The Cultural Significance of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

The Cultural Significance of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Cultural Research and Significance

The first discoverers of the Hawaiian Archipelago, Native Hawaiians, have continued to inhabit these islands for thousands of years prior to Western contact. During this time, Native Hawaiians developed complex resource management systems and a specialized set of skills to survive on these remote islands with limited resources. Native Hawaiians continue to maintain their strong cultural ties to the land and sea and continue to understand the importance of managing the islands and waters as inextricably connected to one another (Beckwith 1951; Lili‘uokalani 1978).

More specifically the ocean played an important role to Native Hawaiians as it was used for resources and physical and spiritual sustenance in their everyday lives. Poetically referred to as ke kai popolohua mea a Kāne (the deep dark ocean of Kāne), the ocean was divided into numerous smaller divisions and categories beginning from the nearshore to the deeper pelagic waters (Malo 1951).  Likewise, channels between islands were also given names and served as connections between islands, as well as a reminder to their larger oceanic history and identity.

In Hawaiian traditions, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are considered a sacred place, a region of primordial darkness from which life springs and spirits return after death (Kikiloi 2006). Much of the information about the NWHI has been passed down in oral and written histories, genealogies, songs, dance, and archaeological resources. Through these sources, Native Hawaiians are able to recount the travels of seafaring ancestors between the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands. Hawaiian language archival resources have played an important role in providing this documentation, through a large body of information published over a hundred years ago in local newspapers (e.g., Kaunamano 1862 in Hōkǖ o ka Pakipika; Manu 1899 in Ka Loea Kalai‘āina; Wise 1924 inNūpepa Kuoko‘a). More recent ethnological studies (Maly 2003) highlight the continuity of Native Hawaiian traditional practices and histories in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Only a fraction of these have been recorded, and many more exist in the memories and life histories of kupuna.

Visit NOAA for more information on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

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