We recently returned from a once-in-a-lifetime vacation in Hawaii. The islands are beautiful. The cities and communities we visited were clean and the people are welcoming and kind. I reflected on our trip in an essay for The Radiant Institute, a cohort offered at our home church. The assignment was to share a cross-cultural experience. I’m sharing it with you here:
“The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” ~ Hawaii State Motto
To spend time on the Hawaiian islands is to immerse oneself in a multitude of cultures. Polynesians first settled on the Hawaiian islands 1,600 years ago and are in the majority. Their influence and culture is seen throughout the islands. However, the modern population of 1.4 million citizens is an interesting mix of white Americans, Asians, African Americans, Latinos, Hispanics, native Americans and native Alaskans.
Our recent 10-day tour of Hawaii began with immersion in the most native community in the state — Lanai City. One of the smallest islands in the chain, Lanai has just over 3,000 residents. Most of them are native and live in the settlement at the center of the island. Hardly a “city”, the community has a Mayberry feel to it, with small family-run businesses circling a town square. The local school (where our friend is a short-term kindergarten teacher) counts just over 300 students in grades K-12. Several children in her class came to school speaking only Hawaiian.
Lanai City is a favorite destination for adventurous retirees wanting to retreat from cold climates and densely populated retirement destinations. However, most of the younger workers are either employed in a trade on the island or working for the billionaire Larry Ellison. Ellison is the founder of American computer technology company Oracle Corporation and he owns most of the island. His seaside retreat, golf course and condominiums stand in stark contrast to the humble “plantation” homes throughout Lanai City.
We explored the island for three days, traveling deep into the mountains and to remote beach areas in our friends’ four-wheel drive Toyota — a vehicle seen in most every driveway on the island. Neighbors hailed us with a hearty “aloha” and a two-finger wave called the “shaka”, a sign of friendship, gratitude, goodwill and unity.
The culture and lifestyle we experienced on Lanai were confirmed and expanded during our two-day stay on Maui. Lahaina on the northwest shore of Maui is the landing port for a ferry from the island of Lanai. Its location makes it one of the oldest, most historic villages in the islands. A full day of traveling to historic sites around the coastal city gave us a deep education in the history and importance of Lahaina. As a port city, it was the first residence of Hawaiian royalty and was the site of the islands’ designation as an American state.
Indigenous Hawaiians have a strong connection to the land and its resources. The actions reflecting this connections are termed “malama”, which means to take care of the land, preserve and protect it, to live with “the light of knowledge and clarity of thinking.” The Hawaiian word “pono” represents how Hawaiians look at life.
While Hawaii is a melting pot of several cultures, the common thread seems to be a desire to maintain the cultural identities. Favorite foods and words retained from their original dialect flavor the “sauce” that is Hawaii.
Indigenous Hawaiians especially are very proud of their culture and keep the stories of their royalty and religious practices prior to American statehood alive in dress, food, terminology and in their willingness to “talk story” with anyone willing to listen.
The incident that most vividly portrayed Hawaiian determination to preserve their island culture and honor their history involved a “native” who was prepping coconuts on the bed of his pickup truck to share with tourists wanting a taste of true coconut milk. As he chatted with an observer, I heard him proclaim loudly “Don’t call us native Americans. We do not want to be put on a reservation. We are the people of Hawaii.”