The Forbidden Island
Written by B. Yvette Yun
Indigenous cultures fascinate the 21st century Westerner not only because they defy the globalizing influence of time and technology, but because they are steadfast in their approach to and view of life itself. As a resident of Hawaii for over two decades and as an international travel writer for the past five years, I seek out indigenous cultures not only for a unique glimpse into authentic living – usually without modern technology and exposure to Western influences, but also because in this age of globalization and “flattening” of the world, bearing witness to native cultures is hard to come by. Some might even argue that indigenous cultures will one day be obsolete.
I had the privilege of experiencing truly indigenous cultures firsthand only a handful of times: I participated in a wake with locals on a small island in the Melanesian nation of Vanuatu, trekked to the Lost City of paramilitary-occupied Colombia, and stayed in local villages in the Cambodian jungle and the tea farms of Myanmar. I even traversed the wide swath of Cuba by public bus. Still, I have not seen with my own eyes the native Hawaiian community in my own backyard, here in the 50th state.
The reason for this is two-fold: indigenous culture untouched by the West exists on only one of Hawaii’s eight major islands – Niihau, and visiting the native village – called Pu’uwai – on Niihau is forbidden. Yet I prefer it that way, as Pu’uwai has remained relatively untouched for centuries.
According to legend, fire goddess Pele left Bora Bora and journeyed north, first reaching Niihau, where she tried unsuccessfully to dig a fire pit. Pele then moved eastward, down the Hawaiian island chain until finally finding success at Kilauea on the Big Island. Thus, elders called kupuna say that Niihau is Pele’s steady foot, while her body lies in the pits of Kilauea.
Physically, Niihau even looks like a rectangular foot, but it is a symbolic foot for significant cultural reasons. While the rest of the islands evolved and adapted to westernization since Captain James Cook arrived on its shores in 1778, Niihau remains surprisingly unchanged and uninfluenced by outsiders. Today, the tightknit community of about two hundred native Hawaiians living in Pu’uwai on the western shore of Niihau build their own houses, speak the native language, hunt Polynesian boar, eland, oryx, and hybrid sheep with bow and arrow, and fish with nets and spears. They do this not to prove a point – that the Western way is not the best or most logical lifestyle; they live this way to perpetuate a thousand-year-old Polynesian tradition that arrived on Niihau’s shores hundreds of years before Captain Cook “discovered” the islands. They do it to preserve the indigenous culture they love, practice, and believe in.
Here on Hawaii’s smallest inhabited island, the only glimpse of 21st century life are planes that fly overhead, cars that occasionally pass through to restore emergency supplies, and flotsam washed ashore on its empty beaches. For the most part, Niihau’s local community functions completely and deliberately isolated from the rest of the world, with its foot grounded in the stories and practices of old.
It was not always this way. In fact, when King Kamehameha sold the island to Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair, the matriarch of a wealthy New Zealand ranching family, for $10,000 in 1864, Niihau spent about forty years under the Sinclair-Robinson family’s proprietorship, with the Sinclair-Robinsons and natives coexisting on the island. As the proprietors built their Niihau Ranch on the central western coast at Ki’eki’e in the 1870’s, the native population began to dwindle, opting for opportunities on the neighboring island of Kauai or the booming metropolis of Honolulu on Oahu. In the 1880’s especially, Sinclair’s grandson Aubrey Robinson frequently hosted visitors – even Queen Liliuokalani, and by the 1890’s, only three hundred natives remained. All the while, the Sinclair-Robinson grew to respect the natives, communicated with village elders in the local Niihau dialect, and kept interaction to a minimum.
But living in the low-lying, arid climate of Niihau was not easy for the Robinson family, and by the mid 1890’s Aubrey Robinson, noting the tense socio-political dynamics afoot on Oahu, reevaluated the purpose of his ranching enterprise on Niihau. By this time, the Robinsons also held a large stake of land in western Kauai, so when Queen Liliuokalani was overthrown in 1893 and the Hawaiian nation was subsequently annexed by the United States in 1898, the family observed a rapid deterioration in native cultural practices. Thus, in 1898, Aubrey Robinson began restricting access to the island in an effort to preserve Pu’uwai’s language and way of life. By 1915, Robinson completely closed visitor access to Niihau.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entrance into World War II forced the Robinsons to consider Niihau’s vulnerability and exposure to the west. It was during the mid 1940’s that the family agreed to host U.S. military operations, particularly in naval training and research. Radar surveillance and antiballistic missile testing continues still today from the Navy’s operational center on Paniau Ridge, the highest point on the island.
Fast forward seventy years later. Niihau’s eastern neighbors – especially Kauai, Oahu, Maui, and the Big Island – are overpopulated and Americanized. Cell phones, computers, and television replace dinnertime conversation. We drive instead of walk – even if our destination is less than a mile away. We buy meat and fish cut and wrapped in shiny cellophane. We thrive on electricity, gas, and technology, and that’s how we like it. But just one hundred miles west of the urban metropolis of Honolulu, a small community takes a stand – not in refusal but with pride.
The Hawaii of old is alive and well on the island of Niihau and will hopefully continue to thrive for centuries to come. The Robinsons, Niihau’s philanthropic proprietors, continue to maintain its ranching operation and allow the Navy to train there. They even offer private half-day helicopter tours and hunting safaris, but don’t expect to interact with or even see a native villager. The Robinsons continue to protect Hawaii’s remaining indigenous community and respect its ancestral rights to the land. If only we could turn back the clock and preserve other native communities before they were stripped of their way of life.