Hawaii Culture > People of Hawaii

The novelist Susanna Moore, raised in Hawaii, says, “The history of Hawaii may be seen as a story of arrivals.” The Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, explains the emergence of all life in the islands, from the smallest coral polyp to the humans, as coming from a long chain of beings becoming themselves, slowly by slowly out of the darkness of the cosmic night. Both of these takes focus on the fact that the human history of Hawaii, much like the land itself, is constantly in a state of change.

First People

The first people in Hawaii were Polynesians, though that label wouldn’t be applied to them until the 18th century by outsiders. Kanaka maoli (native people), as the indigenous inhabitants of the islands now call themselves, were part of one of the greatest human population movements in the world. Intrepid voyagers with roots on the island of Taiwan developed a complex culture, science, and agriculture that allowed them to find and inhabit small islands in the vast Pacific. They established a cultural complex spanning the distance from Madagascar in the west to Rapa Nui, off the coast of Chile, at its easternmost boundary. In that nearly 10,000 year unfolding, Hawaii was one of the very last places on the planet to be inhabited by humans.

When the ancestors of kanaka maoli arrived from the Marquesas Islands and Tahiti, they found lush volcanic islands with fresh water, good soil, and abundant plant life. To that they added traditional Pacific medicinal and food plants, and brought dogs and pigs—Hawaii’s first land mammals—to set up, over many generations of scientific experiment and careful stewardship, a complex and abundant agricultural and political system. They thrived for generations in one of the most remote landmasses on the globe, making use of their celestial navigation to use the stars to guide them to faraway islands, like Tahiti, and back.

Early Encounters

In the story of arrivals, one key turning point was the first contact by Europeans when British voyager Captain James Cook arrived in 1778. Cook’s story is well known because his crew documented the voyage in extreme detail, noting down interactions, sketching portraits, recording plants, and first impressions of the culture. We also know well how Cook met his end, killed after attempting to kidnap an alii, Kalaniopuu, at Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii Island. For years, the details of Cook’s death, and European misunderstanding of the situation, gave Hawaii a reputation as a dangerous place.

Still, the encounter was one that changed the trajectory of Hawaii forever as now, thanks to the ship’s cartographers, the islands were quite literally on the map and in the minds and imaginations of people all over the world. A decade after Cook’s arrival, Kamehameha, a skilled tactician and diplomat who had witnessed Cook in Hawaii, himself led a successful war to unify the islands (until then ruled by local lineages of chiefly families) into a single kingdom, giving birth to the Hawaiian monarchy.

International Expansion

As the whaling industry expanded into the Pacific from the Atlantic and as Chinese sandalwood merchants found a pristine supply in Hawaii’s upland regions, Hawaii was well on its way to becoming a crossroads of the world by the early 19th century. In 1820 American missionaries from New England brought a puritanical style of Christianity to the islands, leading to massive cultural changes as Hawaii’s royals embraced the new religion and developed alliances with the burgeoning imperial powers of the day, including Britain and the young United States.

The monarchy period of the nineteenth century was marked by a Hawaii that developed international commerce, inviting immigration from all over the world, for labor and in pursuit of expertise useful in its new plantation economy. By the end of the century, descendants of American missionaries and sugar planters colluded to overthrow the government and destroy the monarchy, imprisoning Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last regent. They established a brief republic before petitioning the US to annex Hawaii as a territory in 1898, the year that the U.S. took on many other island territories in the Caribbean and the Pacific after the Spanish-American War.

Hawaii remained a territory until 1959, but was re-shaped in a large part by the U.S. military build up during World War II after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 brought the U.S. into the war. Statehood in 1959 also brought Hawaii into the consciousness of American vacationers who began to think about visiting the 50th state as both an R&R opportunity and a patriotic act.

Hawaiian Renaissance 

By the 1970s, the extreme changes in the culture and community of the islands, including rapid pressure for the development of industry and tourism, created the environment for a large cultural movement referred to as the “Hawaiian Renaissance” that saw a resurgence of indigenous traditions in public life. Hula practice left the realm of tourist performance to connect with ancient and traditional religious observance. Calls for the indigenous Hawaiian language to be returned to use in the community after being outlawed by the republic and the territorial governments gave fuel to a new educational endeavor to deliver lessons based in Hawaiian philosophy, upon traditional environmental science, and spirituality, via the medium of Hawaiian. Today the leaders of that Renaissance have greatly shaped the trajectory of Hawaii’s local culture for kanaka maoli and others living in the islands alike.

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Contributor: Akiemi Glenn
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Pashaco