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Hawaii Culture and History

Hawaii is famous for its natural beauty; home of the best beaches in the world and filled with opportunities to explore trails through forests and over volcanoes. When you’re visiting Hawaii, it’s easy to see the physical beauty, but you’ll have to look a little harder to find ways to explore the culture and history of Hawaii and its people. Culture and traditions are very important to the natives here, and understanding a bit of how this culture was formed and passed down can bring new light and enjoyment to your experiences while visiting beautiful Kauai. Culture is embedded into just about every inch of Kauai so you’ll be able to find things to do that will help you gain a deeper understanding of the rich culture and history. About two and a half miles from our properties, a historic heritage preserve sits right across from Poipu Beach. This ancient Hawaiian village, Kanei’olouma Heiau, is currently being restored

Hawaiian carved coconut tree at Sheraton Poipu Beach
Hawaiian carved coconut tree with full moon at Sheraton Poipu Beach. Photo: Robin Gotfrid

Here’s a brief history of the Hawaiian Islands.

  • Fifteen hundred years ago: Polynesians arrived in Hawaii after navigating the oceans with only the stars as their guide.
  • 1810: King Kamehameha I united the Hawaiian Islands into one nation. Kamehameha was a great leader, warrior, and diplomat. This king’s birth even aligns with Hawaiian legend, making him destined for greatness according to the natives. The uniting of the Islands prevented western takeover that surely would have occurred if the islands were separately ruled, and thus weaker. Every June 11th is now Kamehameha Day, and four statues honoring him are draped with flower leis on this day to honor Hawaii’s greatest king. 
  • 1835: The first sugar plantation opened on Kauai, and agriculture grew to economic prominence. 
  • 18881: King Kalakaua I is also known as the Merrie Monarch, because of his love of music, parties, and fine food and drink. He is known for bringing pride back to the Hawaiian people in several ways: first, he restored Hawaiian cultural practices and traditions, such as hula dancing, that had been restricted for decades; he also became the first monarch ever to circumnavigate the globe. After Kalakaua died in 1898, Queen Liliuokalani took the throne.
  • 1882: Iolani Palace, the official residence of the Hawaiian monarchs, was finished. This beautiful Palace was technologically advanced for its time, utilizing the first electric lights in Hawaii, as well as indoor plumbing and a telephone.
  • 1898: The Newlands Resolution annexed Hawaii with the United States. 
  • 1941: On December 7, 1941, the Japanese surprise attack on Oahu’s Pearl Harbor spurred the United States to finally join World War II. 
  • 1959: On August 21, 1951, Hawaii was voted in as the 50th State of the United States of America.
  • 1980: Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium in Honolulu became the home of the NFL Pro Bowl for 26 years, until this event moved to Orlando, Florida in 2017. 
  • 2009: Honolulu’s Barack Obama became a Senator and then the 44th President of the United States of America, as well as the first African American to serve in that office. 
Keiki o Hālau o Kekuhi perform hula at the 2013 Hawaiian Cultural Festival
Keiki o Hālau o Kekuhi perform hula at the 2013 Hawaiian Cultural Festival. Photo: Hawai’i Volcanoes NPS

Not only is Hawaiian history celebrated and remembered with holidays, but Hawaiian culture is also remembered with perpetuated traditions that have been passed down for generations and are still practiced today.

  • Touching noses, called “honi”, is a traditional greeting where two people press noses and inhale simultaneously. This represents the exchange of “ha”, or the breath of life, and “mana”, or spiritual power. This sacred greeting seems strange to westerners, but is an important Hawaiian ritual.
  • The beautiful lei is a Hawaiian garland or wreath. Leis can be made out of flowers, bird feathers, shells, seeds, hair, ivory, and more. Traditionally, these garlands are tied around the neck or head, instead of cast over them, as a way of showing respect for the other person’s body. 
  • The traditional hula dance takes years of training and was first used as a method for communicating information through dance and gestures. Historically performed in private as a sacred spiritual pursuit, hula was used to tell stories, histories, or genealogies. 
  • Originally, Hawaiian feasts were called Paina or Ahaaina. A misinterpretation led them to become known as Luaus. Luau is a traditional dish of cooked Taro leaves, usually prepared with coconut cream, as well as octopus or chicken.
  • Which ear do you tuck a flower behind? It’s more important than you think! While it didn’t start as a Hawaiian tradition, this fun local custom calls for a single person to tuck a flower behind their right ear, and a person in a relationship to tuck one behind their left ear, the same side as their heart.
  • Taking rocks or sand from the beaches or volcanoes is taboo. This comes from the animistic belief that these things are sacred, and those who take them are cursed. Animism holds that every object, place, and creature possesses a spiritual essence. Thus, all things are animated and alive.
  • Shoes are removed before entering a home in Hawaii. This shows respect for the host and keeps any dirt outside the home, showing respect for their floors and their time cleaning them, as well!
Artistically carved gourds at Hawaiian Cultural Festival
Artistically carved gourds at Hawaiian Cultural Festival. Photo: Hawai’i Volcanoes NPS

Learning more about Hawaiian history, traditions, and heritage is sure to fascinate you and bring you closer with the locals as you enjoy their customs and experience their culture. Hawaii has a beautiful and rich culture and there’s no better way to witness it than to come visit and see for yourself!


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