Hawaiian Language, Culture and History page.

Enjoy fabulous new images and new information segments added to enrich this perennially popular educational vacation feature!

Click straight to little-known stories and facts about the Hawaiian Cowboy, Hawaiian Music and Costumes, the Big Island's Living History Museums, and Hawaii's Sugar Cane past.

Hawaiian culture and history from Polynesian settlement to European settlement.
Along the Big Island's South Kona shore, traditional ki'i totems near Captain Cook guard the place of refuge. Alison Gardner

Did you know that Hawaii has two official languages: Hawaiian and English? Yes, you can speak Hawaiian!

Although Hawaii is a paid-up member of the United States of America, it has maintained a distinctive culture and heritage, as well as a lyrical language which is experiencing an enthusiastic revival throughout the islands.  Even with those residents whose heritage in not Polynesian, the common use of traditional terms flows easily through everyday vocabulary.

It is refreshingly rare to encounter a non-Hawaiian language street name anywhere in the state, making map reading for the self-drive visitor a very big challenge unless you can carry 12 to 15 letter names of five to seven syllables in your head while you are looking out for road signs.  A further challenge is that most words seem to start with K or W and end in I or A, making them virtually indistinguishable to most outsiders.

Many words, people and place names of Hawaii are dauntingly long and challenging to pronounce, unless you view them as a string of shorter words linked together into a longer descriptive label.  It is only after several glasses of Kahlua that many of us have the courage to wrap such words around our tongues. 

One of my Hawaiian hostesses had a four-syllable, seven-vowel name that absolutely refused to fall gracefully from my lips despite numerous attempts to pronounce it over a period of two weeks!

Helpful insights to make you feel like an insider when next you visit Hawaii:

Back to basics

Native Hawaiian tour operators and guides speak the Hawaiian language with visitors.
Many tour operators, both native Hawaiian and "haole", use the Hawaiian language as an integral part of their delivery. Lawrence Aki, above, is a respected cultural interpreter and guide on Molokai.
 Alison Gardner

 The breath of life or ha is the very essence of being Hawaiian.

Aloha, recognized around the world as a Hawaiian greeting, means much more than "hi there, how are you?" or "See you later": it means to share the breath of life.  It also shows up in mahalo (thank you) which has equally profound implications in the Hawaiian language. 

The traditional name for foreigners is haole, meaning people WITHOUT ha.  This is thought to be because they could not quote their genealogy back many generations, therefore, rendering them without roots or breathless in the eyes of Hawaiians.  Today, the term haole refers to Caucasians only.

Water-both fresh and salt-has always been an understandable obsession for island-bound people, and the Hawaiians are no exception.  They reflect this preoccupation in the vast number of longer words and names that incorporate wai (fresh water) and kai (sea or salt water) into them.  The Hawaiian word for wealth is wai wai, equating a reverence for water with worldly riches in general.

Frequently encountered words

Wahine (women) and kane (men) are commonly used words, especially important when you are trying to decide which washroom to enter.

Pu pu is the standard Hawaiian expression for an appetizer or a snack.  Barmen in particular love to watch the expression on tourists' faces when offering a complimentary bowl of pu pu with their drinks.

are people in the community with recognized expertise in one of life's specialized subject areas, ranging from herbal medicine to celestial navigation to agricultural techniques, religious practices, and much more.  They are like the PhDs of western society, and highly respected for their acquired knowledge.

Kupuna are the respected elders of the society, again a rich repository of traditional knowledge, encouragement and advice for younger generations.

Waimea Falls Audubon Center on Oahu, Hawaii
Honored kupuna, Aunty Ka'ula, shares her knowledge of traditional culture, language, and skillfully made tools for hunting, fishing, and agriculture. Alison Gardner

Kapu is the Hawaiian word for taboo, incorporating sacred or forbidden geological areas, archaeological sites or religious practices, known and respected within the traditional culture.  There are a great many more of these than any outsider will ever realize, as they are just not discussed or shared as a matter of course.

To keep abreast of our high-tech times, Hawaiian language specialists have recently invented a word for "database".  It is hokeo ikepili, incorporating hokeo as the traditional word for a gourd storage container, ike meaning knowledge, and pili signifying relationships.  Nothing static about this language!

In Hawaiian EDventures programs, lei making is an art in the Hawaiian Islands.
Visitors learn the art of lei making as part of the University of Hawaii's EDventure vacation learning programs offered through Elderhostel, Interhostel and Familyhostel. Hawaiian EDventure

If you really want to impress your Hawaiian hosts, you may wish to learn some appropriate greetings to meet or say goodbye to people:
Aloha kakahiaka
= morning greeting
Aloha auinala = afternoon greeting
Aloha ahiahi = evening greeting
A hui hou = till we meet again/see you soon
Aloha nui loa = much love or fond regards (to be used with discretion)
Malama Pono = take good care
Mahalo nui loa = thank you very much!

Vacations are more fun when you know the heritage!

The Hawaiian Cowboy

Some three to four decades ahead of the American West's version, Hawaii already had its own breed of hard working cowboy known as the paniolo.  In 1803 the first horses of Moorish and Arabian descent were imported from Spanish colonial California, and the idea of cattle ranching as a commercial enterprise seemed a logical next step.

paniolo cowboys traditionally play the ukulele

In 1832, King Kamehameha III, brought Spanish cowboys from California to train Hawaiians in horse and cattle handling.  As a result, the colorful dress, singing style, and horse gear are more closely akin to the Spanish tradition than to that of the American West.  For example, saddles were deliberately designed without tacks or nails so that repairs could be made on the job.  Even the name, paniolo, is believed to come from espaņol, meaning Spanish.

The ukulele, brought to the islands by Portuguese laborers in 1879, was immediately adopted as a favorite paniolo instrument.

Hawaiian remains the language of the highly skilled paniolo, pursuing a profession with a heritage that is alive and well on several Hawaiian Islands where working and guest ranches thrive.  Though modern paniolos are of Hawaiian, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Japanese descent, ranch terminology and communication continue to follow tradition, as do distinctive musical styles that include falsetto singing, yodeling, storytelling and slack key. 

Hawaiian Music and Costumes

The musical instruments and lyrical styles we most associate with Hawaii did not exist before European contact.  It was Portuguese laborers who brought the ukulele to the islands in 1879.  The distinctive sound of another stringed import, the horizontally played steel guitar, has also been co-opted into Hawaiian music as though it were invented for just that purpose.  Modern hula performances are usually accompanied by ukuleles, guitars, and other instruments, whereas traditional hula, still practiced today with great attention to a much earlier history, is accompanied only by chanting and percussion.

The most famous symbol of the hula, the grass skirt, is not Hawaiian at all.  It was introduced from Micronesia by laborers from the Gilbert Islands in the early 19th century.  More traditionally, Hawaiians used their own abundant native materials such as long, shiny, flat ti leaves threaded together in a similar fashion.

Clyde "Kindy" Sproat was Hawaii's most famous paniolo cowboy
Hawaii's most famous paniolo falsetto singer and storyteller, Clyde "Kindy" Sproat, celebrated Hawaiian cowboy culture as far away from his Big Island home as Carnegie Hall in New York.

Big Island History is Alive and Interactive

Living History Museums provide an enriching, entertaining snapshot of times past. The Kona Historical Society has developed great skill in creating interactive locations and programs that capture the most colorful, personal and poignant elements of settlement in these most remote islands on earth. Speaking into each important historical experience, the Society often schedules special events and cultural festivals, easily missed by visitors not tuned in to these opportunities, mostly happening along the south Kona coast.

Historic play about Japanese laborers immigrating to Hawaii in the 1920s and 1930s.
Performed on the grounds of the Museum, a touching three-actor play is based on actual accounts of Japanese immigrant laborers brought to the Big Island in the 1920s and 1930s to work the coffee and macadamia nut farms. It tells a compelling tale of physical hardship, cultural isolation, and eventually the successful integration of Japanese Hawaiians. Alison Gardner

Don't miss the Kona Historical Society's scheduled dinner theater performances and walking tours, or the national award-winning Kona Coffee Living History Farm, an active seven-acre working coffee farm first homesteaded in 1900. More Living History projects are in the works!

Sugar Cane History in the Hawaiian Islands - An Extraordinary Tale

Old varieties of Hawaiian sugar cane.
Old varieties of Hawaii's sugar cane illustrate colorful diversity. Christine Faye

The first sugar cane plant came to the Hawaiian Islands with the Polynesian settlers, but the early technology for making sugar was imported from China. Over the next 150 years, Hawaii boasted one of the most technologically advanced and efficient sugar industries. Modern labor costs and competition from developing countries have led to a severe decline in Hawaii's sugar cane production until, today, there are only two operations left, one on Kauai and one on Maui.

Immigrant workers on sugar cane plantations came from many cultures and countries.
Immigrant workers spoke so many languages that plantation owners created a multi-national language, Hawaiian pidgin, that even stumped the Nazis during WW II. Gay and Robinson Tours 

When sugar was king, there was not sufficient manpower in Hawaii to work the fields and factories, so contract laborers were imported into the Kingdom, beginning with the Chinese as early as 1852, and followed by waves of Japanese, Norwegians, Puerto Ricans, Filipinos, Portuguese, Germans, Koreans and Spaniards. Truly a United Nations gathering of workers until the importation of plantation labor came to an end about 1946!

With so many nationalities, Hawaii's sugar plantations faced a communication dilemma. As more and more diverse groups arrived, new words and phrases had to be developed for people to understand what was required for their jobs and daily life. Pidgin, a Hawaiian plantation language evolved into such a unique vocabulary that during World War II, the Germans were unable to break the code of the Japanese-American 442 Regimental Battalion because they were speaking Hawaiian plantation pidgin!

The history of the Hawaiian sugar cane industry is a colorful one.
Until 2008, Gay and Robinson offered an intriguing educational introduction to 165 years of sugar production on Kauai, the only tour of a working plantation in Hawaii. Gay and Robinson Tours

Until 2008 Gay and Robinson offered informative Field and Factory Tours that whisked visitors behind the scenes throughout the vast 55,000 acre property, including intriguing bits of time travel back to when Messers Gay and Robinson launched their enterprise in the early 1880s. Keep an ear to the ground in case these are revived in future.

Gay and Robinson Field and Factory Tours take visitors into 55,000 acres of sugar cane plantations.
In the 1930s, the introduction of steam engines meant no more hand cutting of the cane. These days, seed canes (above) are the only stalks selected and cut by hand. Alison Gardner

As late as 1931, the G and R company "town" employed nearly 1,000 people, and housed more than 3,000 on the plantation with a doctor and hospital, schools, social welfare director, its own railroad and even a melodic plantation band. One townsite is occupied and meticulously-maintained today: a delight to stroll under huge shade trees and old fashioned street lights along wide, pothole-free red dirt roads.

To immerse even deeper in Kauai's sugar cane past, plan to stay at the Waimea Plantation Cottages, a wonderfully diverse collection of restored plantation workers' homes on 27 acres of pristine beachfront property. Many of the cottages were originally built right on this site; some have been rescued from other island locations and added to a generously-spaced collection of more than 50.

Waimea Plantation Cottages offer self-catering plantation worker homes to visitors on vacation.
Each Waimea Plantation Cottage is distinctive and furnished in historical context. Alison Gardner

Linked by pathways and manicured lawns and shaded by mature flowering shrubs and towering palms, Waimea Plantation Cottages has made every effort to keep the authentic ambience and furnishing style of these self-catering accommodations -- except for the necessary modern conveniences, of course. This living legacy from the sugar plantation heyday is an ideal opportunity for visitors to literally sleep with history!

You are invited to click on the Alternative Hawaii Table of Contents page to explore more article pages devoted to the exciting character accommodations, small-scale tour operators, wellness tourism providers, spectacular bird photography, and other hidden highlights of Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Big Island [Hawaii] and Molokai.

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