Hawaiian Culture

Hawaiian Culture

Hawaiians have a colorful and rich culture. There are, of course, the superficial modern trappings of loud Hawaiian shirts, hula skirts and pretty, exotic drinks with umbrellas, which conjures up a fake, kitschy Hawaii. But a thousand years of history cannot be summed up by getting a lei placed around your neck on arrival at the airport or buying macadamia nuts at Honolulu Hattie‘s.

The growth of Hawaiian culture sprang from those hearty Polynesians pioneers who followed lights in the sky from erupting volcanoes to new lives in new islands 2000 miles across the sea. They brought with them their four primary deities: Kane, the creator;

Ku, the god of war; Lono, god of prosperity, peace, wind, and rain; and Kanaloa, god of the ocean and healing. Early Hawaiians practiced their religion in temples built from lava stones, called heiau. Hula came from worship of the gods and was part of a religious system that included prayer and chanting, as well as ritual human sacrifice.

Order in Hawaiian society before the arrival of white explorers, was maintained by noble chiefs or ali’I, who depended on priests (kahuna) to enforce an extremely rigid set of rules. These rules were called “kapu,” inviolate taboos which, when broken, were frequently punishable by death. Besides following the kapu, Hawaiians believed in “mana,” that the gods lived in nature, people and everything around them. They nurtured the mana in every aspect of their lives.

In 1795, King Kamehameha unified the independent islands into one Hawaiian Kingdom by conquering them from the Big Island, his birthplace. What could have been a long period of peace and prosperity in a unified Hawaii, became a century of near ruin for Hawaiian people and their culture.

White men, “haole,” came, initially bringing European weapons, enabling Kamehameha to succeed in his plan to dominate his neighboring islands. Contact with British explorers and merchant seamen, brought gifts of goats, pigs and melons as well as devastating diseases to Hawaii. Captain James Cook’s crew left after he was killed by a blow to the head, but they and later, others, left behind venereal diseases, tuberculosis, smallpox, whooping cough, measles, and influenza. Hawaiian populations were devastated.

The last island, Kauai, finally fell to Kamehameha in 1810. Despite Western influences, Kamehameha managed to perpetuate the ancient Hawaiian traditions until his death in 1819. His successor, Kamehameha II, broke kapu by eating with women, destroyed wooden idols, and dismantled the temples. A huge vacuum was created by the withdrawal of the old ways, which the arrival of Western missionaries in 1820 quickly helped to fill. Calvinist missionaries from New England went to work on native Hawaiians, banning the hula, clothing their bodies and claiming their souls. They did however help to preserve the islands’ history in print from the old oral tradition.

Hawaiian culture was at a low point in the middle of the nineteenth century. King Kamehameha III, allowed outsiders to own Hawaiian land and in two generations more than 1/2 of all private land belonged to foreign businessmen, missionaries and their heirs. Sugar cane plantations and pineapple fields fed growing Western demand and necessitated immigrant field labor from China, Japan and Portugal, further diluting Hawaiian society.

Toward the beginning of the twentieth century, political pressure by powerful sugar planters and American businessmen on the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Liliuokalani, resulted in her abdication in 1893. The last hope of Hawaiians acquiring power to determine their own destiny was now gone. Hawaii became an American territory in 1898.

Hawaiians struggled to find themselves. They turned to their old ways, the ancient traditions of Polynesian culture that had been stripped away for 150 years. After WWII, Hawaiians began teaching and demonstrating what being Hawaiian really means. Through the Aloha Festivals, 500 public cultural events that celebrate the uniqueness of Hawaii, pride in being Hawaiian has returned. The spirit of “Aloha,“ the native belief in unconditional love, has become a movement that has penetrated schools, businesses and elevated Hawaiian culture to a new level. That pride is more than a Mai Tai on the beach, more than a shell necklace or “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” accompanied by ukelele. It is a thousand years of tradition, tradition that has sustained and helped the Hawaiian people to survive and ultimately, to thrive into the 21st century.