Photo: Deborah Kolb/Shutterstock

Experience Hawaii’s Thriving Indigenous Culture Beyond Sun, Sand, and Surf

Hawaii Culture Beaches and Islands
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Sep 4, 2020

“Our history didn’t start with Captain Cook and the missionaries,” says Kainoa Daines, Director of Culture and Product Development at the Hawai‘i Visitors & Convention Bureau. “Our history goes back thousands of years.”

Polynesians, who started sailing long distances as far back as three thousand years ago, have been populating the islands of the Pacific since that time. They may have arrived in Hawaii as early as the year 400.

Davies wants visitors to have a better understanding of the land of his Hawaiian ancestors. In fact, the Hawai‘i Visitors Bureau had never had a position focused on culture before, and he essentially wrote his own job description for it.

“We didn’t have a chance to tell our story, and only now are we telling our story,” says Daines. “A lot of it was done by outsiders. They were telling the rest of the world, without talking to us, this is how we interpret Hawaii. And we, in the last 10 to 15 years, have been reclaiming that image of who we are.”

The good news, says Daines, is that travelers want to know Hawai’i more deeply, and many are ready to take the time and effort to do so. Today’s new generation of travelers is “more educated and more interested in culture and history,” says Daines. “They’re wanting to know more about the place, and they want to also travel where they can give back.”

For those wanting to better understand the culture of Native Hawaiians and how to give back, we’ve got a few suggestions:

1. Read

Before you go, familiarize yourself on the basics of Hawaii’s fascinating history, even if it’s just a well-researched article you can find on the internet. If you are up for a book, get a copy of Hawaii Queen by Hawaii’s Queen, written by Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning queen. It’s a book that Daines used to give all visiting travel agents and tour operators a copy of back when he was Director of Sales at the Oahu Visitors Bureau.

“[Queen Liliuokalani] lived through the monarchy, she lived through the overthrow, and so from a historical place it doesn’t get any more accurate than her experience of Hawaii from the 1830s to the early 1900s,” says Daines.

As Daines explains, because Hawaii is now a US state — something it has only been since 1959 — most American students only learn about it in that context. “Pearl Harbor and pineapples are usually what’s covered in America history class. And so it’s very eye-opening for our travel agents … They’re just like, I had no idea that Hawaii was that involved in global politics, in a sense, back in the 1800s. We had a seat at the table with other heads of Europe and America and Asia.”

It’s important to understand that Hawaii had a thriving culture of its own before Europeans arrived and gradually started stripping Native Hawaiians of their power and land. In 1893, a group of European-American settlers, with help from US Marines, overthrew Queen Liliuokalani, and in 1889 the US annexed Hawaii. A century later, in 1993, President Bill Clinton acknowledged the injustice of that coup against Hawaii’s monarchy and issued a formal apology.

2. Time your visit

Photo: G Ward Fahey/Shutterstock

Time your visit to occur during one of Hawaii’s many festivals, particularly ones centered on its Native culture. Daines, who reviews grants for the Hawaii Tourist Authority (HTA), says the HTA has begun dedicating more resources towards preserving Hawaiian culture — irrespective of the tourist element.

“The Hawaiian Tourism Authority gives out several million dollars a year to several festivals and events across the state that promote and celebrate the Hawaiian culture,” said Daines. “We promote the heck out of these festivals for this reason. These festivals are really how you truly connect with the people.”

One such festival is the King Kamehameha Celebration, which occurs on June 11 in Oahu every year and honors the monarch who united the Hawaiian islands. Daines has been the chair of that event for nearly 13 years.

Another festival to consider is the May Day festival, which is also known locally as the Lei Day Festival and takes place on May 1 all over Hawaii. Each island has its own lei that represents what’s unique about that island. You can see people making leis and learn more about floral strands’ cultural significance. “Lei culture really personifies the spirit of aloha and the giving nature of this place,” says Daines.

The list of events on each island is endless — from full-on festivals to weekly events inspired by Hawaiian culture. Check out the list of festivals and events here, and then make your travel plans.


Photo: Iolani Palace/Facebook

“There’s more to Hawaii than sun, sand, and surf,” says Daines. The islands are full of sites and offerings that will allow you a better look at its Native culture. If you’re on Oahu, visit the Iolani Palace, the only royal palace on US soil. Go to the Bishop Museum, the best look at Hawaiian culture and history in one place.

You’ll find ancient sites all over the islands — from fishponds to petroglyphs. You’ll also find more intact structures like the ruins of King Kamehameha’s summer place on Oahu and those of the Mookini Heiau temple on the Big Island, near the birthplace of King Kamehameha. Located on the Big Island’s northern tip, across the channel from Maui, it’s an ethereal, windswept spot and an interesting place to contemplate Hawaii’s complex history.

You’ll also find museums on other islands like Maui. While Daines acknowledges that not everyone is attracted to museums, he says many of them often have an active component — bringing in specialists who “do language, music, art, weaponry, dance” and so on — giving you an opportunity to better explore the culture.

Tourist luaus are not a genuine Native Hawaiian experience, feels Daines. He says they are fine to attend and adds, “We all work at them. A lot of Native Hawaiians work at these places, and there’s ‘Hawaiian food’ on the menu, and there’s dance and entertainment.” But Daines feels they are not “authentic,” acknowledging that even the word authentic is so often overused.


Photo: Punchalit Chotiksatian/Shutterstock

Rather than attend tourist luaus, take a class — such as those offered at museums and cultural centers where you can get an up-close look at Hawaiian traditions. In such a setting, you can ask the practitioners about their expertise and make a deeper connection with them. Whether during Lei Day or at one of the islands’ botanical gardens, you may be able to find a lei-making class. Likewise, you’ll find classes on playing the ukulele, and even hula dance classes.

If you’re staying at a hotel, ask for assistance in finding a class. Daines says hotels are becoming increasingly aware of travelers’ interest in local culture and are offering more off-site opportunities for their guests. You could even go a step further and practice a little Hawaiian. In 2018, the language-learning app Duolingo added Navajo and Hawaiian to its options.


When in Hawaii, make an effort to support Native Hawaiian businesses. One favorite of mine in Kauai is the Kalalea Juice Hale, off the highway on the way to Hanalei. It’s in Anahola, a part of the island reserved for residents of Native Hawaiian descent. On Oahu’s North Shore, the Haleiwa Store Lots are all locally owned and emphasize products made in Hawaii, Oahu, and, even more specifically, on the North Shore. While they aren’t necessarily Native Hawaiian per se, it’s a good first step.

Daines says the Visitors Bureau doesn’t yet have a list of locally owned stores and businesses, but whichever island you’re on, be sure to ask around. When you come home with a Hawaiian shirt, it would be nice if it were actually made there.

Be sustainable

Photo: MNStudio/Shutterstock

A major principle of Hawaiian culture is aloha aina, or love for the land. The idea is that “the land is our ‘mother’ or Mother Earth,” says Daines. “You take care of the Earth, she takes care of you, and that should be a global perspective on the planet that only has so many resources that we live on.”

To understand Native Hawaiian culture, comprehending that commitment to the land is key. Daines says there are opportunities to volunteer at taro patches, pulling weeds, pounding the taro, and having a lunch of poi. A component of this is learning about taro’s cultural, spiritual, mythical significance to the Hawaiian people.

Daines says while there aren’t yet enough of these opportunities for interested travelers, he’s seeing ever more of them. If you do some research, you may even be able to join locals and volunteer at a community workday on a taro farm. Either way, treating the islands with reverence and being a mindful traveler isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s in keeping with the spirit of the island’s first residents.

Have an open mind

Photo: Pavlina Trauskeova/Shutterstock

When you come to Hawaii, arrive with an open mind and an open heart. That is the first step to understanding the local culture, as it’s a central tenet of it. In other words, come with “aloha” in mind. While the word translates to “hello, goodbye, and I love,” it is much more than that.

“That’s the translation literally, but aloha is a feeling, an emotion, it’s a way of life,” Daines says. “It’s generosity without expecting anything in return.” In fact, Daines goes onto explain that the other word many travelers learn, “mahalo” means much more than just thanks.

Hawaiian has no word for you’re welcome since the gesture of giving is expected. “Mahalo is thank you, but also respect, like I respect what you just did for me — so thank you and respect wrapped up in one word,” says Daines. “And it was meant to be reciprocal, just like the word aloha is reciprocal, when I share my aloha with you and you’re genuinely kind and generous with somebody.”

Five years ago on the island of Kauai, I spent a week surfing with Native Hawaiians, who invited me and my surf mates into their homes. The warmth I learned from them stayed with me for weeks and has filled my heart again on my many return trips to Hawaii. I sensed it again in speaking with Daines.

Aloha is so important to Hawaiian culture that Daines usually spends a half-hour explaining the concept in the cultural training that he offers not just to travel executives but to frontline workers as well — and even 30 minutes, he says, feels insufficient to convey the word’s spiritual layers as well. Aloha is so central to Hawaii that is enshrined in the state’s constitution.

While Daines says no one is actually going to get arrested for not practicing aloha in the state, they should make every effort to do so. When your feeling of aloha is “genuine,” he says, “It’s hard not to be nice to someone who’s being nice to you. That’s who we are.”

And when you truly practice aloha, you can get to know locals who can point you to markets, classes, and events where you can get a closer local at Native Hawaiian culture. You are sure not only to understand that Hawaiian “culture is still alive and thriving,” in Daines words, but you’ll be enriched by the spirit of aloha.

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