Who are Native Hawaiians?


Marked by ingenuity and resourcefulness, the indigenous Hawaiian culture is internationally celebrated for its artistry and sophistication. While excelling in such arts as poetry, dance and sculpture, Hawaiians also established a well-developed judicial system and instituted complex scientific and agricultural methods.

But, who are Native Hawaiians?

Congress defines “Native Hawaiian” as “any individual who is a descendant of the aboriginal people who, prior to 1778, occupied and exercised sovereignty in the area that now constitutes the State of Hawai‘i.” (U.S. Public Law 103-150)

However, Native Hawaiians are so much more. We define ourselves by our relationships with each other, our ancestors and our land. Without these bonds of interconnectedness, we are incomplete.

Being Hawaiian involves nurturing and honoring these ties. In the Hawaiian society, one is expected to know and understand what it means to be a contributing member of the community. Everyone has a kuleana, responsibility, to use his or her talents to the benefit of the entire ‘ohana (literally, family). By fulfilling our duties to the ‘ohana and recognizing the accomplishments of others, Hawaiians increase their mana or spirituality.

Built upon the foundation of the ‘ohana, Hawaiian culture ensures the health of the community as a whole. The Western concept of “immediate family” is alien to indigenous Hawaiians. The Hawaiian ‘ohana encompasses not only those related by blood, but all who share a common sense of aloha (love and compassion). It is common to hear Native Hawaiians who are meeting for the first time ask “Who is your family?” and then joke we must be related “because we are all related.”

The ties that bind ‘ohana together cannot be broken, even by death. As loved ones pass, they continue to fulfill their obligations to the rest of the ‘ohana from the next realm. Hawaiians cherish their ancestors, committing to memory generation upon generation of lineage and composing beautiful chants heralding our ancestors’ abilities.

A lo‘i of kalo

The most important ancestor for all Hawaiians is the land itself. Legend names the first Hawaiian as the kalo (taro) plant. Therefore, as the Hawaiian progenitor, it is every Hawaiians obligation to care for their elder brother, the land.

The Creation

In the beginning, there was Papa (Earth mother) and Wākea (sky father). From these gods descended a still-born child, Hāloa (literally, long stem). Papa and Wākea buried their child, and watched as he changed and grew into the Hawaiian staff of life, kalo (the taro plant).

After Hāloa, another child was born, the first Hawaiian was born. Also named Hāloa in honor of his older brother, the first human to inhabit these islands was inextricably linked to the land that gave birth to him. As the younger siblings, Hawaiians understood their duty to care for their ‘āina, their land, so that it would in turn sustain them.

The Native Hawaiian people cherish their connection to the land. Our language is resonant with allusions to our heritage as kama‘āina, children of the land. The word for “family,” ‘ohana, literally translates as “from the kalo stem.” In acknowledging their interdependence with their ‘āina, Hawaiians created a unique culture, vibrant, sophisticated and efficient in its perceptiveness of the natural world.

The Beginning
voyagers Anthropologists date the advent of man to these islands as early as the time of Christ. Polynesian explorers, navigating by the stars and the swells of the open ocean, found and inhabited almost every island in Polynesia, an area equal in size to the combined continents of North and South America.

These navigators, chosen for their strength and knowledge, brought with them the plants and animals needed to settle an unknown land. Coconut, breadfruit, sugar cane, sweet potato, banana, chickens, pigs, dogs and, of course, kalo ensured the explorers’ survival.

Upon reaching the archipelago (possibly at Ka Lae – South Point in the Ka‘u district and ‘Upolu Point in the Kohala district of the island of Hawai‘i), the settlers began establishing a society based upon ancient traditions throughout the island chain.

A Unique Hawaiian Culture
While interaction with other Pacific Island cultures continued for centuries, such contact is estimated to have inexplicably ceased during the 14th century. The Hawaiian civilization, like Hawaiian wildlife, was left to develop in isolation.

A leiomano made of niho manō and ‘ōhi‘a

A leiomano made of niho manō and ‘ōhi‘a

Hawaiians became experts in managing their environment. With tools of only wood, stone and shell they successfully practiced the science of renewable resources. Incredible engineering feats, many unmatched today, maximized both agriculture and aquaculture yields without depleting resources.

By incorporating a strong sense of community and spiritual character, Hawaiians were able to provide food and housing for an estimated population in excess of one million. Limited fresh water and arable lands proved only temporary obstacles to the native culture. Working together, Native Hawaiians created a water distribution system in which all who needed water, whether for drink or irrigation, had it at their disposal. Additionally, after observing the environmental effects of different plantings, the Hawaiians realized by planting and managing forest areas, they could bolster water retention naturally.

dancerBecause of their proficiency in agriculture and aquaculture, Hawaiians also had time to concentrate on other aspects of their culture. Believing everything one does was imbued with one’s mana, or spirit, they practiced a work ethic of excellence. Anything one attempted should be done to the best of one’s ability. Native Hawaiian arts such as mele (poetry), oli (oration), hula (dance), haku hulu (featherwork), kapa (barkcloth) and ulana (weaving) are unparalleled.

Western Contact
By the time Captain James Cook came upon the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, the sovereign line of Hawai‘i had persisted for more than 23 generations – or more than 500 years of a sustained, stable system of governance.

With Hawai‘i’s introduction to the Western world came irrevocable changes. Within one generation of Cook’s landing, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i was an internationally recognized nation with representatives from many of the world’s most powerful governments in residence, including the United States. In order to cope with increasing foreign contacts, the Hawaiian Kingdom began adopting western legal systems such as a parliament, a constitution and treaties with other nations.

As the world discovered the riches of Hawaiian waters and forests, as well as the fertility of Hawaiian soil, the children of American missionaries stationed in the islands began their fight to own Hawaiian lands. Like many native peoples, Hawaiians did not believe one could possess land, but rather that land was to be held communally for the good of the entire society. With great pressure from the United States, a new system of land tenure was established in which ostensibly anyone, but more importantly – foreigners, could own the land.

U.S. Involvement and the Overthrow
small-schooner At the end of the 19th century, the United States’ interest in Hawai‘i was at a feverish pitch. American merchants and plantation owners had a stranglehold on the islands’ rich economy, and Hawai‘i’s strategic location in the Pacific made it an invaluable military base. It was therefore with great trepidation that the U.S. watched as the Hawaiian government strengthened its ties with European nations, as well as worked to reestablish control of Hawaiian lands and wealth.

In response, American merchants called upon the U.S. military to aid in the overthrow of the Kingdom, a nation which had been allied by treaty to the United States for more than seventy years. In 1893, U.S. Marines forced Queen Lili‘uokalani to abdicate, disbanded Parliament, and installed a group of American businessmen as the leaders of the new Provisional Government. Two years later, the deposed queen was imprisoned. With this overthrow, the Hawaiian people marked the suspension of their political sovereignty.

Under martial law, Hawaiians were forced to either swear allegiance to the new Republic or relinquish their voting rights. The Hawaiian language was banned, and Hawaiian culture and arts were deemed subversive. Nearly two million acres of Hawaiian government and crown lands were confiscated. Tens of thousands of Hawaiians protested, including Queen Lili‘uokalani who petitioned Congress to return her nation. “They point to the noble causes of liberty and freedom,” she wrote, “Yet, they refuse to grant this liberty and freedom to the Hawaiian people.”

The new leaders, realizing the key to their continued wealth lay with tariff-free imports into the United States, petitioned Congress to annex the island nation. As the Hawaiian people protested the newly formed Republic of Hawai‘i, the US Congress sent James Blount, special commissioner to Hawai‘i, to investigate the United States’ role in the overthrow of the monarchy. Blount found that U.S. Minister James Stevens and American businessmen did indeed conspire to overthrow the nation of Hawai‘i.

It was widely reported by annexation supporters that Native Hawaiians greatly favored becoming a part of the United States. However, nearly 40,000 Hawaiians – an estimated 95 percent of the Native Hawaiian adult population – petitioned Congress not to annex Hawai‘i. South Dakota Senator Richard Pettigrew, who conducted a fact-finding visit during the annexation process, reported “I have failed to find a Native Hawaiian who was not opposed to annexation.”

Congress failed to ratify annexation by the required two-thirds majority and out-going President Grover Cleveland recognized the injustice forced upon the Hawaiian nation, calling the American action “an act of war on a defenseless and friendly nation.”

Nevertheless, in the era of Manifest Destiny and in the time when a prevailing view of Native Hawaiians was as “cute, all-abiding nincompoops certainly inferior as humans and in need of being looked after by superior beings,” annexation supporters chose to thwart the will of Congress. With a Joint Resolution of Congress to annex Hawai‘i, which could pass with only a simple majority instead of the normal prerequisite of two-thirds. President William McKinley signed the Joint Resolution annexing Hawai‘i in 1899.

Hawai‘i became a part of the United States through the determined efforts of a small group of Americans in the islands, less than 2 percent of the population, and a group of powerful men in Washington, DC. For more information, click here.

A Long Time Coming

Nearly a century later in 1993, Congress again passed another Joint Resolution, but this time apologizing for the United Statesʻ role in the Hawaiian overthrow. Congress acknowledged the overthrow would not have been successful without the aid of US troops and the help of US Minister, John Stevens. What has become known as the Apology Law, Public Law 103-150 designated the overthrow as “illegal,” in violation of international law and affirmed the United States aided in depriving the rights of Native Hawaiians to self-determination. Additionally, the US received the crown and government lands “without the consent of or compensation to the Native Hawaiian people of Hawai‘i or their sovereign government.”

Ceded Lands

When Hawai‘i became a territory, the United States recognized and later codified the trust responsibilities associated with the 1.8 million acres of Hawaiian crown and government land seized by the Provisional Government. These lands were initially set aside in 1848 by King Kamehameha III who noted they were for “my people.” Furthermore, as a condition of statehood, the federal government required the State of Hawai‘i to hold these lands in a Public Land Trust and to use its revenue for five purposes, one of which is the “betterment of conditions of Native Hawaiians.” While the state constitution requires one-fifth of the revenues of the so-called “ceded” lands to benefit Native Hawaiians, funds from these lands remain unaccounted for and in the coffers of the state.

Hawaiians Today

Today, Native Hawaiians are still fighting to regain their language, culture, rights and land. While many are proud to be Americans, they still long to have past wrongs addressed. One effort underway is the move to have Native Hawaiians federally recognized as the indigenous people of these islands thereby allowing a government to government relationship with the United States. Legislation known as the Akaka Bill has slowly been making its way through the US Congress.


  1. Mahalo nui loa. Hopefully, people will start to understand that we are the indigenous people of these islands.

  2. Mahalo. Will you post something about land tenure? Especially with the ceded lands case possibly going to the feds.

  3. You mean Obama’s not a native Hawaiian?

  4. We at Halau O Limaloa honor, teach, live and respect traditional Hawaiian Spirituality. Our Kumu is a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian), and has been given the permission, approval and kuleana (responsibility) by his ohana (family) to teach Hawaiian spirituality, as he was taught by his kupuna. Stand tall, learn the traditional ways, and be proud of indigenous knowledge.

  5. This is very up-to-date information. I’ll share it on Twitter.

  6. As a white American, I’m glad my Hawaiian brothers are one with us now and for all time. The land that is Hawaii belongs to all, and we must work to keep it healthy. We are all Hawaiians now. Aloha.

  7. Aloha.
    What of those granted citizenship and honors (Order of Kamehameha e.g.) and supported the Monarchy against the revolutionists and happened to be haole?

    • Aloha kāua,
      While the people you mention may have been citizens of Hawai‘i, that doesn’t make them Native Hawaiian. Just as being a citizen of Japan, doesn’t make one ethnically Japanese. We are not saying that one is better than the other, just that the differentiation exists.

  8. We know the Truth! Said Brahda IZ!

  9. Hi I’m from the island of CNMI. I’m really interesting to know if there’s any group or organization for Natives of Hawaii. Would love to get in touch with them and learn what they’re doing now regarding their land.

  10. Great piece you’ve written! Will be sure to share it with others who need an enlightened overview of our people, our history and the sovereignty movement. Mahalo!!

  11. Mahalo for this knowledge about Hawaiians. I’m not Hawaiian, but I love Hawaii very much and sympathize with the Hawaiians.

    Does anyone know where to find literature on Hawaiian indigenous environmental culture, like how they lived with land and ocean in regards to sustainability?

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