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Culture of Hawaii

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Culture of Hawaii

  1. Overview

    Quite simply, there are good reasons why Hawai‘i is one of the leading visitor destinations in the world: The natural beauty of the islands is superlative; the tropical climate is ideal; the visitor infrastructure accommodates all levels of travelers in comfort and budget; and the reputation of the Hawaiian aloha spirit — indeed, the same spirit found throughout the islands of Polynesia — is well deserved.

  2. Location

    Hawai’i is located about 2,500 miles west-southwest of the mainland U.S.A., about a five-hour flight from the California coast. Hawai’i Standard Time (HST) is three hours behind the west coast (PST) during daylight savings months, and otherwise two hours behind.

  3. Geography

    There are actually over 100 islands in Hawai’i, including the Leeward archipelago that extends for a thousand miles toward Midway; but most people think of Hawai’i as the six major inhabited islands: Hawai’i, Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Oahu, Kauai (plus the privately-owned island of Niihau, 20 miles off the west coast of Kauai, with its small population). The land mass of approximately 6,400 square miles rises from sea level to the snow-capped peaks (during the winter) of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa on the Big Island — both over 13,000 feet in elevation. By the way, most of the Leeward islands are coral atolls that have been included in a fish and wildlife conservation district: Travel there is restricted.

    Since King Kamehameha moved his capital from Kailua-Kona to Honolulu almost 200 years ago, Oahu — the third largest island in land mass — has been the center of government and commerce. Over 80% of the Aloha State’s population lives on Oahu, and the Polynesian Cultural Center is located about an hour’s drive from the famous Waikiki Beach.

    Hawai’i is the only major part of Polynesia that is north of the equator. Our tropical climate means temperatures at sea level rarely rise above 90° (F) in the summer and seldom drop below 70° (F) at night, even in the winter. The islands are also graced most days by gentle trade winds.

  4. Population

    About 1.3 million people currently live in Hawai’i, with over 80% of them on the island of Oahu. About 20% of the overall population is Hawaiian or part-Hawaiian. There are also significant numbers of Samoans, Tongans and other Pacific islanders. The remainder of the population — in which no group holds a majority — is divided among Asians, Caucasians and others, making Hawai’i the “melting pot of the Pacific” (or as some people say, “a tossed salad”) and a truly unique and diverse place.

  5. History and Discovery

    Among the ancient Polynesians, Hawaiians and anthropologists believe the original inhabitants of these islands came from the Marquesas and Tahiti, starting as early as 1,500 years ago. There is also oral tradition of early interaction with Samoa, as well as Hawai’i being an origin of some of the early Maori emigrants to Aotearoa (New Zealand).

    British Captain James Cook is credited with being the first European to discover Hawai’i in 1787, although some oral traditions and scholars hold that the Spaniards — who first crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1522, and regularly crossed from Peru to the Philippines by the late 1500s — also made inadvertent landfall in Hawai’i, but never correctly mapped or claimed credit their accomplishment. When Cook arrived, he was well received and some Hawaiians thought he might even be an incarnation of their god Lono, whose sign was white kapa or tapa cloth like the sails of Captain Cook’s ship. Of course, Captain Cook is also well known for having been killed several months later by Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay in Kona while trying to retrieve a long boat.

    After Cook, the stream of Europeans quickly grew, even including Russians for a short period. In addition to appreciating the beauty of the islands, they participated in whaling and the sandalwood trade. The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1820 and the people quickly converted: The year before, King Kamehameha II and Queen Kaahumanu had abolished the age-old kapu or taboo system based on the ancient Hawaiian religion.

    In 1850 the Sandwich Islands kingdom made it possible for foreigners to own private property in Hawai’i, which along with increasing international trade with America, gave rise to the sugar industry. The rapid depletion of the Hawaiian population due to illnesses eventually led the sugar plantation owners to import contract laborers from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Russia, Scandinavia, Portugal and the Azores, Europe and Puerto Rico, among other places: The descendants of those who stayed give Hawai’i its cosmopolitan population today.

    In 1893 a revolution largely led by influential non-Hawaiian businessmen deposed the last reigning Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani. In 1900 the United States of America annexed Hawai’i, reportedly for the purpose of gaining the Pearl Harbor anchorage: We were known as the Territory of Hawai’i until an overwhelming majority of the population voted for statehood in the 1950s: Hawai’i became the 50th state in 1959.

    Today, Hawai’i with its ancient Polynesian heritage and overlays of Asian and other cultures is one of the most unique parts of America.

  6. Languages

    English and Hawaiian are the official state languages. At one time, the number of Hawaiian speakers had greatly diminished, but a tremendous renaissance of Hawaiian culture has taken place over the past generation or two: Today, thousands of people study the Hawaiian language and other aspects of Hawaiian culture, and there is even a K-12 Hawaiian immersion school system within the the public statewide Department of Education.

    Hawaiian is closely related to the other major Polynesian dialects: Tahitian, Maori, Marquesan, Rarotongan, Samoan and Tongan. Although it is not necessarily mutually intelligible with these other dialects, many Hawaiian words and grammatical concepts are identical or nearly identical with the other dialects.

    Hawaiian is also sometimes recognized around the world as the language with the fewest letters in its alphabet: a, e, i, o, u, h, k, l, m, n, p, w — 12 in all, although there’s actually another consonant sound, the glottal stop [such as in the middle of the English slang term huh-uh, meaning ‘no’ and sometimes spelled uh-uh], sometimes represented by the ‘okina or inverted apostrophe.

    Most Polynesian languages, including Hawaiian, also have longer sounding vowels, sometimes marked with a bar or macron above the letter [here with a European-style umlaut, since most computers do not normally include macron options] or what the Hawaiians call a kahakö. These should not be confused with the bar or macron that is used to differentiate an English “long” vowel from a “short” vowel, as in the words “hate” and “hat,” respectively.

    Hawaiian words with lengthened vowels have different meanings than their counterparts with regular vowels: For example, kala is a type of fish, kalä means ‘the sun,’ while kälä means ‘dollar’ or ‘money.’ English vowels can also be lengthened in pronunciation, but that just changes the emphasis and not the meaning of the word.

    A pronunciation problem has arisen over the years because when early Christian missionaries first devised the Hawaiian alphabet, almost everyone spoke the language and so they often did not indicate the inverted apostrophe for the ‘okina or the macron bar of the kahakö in writing: Native speakers already understood the difference, say, between kala and kälä by context.

    As the years went by and the number of Hawaiian language speakers greatly diminished, however, many people didn’t know about the ‘okina sound or long vowels. For example, Kaua’i became Kauai (as in ‘cow-eye’) and O’ahu became Oahu. Along with the rest of the Hawaiian renaissance, people and institutions such as media and government are becoming more sensitive to including the ‘okina and kahakö in written Hawaiian; so don’t be surprised to see both Waikiki and Waikïkï or Lanai and Läna’i…and try to pronounce them in the old Hawaiian way.

  7. Village Life

    Hale Ali’i or Chief’s House

    To establish his social position, the chief always built his residence on a prominent rise. A raised stone foundation further communicated the chief’s high standing as well as kept the house drier. The chief would usually sleep in his house and use it to confer with selected leaders. Women and children were forbidden to enter.

    Most houses in Hawai’i were thatched with clumps of pili grass, hence the term “grass hut” was used historically; but you should really think of the grass clumps like roof shingles. Builders often placed a large fish net over the grass to prevent it from curling up or looking untidy and also to keep it in place during windy weather.

    The hale interior was thatched with lauhala (pandanus leaves), and the floor was covered with woven lauhala mats. There was little or no other furniture, so Hawaiians and most other Polynesians usually sat on the floor.

    Various kahili or royal feathered standards inside, and sometimes outside as well, symbolized the chief’s status. When the chief moved about or traveled, he would often wear a feathered cape, the ahu’ula, as a sign of his rank. Ahu’ula are exceptionally rare artifacts today, because they required the gold and red feathers of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of endemic birds, and are considered the highest form of Hawaiian feather work. The chief would also sometimes wear the mahi’ole, a helmet fashioned from ‘ie’ie vines to which more feathers were attached.

    Attendants would carry the kahili in front of the chief. Other attendants would carry long kauila spears, blow conch shells, and sometimes carry the pulo’ulo’u, a ball-like standard on a stick which indicated the chief was kapu [taboo] or sacred. Thus the common people were alerted the ali’i was approaching. They would bow or even prostrate themselves in respect. In ancient times some chiefs were so kapu that to even allow their shadow to fall on a commoner was a capital offense, followed by summary execution.

    The women of the royal household often wore the lei niho palaoa, a large hook- or curving tongue-shaped necklace made from a whale’s tooth and strung on braided human hair. Lei hulu, “feather leis”, were bound into a circlet for the hair or neck. Royal women also carried finely woven lauhala fans and delicate feather kahili with bone or tortoise shell handles. The processional guards of the ali’i sometimes wore helmets made from the same type of dried gourds used to make containers as well as hula implements.

    The flag posted at the back of the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Hale Ali’i represents that presented to King Kamehameha l by the British explorer Capt. George Vancouver. The Hawaiian flag today is a redesigned British flag, with eight stripes representing the major islands of Hawai’i.

    The Hale Pahu, literally the “drum house,” was used to store drums and other implements used in sacred hula dances.

    The Hale Ulana or “weaving house” is where women completed their weaving and other handicrafts, creating baskets, mats, bracelets, fans and other items mainly from dried lauhala or pandanus

    Hale Mua or Men’s Eating House

    The hale mua is an excellent example of the ancient Hawaiian kapu [taboo] system: Men and women were forbidden to eat together. The hale mua was also used by the men to store carvings of the family gods or aumakua. Women and children were not allowed to enter this house because of its sacred nature.

    Women would eat in the hale ‘aina or “eating house.” Male children would eat with their mothers until the age of six; then, after a special ceremony, they would eat in the hale mua with the other men of the village.

    Cooking Implements

    Hawaiians used a dried out squash-like gourd to make ipu or bowls and containers. This same kind of gourd was also used to make hula instruments.

    The smaller, hollowed-out gourd of the non-edible la’amia tree fruit was used to hold liquids, and to make the feathered hula rattle. The la’amia was also used to make utensils, as were other local hardwoods.

    Perhaps the most important food preparation utensils, however, were the hand-carved wooden poi pounding board and the accompanying stone poi pounder. Every family had at least one papaku’i i ka ‘ai board, which could also double as a platter when the men cooked a pig or pua’a in the imu [earth oven]. Other necessities in the kitchen included ti leaves which were used to wrap food before cooking and line the baskets that would be used to carry the food from the imu to the men and women’s eating houses.

    The responsibility for preparing and cooking food throughout Polynesia fell to the men. Because this was usually only done once a day, enough food was always prepared to feed the family for the needed meals. Uneaten food was stored in the eating houses until consumed.

    Hale Wa’a

    The canoe shelter was built close to the water for easy access. The koa or tropical mahogany canoes at the Polynesian Cultural Center are over 100 years old. Koa tree logs of sufficient size to carve canoes are increasingly harder to find today in Hawai’i. For example, when the BYU-Hawai’i Hawaiian Studies program commissioned a 57-foot traditional twin-hulled sailing canoe several years ago, they had to import the tropical hardwood from Fiji.

    After a straight and well-rounded tree was selected, craftsman cut it, trimmed the branches, and then spread red-hot rocks along the tree trunk to slowly burn the area and prepare it for the hollowing out process. Builders would then chip away at the trunk with sharpened rock chisels and adzes. After the hollowing out process, the trunk was then dragged to the village for smoothing with pumice stones and leaves that provided special oils. When fully completed, kukui or candle nut oil was rubbed over the entire canoe to waterproof it.

    The hale wa’a at the Polynesian Cultural Center is also used to demonstrate how the Hawaiian staple food, poi, is made: Poi starts as the root of the kalo or taro plant, which comes in two basic varieties: wetland and dryland taro. The PCC grows its wetland kalo in a flooded patch next to the hale wa’a. When harvested, the root is cleaned and set aside to make poi. Young kalo leaves are boiled and used like spinach. The plant stems are replanted, and take from six-to-12 months to grow a new corm, so it was common in old Hawai’i to rotate the planting of different patches to insure a continuing supply of poi.

    The harvested kalo must be thoroughly cleaned, peeled or scraped and cooked for several hours to eliminate the oxylate crystals in the outer layers. If not property prepared, these crystals will irritate and prickle the throat. The kalo is then placed on the poi pounding board and mashed and kneaded with the stone poi pounder, while slowly mixing it with water until the required consistency is achieved. As it was typically eaten with fingers, Hawaiians traditionally classified poi according to how many fingers were required to lift a dab out of the calabash: One-finger poi being the thickest, and 3- or 4-finger poi rather thin and runny in consistency. Hawaiians also sometimes made poi out of breadfruit.

    By the way, poi is usually not eaten alone but as a staple food to be flavored with meat or fish. Because dryland taro is relatively sweet and delicious, it is sometimes baked in an imu and eaten whole; but is usually made into poi, which is still very popular in Hawai’i and can be purchased pre-mixed in plastic bags in most local grocery stores.

    Hale Lawai’a

    A “fishing house” was always located close to the seashore, where Hawaiian fishermen could mend their nets and prepare fishing gear. Such nets and lines were valued possessions.

    Along with a farmer, a fisherman was deemed a man of great wealth. He provided the main source of protein for his family, using fish-hooks made out of human bones, tortoise and oyster shells, and pig or dog bones. He used certain hardwoods and rough lava rock to shape the fish hooks. He usually fashioned his poles from bamboo, and wove his nets with cordage made from olona vine or coconut husk fibers.


    The “house of instruction” was used to teach various aspects of Hawaiian culture, including the hula, as well as to store canoes, which were considered very valuable possessions.

    Hale Noho

    Hawaiians used their “living house” so extended family members could sleep under one roof. The order in which everyone slept, extending from the entrance door, was very important: Each person would lie down in the middle of the building with legs stretched out towards the wall for safety reasons, and children slept on the outer ends of the hale.

    Traditional beds were very simple: Pili grass and dried leaves were spread on the pebbled or sandy floors as a cushion. Mats were then placed over the grass to serve as beds. The mats were often left in sun to cleanse and refresh them during the daytime.

    After the missionaries brought framed beds to the islands, Hawaiians copied them by weaving lauhala frames which they filled with leaves and other natural materials. Again, they were covered with simple mats for comfort.

    Hawaiian Quilting

    Hawaiian women were also fascinated by the New England patchwork quilts that missionary women brought to the islands. Of course after learning quilting techniques, the Hawaiian women began to design and appliqué their own patterns that reflected the natural beauty of the islands. They also added stitching around the appliqués that suggest the wave movements of the ocean. Some of these quilt or kapa patterns have become family treasures and are passed from generation to generation. Some designs were considered royal and were, of course, forbidden to any but kings.

    Hawaiian quilting, which is demonstrated in the 1850s Hawaiian Mission Settlement, was originally an individual art done on a quilting frame. Older quilts such as those on display at the Polynesian Cultural Center and other places throughout Hawai’i, are highly prized heirlooms. Today, however, many Hawaiian quilts are machine appliquéd and, therefore, are of lesser value but still represent traditional designs.

    To provide light inside the hale noho and other houses, Hawaiians used kukui or candlenuts. The beautiful kukui with its light green leaves that can be seen growing down the mountains in cascades, is the Hawai’i state tree. The kernel in the nut produces a natural oil that burns like kerosene. In old Hawai’i, kukui oil was placed in hollowed-out rocks with a kapa or bark-cloth wick. Sometimes, several kukui nuts were also strung on a coconut leaf midrib and each was lighted in turn. Kukui nuts are widely used today to make lei.

    Hale Papa’a

    The chief’s “storage house” for his valuables is nearby. It’s contents include fine kapa or bark cloth, gourds, nets, spears, carvings and other possessions.

    Pastime Games

    To keep themselves occupied when not farming or fishing, Hawaiians participated in many activities and games. To develop physical coordination, they played pala’ie which consists of a coconut midrib handle with a small hoop on one end and a cloth covered ball tied to the other. Holding the handle in one hand, the object was to swing the ball into the hoop. Points were scored for the consistent length of time the game’s object was successfully accomplished.

    Other Hawaiian games at the Polynesian Cultural Center include ula maika, a form of bowling, and konane, a type of checkers board game. Better konane boards were fashioned out of stone.

  8. Interesting Facts

    Hawai’i is known for originating the aloha spirit, creating a warm environment for the international melting pot that exists in these islands. It’s also famous as the home of hula, a dance of graceful hand movements and gestures—not to be mistaken for the fast hip-shaking dance of Tahiti.

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Native Hawaiian Culture | Polynesian Cultural Center