Hawaiian Language, Culture and History
On the Big Island’s South Kona shore, traditional Polynesian totems in Puuhonua o Honaunau National Historical Park guard the “place of refuge.” Alison Gardner
We begin with an intriguing look at the history and evolution of Hawaiian language from the Polynesian arrival to the many emigrant groups (way before tourism) that created a very useful code language during World War II.
Or click straight through 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.
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 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
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.
Kahuna 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.
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!
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!
CENTURIES AFTER POLYNESIAN HAWAIIANS CAME ASHORE, MANY ‘IMPORTS’ HAVE SHAPED SETTLER HISTORY TOO!
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.
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 español, 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.
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.
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!
Hawaiian Islands Sugar Cane History, An Extraordinary Tale
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 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!
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.
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.
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!
Feel free to explore other stories about alternative Hawaiian vacations well suited to senior travelers, their families and friends. Click on the titles below to read each inspiring article.
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Lana’i moves slowly into tourism
Hawaiian Islands volunteer vacations
Maui’s most Hawaiian hotel
Hawaii’s tasty cultural cuisine
Hawaii tour operators and planners
Hawaii – sleeping in paradise
Hawaiian bird pictures
Hawaii wellness vacationing
Hawaii’s wellness providers
Maui Zipline Adventure