Hawaii History and Culture

December 28, 2012 by

Local Guides, Travel Tips, Uniquely Hawaii

Pi’ilanihale Heiau

Pi’ilanihale Heiau. Photo credit: Mitchell Hearns Bishop via Flickr.

When it comes to experiencing Hawaii’s history and culture most visitors might expect to find it at a luau. Though luaus can indeed provide cultural insights—cooking a pig in an underground imu, gathering of friends for a big pa’ina (party), practicing chants and the art of the hula—many elements of Hawaii’s history and culture exist in places you wouldn’t think to look for them.

One of the easiest ways to experience Hawaii’s history and culture is by going to a local-style restaurant and perusing the plate lunch options. Pork adobo brought from Filipino field laborers sits on the same menu as Portuguese sausage brought over by ranchers. Kalbi short ribs imported by Korean merchants can be ordered with a side of haupia coconut pudding—a favorite food of native Hawaiians. Since the islands are really one big cultural melting pot the varied history of Hawaii’s people is evident simply from looking at the food.

Those looking for more traditional sites pertaining to Hawaii’s history and culture can do few better outings than head to an ancient heiau, or temple. Heiau were built for a variety of purposes and served as places of worship for the polytheistic Hawaiians. Pu’ukohola Heaiu on the Big Island is the place from where King Kamehameha began his journey to conquer all of the islands, and Pi’ilanihale Heiau in Hana, Maui is the largest remaining heiau found anywhere in the state.  Awash in a bit more sorcery and darkness, Molokai’s Iliiliopae Heiau is believed to be the site of ancient human sacrifice dedicated to Lono, ancient god of agriculture and fertility. Much more than just walls and stones, touring a heiau with a knowledgeable guide provides an authentic look into Hawaiian history and culture before the arrival of explorers, missionaries, plantation workers, and tourists.

Finally, there are few better ways to learn about Hawaii’s history and culture than simply from looking at the language itself. Visitors can help perpetuate the culture by making an effort to learn Hawaiian pronunciation and call locations by their proper Hawaiian name. For example, understand that the road to Ka’anapali is not called “Highway 30”, but rather it’s known as Honoapi’ilani Highway (The Bays of Pi’ilani) in reference to the ancient footpath which once connected all the bays of Pi’ilani, former king of the island of Maui. Likewise, when watching the sunrise from Haleakala (House of the Sun), don’t refer to it as “the volcano”, but rather understand that in Hawaiian mythology the Hawaiian demigod Maui stood on this peak and snared the sun in an effort to provide enough sunlight for his people to farm.

Much can be learned about Hawaii’s history and culture for those who make the effort to find it, and oftentimes the culture of Hawaii surrounds you in subtle ways (“please remove your shoes before entering”) which you may not even notice, even if they’re right in front of you.

-Kyle Ellison

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