When you’re in Hawaii, you won’t go long without hearing the Hawaiian words aina and pono. You might recognize it in a passing discussion, read it on a sign or spot it on a bumper sticker. The word aina is even in the Hawaii state motto:
“Ua mau ke ea o ka aina i ka pono.”
English Translation: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”
As you can see from the motto, aina translates as “land,” but its meaning goes much deeper than a simple definition.
To really understand all the layers of meaning of the word, you also need to understand the unique relationship that native Hawaiians have with the land. One Hawaiian proverb hints at its importance:
“He alii ka aina; he kauwa ke kanaka.”
“The land is the chief; man is its servant.”
Ancient Hawaiians both revered their land and respected the need to care for it. They worked to strike a balance between the needs of the land and the needs of the creatures living on that land, including humans. The land was believed to have its own mana—spiritual energy and power. In short, the land was sacred to the native Hawaiians, whose descendants carry these beliefs forward today.
Given the importance of aina to the Hawaiians, it’s not surprising that the words they used to describe nature come with similarly fascinating layers of meaning.
We’ll explore five more of these Hawaiian words in this article. By taking a close look at these words, you’ll start to understand the lens with which Hawaiians viewed the land and all that comes from it. You might even find yourself looking at the natural beauty of the Hawaiian islands in a different light.
Malama and Interdependence with Nature
Malama means to take care of, to protect. You’ll often hear it paired with aina, as in malama aina: Care for the land. Traditional Hawaiians hold this value close, believing that if you care for the land, it will care for you.
Interestingly enough, Hawaiian mythology also suggests that humans are actual children of the land. The islands were born from the earth mother Papahanaumoku and the sky father Wakea. These parents also gave birth to the taro plant and, then, ultimately, to kanaka, to humankind.
In this system of beliefs, the land is an ancestor, one who deserves our respect and care. And just as older relatives watch out for their younger descendants, the aina will care for us. In other words, the relationship between people and the land is fully interdependent and relies on malama on both sides.
While we’re on the topic of Hawaiian mythology, let’s explore one of the most popular myths involving Maui, who fought the sun—and won.
La and the Legend of Maui
If you’ve seen the movie Moana, you’re probably familiar with the mythical chief Maui. Maui appears in myths found around the Pacific islands—New Zealand, Polynesia and Hawaii among them—all of which give credit to Maui for snaring the sun and giving the earth equal periods of daylight and moonlight.
According to legend, Maui lived in a time of mostly darkness, with few sunlight hours. His mother didn’t have enough daylight to dry her traditional tapa clothing and sleeping mats. Flowers didn’t open, and fruits refused to ripen. The people around him were suffering, so Maui decided he had to capture the sun and establish a new arrangement.
He climbed up the now-dormant volcano of Haleakala—which translates to house (hale) of (a) the (ka) sun (la). In other words, it was the perfect place for Maui to catch the sun. Legends differ on how exactly Maui accomplished his feat, but, in the end, all agree that he was able to gain the advantage and negotiate the equal schedule we have today.
Now let’s take a look at the sun’s counterpart, for whom Hawaiians have many names.
The Many Phases of the Mahina
Most people recognize a full moon or a new moon. You might even recognize a waxing moon versus a waning moon. However, the Hawaiians take their descriptions of the moon—or mahina—to a whole different level: They have a name for every day of the lunar cycle.
The Hawaiian language even offers three names to describe the days when the moon is fullest, as described in Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau’s Na Hana a ka Poe Kahiko (The Works of the People of Old):
- Day 14 of the Lunar Cycle: “The night when the moon was full was the night of Akua.”
- Day 15 of the Lunar Cycle: “The second night of the full moon was Hoku when it began to crumble and peel.”
- Day 16 of the Lunar Cycle: “The second night of this peeling was Mahealani.”
If you find yourself surprised by the intricate detail with which Hawaiians approached the phases of the moon, keep this in mind: Hawaiians were the descendants of Polynesian wayfinders. These expert navigators used the moon, the stars, the wind and the currents to travel great distances over water with astonishing precision before navigational instruments were invented.
In other words, they were masterful at observing the changes they saw in the natural world around them. As a result, it makes sense that they both recognized the minute changes in the moon and put words to them. It was vital to their way of life to have Hawaiian words for each phase.
The same is true when you look at the way Hawaiians describe the wind.
The What and the Where of Makani
Ask a serious sailor to describe the wind on any given day, and you’ll probably get a long and detailed answer. The Hawaiians were no different.
Makani is the word for “wind,” but Hawaiians approached their wind with a staggering level of detail. Today, these names for wind are captured in documents over thirty pages long that contain hundreds of words.
Some of the words are simply descriptive, such as wind that’s:
- Variable (makani polua) or
- Fair (oluolu).
Others get so specific as to describe the type of wind in a specific location, such as:
- Aala honua – Wind accompanied with rain at Hilo.
- Olaniu – The “coconut leaf piercing” wind at Kahaloa, Oahu.
- Alaoli – Wind at Huleia, Lihue is known to bring good weather to Kauai.
With these powers of observation—and the precise words to describe each type of wind—it’s no wonder that the ancient Polynesians were able to travel thousands of miles with precision.
Just as you can learn a great deal about Hawaiian culture by understanding how Hawaiians describe the wind, you can get similar insights from how they describe water.
The Role of Wai in Island Life
If you’re living on an island, there’s no question that water will play a huge role in your everyday existence. It surrounds you on all sides and, hopefully, it falls plentifully from the sky, watering crops and providing fresh drinking water to sustain life.
As with makani, there are a number of specific Hawaiian words for water, starting with the most general: wai. Wai can also refer to any kind of liquid that’s not seawater, which is called kai. Puna is a freshwater spring, and moana, unsurprisingly if you’ve seen the movie, refers to the open ocean.
One surprising related word is waiwai, which translates not to “lots of water,” but to “wealth.” Although some scholars argue that waiwai is more closely related to an alternate meaning for wai—to retain—others argue that waiwai only reinforces how important clean water was to native Hawaiians. Additionally, it suggests that, to the Hawaiians, wealth could also be found in non-monetary possessions, that plentiful water can be as personally valuable as riches. This is just scratching the surface of the intricacies in which Hawaiian words and language are intertwined with nature.
Embracing the Culture, the Spirit and the Natural Beauty of the Hawaiian Islands
Living in Hawaii is a unique experience, one that’s shaped by so many factors, including the island you choose to call home, the friends and family you’re surrounded with and the ways you decide to spend your day. By taking a brief tour of these Hawaiian words, ideals, concepts and beliefs around nature, you might now have a new perspective on the environment you’re surrounded by on a daily basis. (And you might have a few new words to describe what you encounter!)
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