How To Respect Hawaiian Culture When Traveling
All photos by Scott Laird
It was a rainy day at Kealakekua Bay on Hawai‘i Island as I parked and began to approach Hikiau Heiau. There were no other visitors around; no sound but the surf and the rustle of a soft breeze through the surrounding flora. The ocean was the color of slate and the sea cliffs were enveloped in an ethereal mist that produced a jade so brilliant it made my skin tingle. The nearby beach was not sand, but instead pahoehoe lava rocks which tumbled into the ocean with the recession of each wave creating a chorus that sounded like rainfall in its own right.
I felt the breeze of the falling tree branch before I heard it hit the ground behind me, missing me by a scant few feet. I knew I had disturbed the energy of the place, and like a caught child I inwardly protested that I hadn’t planned on touching the heiau, which I knew to be kapu (forbidden) not only because of the historical and religious significance to Native Hawaiians, but also for practical reasons: the rocks comprising heiau are carefully stacked without cement or mortar, and they’re fragile.
I knew what I had forgotten, so I stopped and said a silent prayer of introduction, saying to the spirits who I was and what my intentions were, and asking for permission to take up this space.
Hawai‘i Nei (that is, the Hawaiian Islands) is a great place to vacation, but my encounter at Kealakekua Bay on that rainy day brings me to my first point on how to visit these islands in ways that are mindful to the local culture. The first, and most important, is:
Malama ka ‘aina i ke kai (Care for the land and the ocean)
Isolated and luscious, the islands of Hawai‘i are one of the most idyllic vacation spots on the planet. However, it’s important to remember that although it’s a destination frequented by millions of visitors each year, it does not exist solely as a playground for your vacation. Ancient Hawaiians saw the land and oceans as the givers of life, and endeavored to treat them with due reverence because of it. Visitors to Hawai‘i can honor that cultural legacy in meaningful ways by maintaining that reverence, and not taking lava rocks, beach sand, or local flora, all of which are said to contain mana (energy or life force).
This is particularly important when visiting wahi pana (sacred or treasured sites, such as heiau). George Makali‘I Thronas, Manager of Culture at Grand Hyatt Kaua‘i, shares that wahi pana are the best way to truly experience what Hawai‘i has to offer, although observing posted signage is a key element to enjoying them in appropriate ways: “In showing respect to these places always be mindful of posted signs and the all-important word kapu.” It’s worth noting that in pre-contact Hawai‘i, kapu were often designated by the ali‘i (chiefs) to maintain sustainable growth of the land, safety, or religious observance; in modern times the same rationale is often applied—so obey the signs.
READ MORE: See a Different Side of Hawaii in Lanai
It’s also important not to leave offerings at wahi pana unless you know what you’re doing. Guests will sometimes leave rocks wrapped in leaves or other offerings which have no cultural significance, which is actually a desecration of the site, in spite of the leaver’s best intentions. More information about respectfully visiting wahi pana can be found in this great brochure.
In short, while the land is gorgeous, and an enjoyable place to vacation, it must not be forgotten that is in many ways borrowed from the people of Hawai‘i and their ancestors.
Ask questions; ask permission
Another important concept in Hawai‘i is that of pono (righteousness or correctness). In fact, it’s even part of the state motto ua mau ke ‘ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono—the life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness. When questions of pono arise, it’s often recommended to seek the advice of a parent (Makua) grandparent (Kupuna) or other trusted elder. Absent these relationships, visitors can rely on cultural staff at these sites or at their hotels to guide them in the right direction: not sure if the flowers should be picked? Ask. Not sure if the beach or swimming spot in the “insiders” guidebook is safe or culturally appropriate to visit? Ask. Are the ‘opihi (limpets) safe to eat? Ask.
Brooke Hutchins, Cultural Ho‘okipa Ambassador at the Sheraton Kona Resort and Spa at Keauhou Bay, explains: “Guests [can be] respectful of a place by leaving the area the way it was before they arrived, and asking permission before removing anything. It gives us an opportunity to share culture that is interwoven in Hawai‘i on a daily basis.”
Says Thronas, “The Hawaiian culture is our people. It lives within us and is to be shared.”
Leave your preconceptions at the airport
Hawai‘i is an iconic, well-marketed destination, and while that effort has made the Aloha State one of the most sought after vacation destinations in the world, it also gives visitors high expectations that ultimately leaves some disappointed. Many visitors seem perplexed when they realize that, yes, there’s traffic in Hawai‘i too, or don’t seem to understand why residents don’t find it amusing when they say they would be happy to sleep on the beach if only they could live in Hawai‘i (many communities in the state battle housing shortages and homelessness), or make observational but insensitive comments about the number of tourists from Asia (without seeming to notice that Hawai‘i is the only state with a plurality of Asian or part-Asian residents).
Thronas adds that he hopes visitors “come to the island with an open heart and the understanding that our natural resources are shared amongst everyone. Most importantly, relax and be ready for a great time.”
Hutchins expressed the importance of understanding that “the Hawaiian people are dynamic and diversified. Although we may or may not fit [visitors’ preconceived] notions we are Hawaiian just the same, and I believe those that realize this after spending time in the islands and with us are more grateful for it. They realize that it’s real, and we’re real.”
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