state.


Hawaiians enjoy all the spectator sports that are popular elsewhere in the United States, such as basketball, football, and baseball. They enjoy watching and participating in golf, hiking, cycling, and polo.

In Hawaii, however, water sports are the most popular. Hawaii is considered one of the best places in the world for surfing. Other popular water sports enjoyed by Hawaiians are sport fishing, boat racing, swimming, windsurfing, body-surfing, snorkeling, and scuba diving.


Hawaiians tend to head for the outdoors when they're in the mood for recreation. They enjoy water sports like surfing, scuba diving, snorkeling, and deep sea fishing, and they also like to camp out and hike through Hawaii's spectacular landscape.

Traditionally, islanders enjoyed gathering to celebrate occasions like births and marriages with feasting, dancing, and singing. No such celebration would be complete without kava, a drink made from the roots of the native kava plant. For young boys, favorite pastimes are wrestling, dart-throwing, spinning tops, playing marbles, and flying kites. Girls might practice juggling, play cat's cradle, or participate in a game of hopscotch.


Many Hawaiian islanders are skilled artists and craftsworkers. One important traditional craft is basketweaving. Using the leaves and fibers of native plants, such as palm and pandanus trees, craftspeople weave baskets, mats, and wall hangings, which they decorate with colorful designs. Others specialize in using native woods to carve masks, cooking utensils, and other objects. On a smaller scale, some Hawaiian artisans are skilled at making pottery.


Native Hawaiians face many of the same social problems as other native groups within the United States. Criminal activity is high among Native Hawaiians. In 2005 about 38% of the Hawaii state inmate population were Native Hawaiians. About 36% of all juvenile arrests involved Native Hawaiian youth. Larceny, theft, motor vehicle theft, burglary, and assault were the most common offenses among adult offenders. Burglary, assault, larceny, and marijuana drug use were the most common offenses among juveniles. Poverty is considered to be a primary contributing factor to many of the social problems faced by the native population.

Since the 1898 annexation of Hawaii as a U.S. territory, Native Hawaiians have faced several difficulties in maintaining their traditional lifestyle, with most challenges relating to their strained relationship with the U.S. government. The Hawaiian Organic Act of 1900 established U.S. government control of the islands and recognized Native Hawaiians as U.S. citizens; however, there was no provision made to recognize the native population as a distinct indigenous people. Through the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1921, Congress set aside over 200,000 acres to serve as homelands for the Native Hawaiians; however, the right to establish systems of self-governance, similar to that granted to Native American groups, was not part of the agreement. In 1993 the U.S. Congress issued a joint resolution (Public Law 103–150) that officially declared the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii an illegal action under both U.S. and international law. Many Native Hawaiians viewed this admission and apology as a major turning point in their efforts to reestablish some aspects of their traditional system of life and government.

In 2002 the state of Hawaii recognized the rights of Native Hawaiians to hunt, gather, and worship in the Wao Kele o Puna forest on the island of Hawaii. This land has had special significance for the native population for centuries as a place for hunting and religious gatherings. However, it had been under private ownership for many years. In 2006 the Office of Hawaiian Affairs announced the purchase of the 25,856-acre Wao Kele o Puna forest. This change in ownership is expected to allow for the permanent protection of the land and the protection of native rights for use of the land. The Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act of 2007 was still before Congress as of April 2008. This proposed bill was designed to grant federal recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous people, a move that could lead to the development of self-government on native homelands as well as greater access to health, education, employment, and cultural programs.


In traditional Native Hawaiian culture, gender roles were fairly well-defined with men as providers and protectors and women as caretakers of children and the home. The challenges affecting Native Hawaiian women in modern society are similar to those affecting women of other native or minority groups in the United States. The employment rate for Native Hawaiian women aged 16 years and older in the state of Hawaii was about 57% in 2006. There are more unwed mothers among the Native Hawaiian population than among other ethnic groups in the state.

Hawaii in 1998 passed a constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriage in the state. However, there is a thriving gay community on the Hawaiian islands.


Adler, Peter S. Beyond Paradise: Encounters in Hawaii Where the Tour Bus Never Runs. Woodbridge, CT: Oxbow Press, 1993.

Bayer, Wolfgang. Hawaii, Paradise Lost? [videorecording]. New York: Phoenix/BFA Films and Video.

Feeney, Stephanie. Hawaii is a Rainbow. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985.

Gall, Susan, and Irene Natividad, ed. The Asian American Almanac. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.

Kawaharada, Dennis. Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature & Place. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1999.

Kawena Pukui, Mary. Hawaii Island Legends: Pikoi, Pele, and Others. Honolulu, HI: Kamehameha Schools Press, 1996.

Linnekin, Jocelyn. "Hawaiians." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

———. Children of the Land: Exchange and Status in a Hawaiian Community. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1985.

Office of Hawaiian Affairs. http://www.oha.org (April 15, 2008).

Young, Lea K. Native Hawaiian Data Book 2006. Honolulu, HI: Office of Hawaiian Affairs, 2006.

—revised by K. Ellicott


views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYM: Hawaiian Islanders


Identification. Hawaiians are the indigenous people of the Hawaiian Islands. Now a disadvantaged minority in their own homeland, they are the descendants of Eastern Polynesians who originated in the Marquesas Islands. The name "Hawai'i" is that of the largest island in the chain. It came to refer to the aboriginal people of the archipelago because the first Western visitors anchored at that island and interacted predominantly with Hawai'i Island chiefs.

Location. The populated Hawaiian Islands are located Between 15° and 20° N and 160° and 155° W. The climate is temperate tropical, and weathered volcanic features dominate the terrain. Rainfall and soil fertility may vary significantly between the windward and leeward sides of the islands.

Demography. The aboriginal population is estimated at 250,000-300,000. Because of recurrent epidemics of introduced diseases, the native population had been reduced by at least 75 percent by 1854. In the late 1880s Hawaiians were outnumbered by immigrant sugar workers. According to the state's enumeration, Hawaiians today number about 175,000, or 19 percent of the state's population. Because of historically high rates of Hawaiian exogamy "pure" Hawaiians number only about 9,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Hawaiian is closely related to Marquesan, Tahitian, and Maori. The use of Hawaiian was suppressed in island schools during the territorial period, and the language fell into disuse during the mid-twentieth Century. Few Hawaiians can speak the language today. The colloquial language of most Hawaiians is Hawai'i Islands Creole, informally known as "Pidgin." Since the 1970s the University of Hawaii has been the center of attempts to revive the Hawaiian language through education. A few hundred children are enrolled in language-immersion preschools where only Hawaiian is spoken.

History and Cultural Relations

The date of first colonization is constantly being revised, but Polynesians are believed to have reached Hawai'i by about a.d. 300. There may have been multiple settlement voyages, but two-way travel between Hawai'i and other island groups was never extensive. By the time of Captain James Cook's arrival late in 1778, the Hawaiian chieftainship had evolved a high order of political complexity and stratification, with the Maui and Hawai'i Island dynasties vying to control the Eastern portion of the archipelago. In their first encounters with the Hawaiians Cook's men introduced venereal disease. At Kealakekua, on the leeward side of Hawai'i Island, Cook was greeted as the returning god Lono, but he was later killed in a skirmish over a stolen longboat. Europeans nevertheless began to use the islands as a provisions stop, for Hawai'i was uniquely well situated to supply the fur trade and, later, North Pacific whalers. The Hawaiian chiefs became avidly involved in foreign trade, seeking to accumulate weapons, ammunition, and luxury goods. In 1795 Kamehameha, a junior chief of Hawai'i Island, defeated the Maui chiefs in a decisive Battle on O'ahu Island, thereby unifying the windward isles. This date is taken to mark the beginning of the Hawaiian kingdom and Hawai'i's transition from chiefdom to state. An astute and strong-willed ruler, Kamehameha consolidated his rule and established a bureaucratic government. His successors were weaker and were continually pressured by foreign residents and bullied by colonial governments. High-ranking chiefly women and their supporters convinced Kamehameha II to abolish the indigenous religion shortly after his father's death in 1819. Congregationalist missionaries arrived a few months later and came to exert tremendous influence on the kingdom's laws and policies. In the 1840s resident foreigners persuaded Kamehameha III to replace the traditional system of land tenure with Western-style private landed property. The resulting land division, the "Great Máhele," was a disaster for the Hawaiian people. The king, the government, and major chiefs received most of the land, with only 29,000 acres going to 80,000 commoners. At the same time foreigners were given the right to buy and own property. Within a few decades most Hawaiians were landless as foreign residents accumulated large tracts for plantations and ranches. The 1875 Reciprocity Treaty with the United States ensured the profitability of sugar. Planters imported waves of laborers from Asia and Europe, and Hawaiians became a numerical minority. A clique of white businessmen overthrew the last monarch, Queen Lili'uokalani, in 1893. Although President Grover Cleveland urged that the monarchy be restored, Congress took no action and annexation followed in 1898. While descendants of the Asian sugar workers have lived the American dream in Hawai'i, native Hawaiians suffered increasing poverty and alienation during the territorial period. Hawaiian radicalism and cultural awareness have been on the upsurge since the mid-1970s. Citing the precedent of American Indian tribal nations, activists now demand similar status for Hawaiians, and the movement for Hawaiian sovereignty has gained increasing credibility among the state's political leaders.


In precontact times Hawaiians lived in dispersed settlements along the coasts and in windward valleys. Inland and Mountain areas were sparsely populated. Hawaiian houses were thatched from ground to roof ridge with native grass or sugarcane leaves. Commoner houses were low and sparsely furnished with coarse floor mats. The dwellings of the chiefs were more spacious, with floors and walls covered thickly with fine mats and bark cloth. Because of taboos mandating the separation of men and women in certain contexts, a Household compound consisted of several dwellings for sleeping and eating. The most important developments affecting Hawaiians since the mid-nineteenth century have been land alienation and urbanization. Small Hawaiian subsistence Communities practicing fishing and farming persist in isolated rural areas of Maui, Moloka'i, and Hawai'i. On O'ahu, the leeward Waianae coast is a center of Hawaiian settlement. Significant numbers of Hawaiians also live on leased house lots in government-sponsored Hawaiian Home Lands Communities within the city of Honolulu. Dwellings in the style of plantation housing predominate in working-class Communities and neighborhoods throughout Hawai'i, and Hawaiian settlements are no exception to this pattern. In most Hawaiian villages and neighborhoods the houses are of singlewalled wood construction, sometimes raised off the ground on pilings, with corrugated iron roofs. Rural Hawaiians may have small houses for cooking and bathing behind the main dwelling, a pattern that appears to be a holdover from Polynesian culture.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The first Polynesian settlers in Hawai'i subsisted largely on marine resources. In the ensuing centuries the Hawaiians developed extensive and highly productive agricultural systems. The staple food was taro, a starchy root that the Hawaiians pounded and mashed into a paste called poi. In wetland valleys taro was grown in irrigated pond fields resembling rice paddies. Intricate networks of ditches brought water into the taro patches, some of which doubled as fish ponds. In the late precontact period, concurrent with increasing political complexity, large walled fish ponds were constructed in offshore areas. These were reserved for chiefly use. The 1ee sides of the islands supported extensive field systems where Hawaiians grew dry-land taro, sweet potatoes, breadfruit, and bananas. The Polynesians brought pigs, dogs, and chickens to Hawai'i. Goats and cattle were introduced by Westerners before 1800. In the early 1800s, to avoid the chiefs' growing demands on the rural populace, some Hawaiians turned to seafaring, peddling, and various jobs in the ports. The shift from rural Subsistence to wage labor intensified in the latter half of the Century. Hawaiiansmen and womenmade up the bulk of the sugar plantation labor force until after 1875. According to 1980 state figures, about 23 percent of Hawaiians today are employed in agriculture. Some are independent small farmers who produce the traditional staple, taro, for sale to markets. But most Hawaiians are engaged in service jobs. Hawaiians are underrepresented in management and professional occupations and overrepresented as bus drivers, police officers, and fire fighters.

Industrial Arts. Indigenous Hawaiian crafts included mat and bark-cloth making, feather work, and woodworking.

Trade. Although the traditional Hawaiian local group was largely self-sufficient, there was specialization and internal trade in canoes, adzes, fish lines, salt, and fine mats. In the postcontact period Hawaiians have tended to leave store keeping and commerce to other ethnic groups.

Division of Labor. Most agricultural labor was performed by men in ancient Hawai'i, as was woodworking and adz manufacture. Women made bark cloth for clothing and mats for domestic furnishings, chiefly tribute, and exchange. Men did the deep-sea fishing while women gathered inshore marine foods. In most Hawaiian families today both spouses have salaried jobs outside the home.

Land Tenure. In the native Hawaiian conception land was not owned but "cared for." Use and access rights were allocated through the social hierarchy from the highest chiefs to their local land supervisors and thence to commoners. The most important administrative unit was a land section called the ahupua'a, which ideally ran from the mountain to the sea and contained a full range of productive zones. Typically a household had rights in a variety of microenvironments. The introduction of private land titles resulted in widespread dispossession in part because Hawaiians did not understand the implications of alienable property. The lands of the Kamehameha chiefly family descended to Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, whose estate supports the Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu for the education of Hawaiian children. The Hawaiian Home Lands, established by Congress in 1920, are leased to persons who can prove 50 percent Hawaiian ancestry. Originally conceived as a "back to the land" farming program, the Hawaiian Home Lands are now used primarily for house lots.


Kin Groups and Descent. There were no corporate kin groups among Hawaiians at the time of contact. The chiefs could trace their genealogies back many generations through bilateral links, opportunistically linking themselves to particular ancestral lines as the political situation demanded. Commoners recognized shallow bilateral kindreds augmented by stipulated and fictive kin

Kinship Terminology. In the Hawaiian language no distinction is made between parents and parents' collateral kin. Same-sex siblings are ranked by relative age, but brother and sister are terminologically unranked.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. In pre-Christian Hawaii both sexes enjoyed near-complete freedom to initiate and terminate sexual attachments. Marriage was unmarked by ceremony and was hardly distinguished from cohabitation and liaisons, except in chiefly unions. The birth of children was the more Important ceremonial occasion. Marrying someone of higher rank was the ideal for both men and women. Polygyny was the norm among the ruling chiefs, permissible but infrequent among the common people. Postmarital residence was determined by pragmatic considerations.

Domestic Unit. Both commoners and chiefs lived in large extended-family household groups with fluid composition. The indigenous religion mandated that men and women had to have separate dwelling houses and could not eat together.

Inheritance. Men were more likely to inherit land rights than women, while women were privileged in the inheritance of the family's spiritual property and knowledge. Since the legal changes of the nineteenth century land inheritance among Hawaiians has been mostly bilateral.

Socialization. In Hawaiian families today grandparents have an especially close relationship with their grandchildren, and they frequently take over parenting duties. As in other Polynesian societies, children may be adopted freely without emotional turmoil or secretiveness. Emphasis is placed on Respect for age and mutual caring between family members.

Sociopolitical Organization

At the time of Western contact in 1778 the Hawaiian islands were politically divided into several competing chiefdoms. Hawaii was an independent kingdom from 1795 to 1893 and a United States territory from 1898 until statehood in 1959.

Social Organization. Precontact Hawai'i was a highly stratified society where the chiefs were socially and ritually set apart from the common people. Rank was bilaterally determined and chiefly women wielded considerable authority. The commoner category was internally egalitarian.

Political Organization. Each island was divided into Districts consisting of several ahupua'a land sections. Districts and ahupua'a were redistributed by successful chiefs to their followers after a conquest. The chief then appointed a local land agent to supervise production and maintenance of the irrigation system. The commoners materially supported the chiefs with tribute at ritually prescribed times. Rebellions and power struggles were common. In legendary histories cruel and stingy chiefs are deserted by their people and overthrown by their kinder younger brothers.

Social Control. The chiefs had absolute authority over commoners. They could confiscate their property or put them to death for violating ritual prohibitions. In practice, However, chiefs were constrained by their reliance on the underlying populace of producers. In Hawaiian communities today there is no sense of inborn rank and an egalitarian ethic prevails. Pretensions are leveled by the use of gossip and temporary ostracism.

Conflict. Warfare was endemic in the Hawaiian chieftainship in the century or two preceding Cook's arrival. After Kamehameha's conquest the Hawaiian warrior ethic declined to the extent that the monarchy could be overthrown in 1893 by a company of marines. Interpersonal conflicts among Hawaiians today typify the tensions present in any small-scale community, and they are for the most part resolved through the intervention of family and friends. Hawaiians are very reluctant to call in outside authorities to resolve local-level conflicts.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The religion described in ethnohistorical sources was largely the province of male chiefs. Sacrificial rites performed by priests at monumental temples served to legitimate chiefly authority.

Religious Beliefs. Chiefs were genealogically linked to gods and were believed to have sacred power (mana). Under what was called the kapu system women were denied many choice foods and could not eat with men. Pre-Christian beliefs persisted at the local level long after the chiefly sacrificial religion was overthrown. The indigenous religion recognized four major gods and at least one major goddess identified with the earth and procreation. Ku, the god of war, fishing, and other male pursuits, was Kamehameha's patron deity. Another god, Lono, represented the contrasting ethos of peace and reproduction. Women worshipped their own patron goddesses. Commoners made offerings to ancestral guardian spirits at their domestic shrines. Deities were also associated with particular crafts and activities. Although Congregationalists were the first to missionize in Hawai'i, the sect has few adherents among Hawaiians today. Roman Catholicism has attracted many Hawaiians, as have small Protestant churches emphasizing personal forms of worship.

Religious Practitioners. Before the kapu abolition younger brothers normatively served their seniors as priests. Major deities had their own priesthoods. The volcano goddess Pele is said to have had priestesses. Among the commoners there were experts in healing and sorcery, known as "Kahuna," and such specialists are still utilized by Hawaiians today.

Ceremonies. The Hawaiian ritual calendar was based on lunar phases. Kü ruled the land for eight months of the year. Lono reigned for four winter months during the Makahiki festival when warfare was suspended and fertility was celebrated.

Arts. Chiefly men were sometimes tattooed, but this was not a general custom and most of the details have been lost. The carved wooden idols of the gods are artistically impressive, but few survived the dramatic end of the native religion. The hula, the indigenous dance form, had numerous styles ranging from sacred paeans to erotic celebrations of fertility. Various percussion instruments used included drums, sticks, bamboo pipes, pebbles (like castanets), gourds, rattles, and split bamboo pieces.

Medicine. Hawaiians today utilize Western medicine but may also consult healers and spiritual specialists, some linked to Hawaiian cultural precedent and others syncretic, drawing on other ethnic traditions. Hawaiians are particularly prone to spirit possession, and many believe that evil thoughts have material consequences on other people. Illness is linked to Social grievances or imbalances.

Death and Afterlife. Ancient Hawaiians secreted remains of the dead in burial caves. The deceased's personal power or mana was believed to reside in the bones. Chiefs were particularly concerned that their enemies not find their remains and show disrespect to them after death. Those who broke the taboos, on the other hand, were killed and offered to the gods, and their remains were allowed to decompose on the temple.

See alsoMarquesas, Tahiti


Kirch, Patrick V. (1985). Feathered Gods and Fishhooks: An Introduction to Hawaiian Archaeology and Prehistory. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Kuykendall, Ralph S. (1938). The Hawaiian Kingdom. Vol. 1, 1778-1854. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Linnekin, Jocelyn (1985). Children of the Land: Exchange and Status in a Hawaiian Community. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Valeri, Valerio (1985). Kingship and Sacrifice: Ritual and Society in Ancient Hawaii. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.