When you’re in Hawaiʻi, you won’t go long without hearing the Hawaiian word ʻāina. You might recognize it in a passing discussion, read it on a sign, or spot it on a bumper sticker.

The word ʻāina is even in the Hawaiʻi state motto:

“Ua mau ke ea o ka ʻāina i ka pono.”

English Translation: “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

As you can see from the motto, ʻāina translates as “land.” However, like many words in the Hawaiian language, the meaning of ʻāina goes much deeper than a simple definition.

In this article, we’ll explore the deeper meaning of ʻāina, plus 10 more Hawaiian words that describe Hawaiʻi’s natural landscape. By taking a closer look at these words, you’ll start to understand the lens with which Native 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.

The Central Role and Importance of ʻĀina

To understand all the layers of meaning of the word ʻāina, you also need to understand the unique relationship between Native Hawaiians and the land. One Hawaiian proverb hints at its importance:

“He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauwā ke kanaka.” 

“The land is the chief; man is its servant.”

The 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.

You’ll also often see ʻāina connected to two other important Hawaiian words, mālama and aloha. As Hawaiʻi’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs explains them:

  • Mālama ʻāina expresses our kuleana (responsibility) to care for the land and to properly manage the resources and gifts it provides.
  • Aloha ʻāina expresses our love for this land and beyond that, our love of country – the sovereign nation stolen away but ever in our hearts.

Finally, you’ll also hear ʻāina within a popular word in Hawaiʻi: kamaʻāina. This word literally translates to “land child” and can refer to someone born in a particular place. In Hawaiʻi, kamaʻāina might refer to someone who was born in Hawaiʻi but is not of Native Hawaiian descent. (In contrast, the word “Hawaiian” is reserved for those of Native Hawaiian descent.)

You’ll also hear the word kamaʻāina from local businesses offering discounts to people living in Hawaiʻi. In those cases, kamaʻāina is usually synonymous with “Hawaiʻi resident.” The definition can be a little fluid, and it’s important to be aware of all the usages.

Given the importance of ʻāina to the Native Hawaiians, it’s not surprising that the words they used to describe nature come with similarly fascinating layers of meaning.

Let’s continue by exploring a word we mentioned above: mālama.

Mālama and Interdependence with Nature

As we mentioned above, mālama ʻāina means to care for the land and protect it. Native 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 Papahānaumoku and the sky father Wākea. These parents also gave birth to the taro plant (kalo) and, then, ultimately, to kānaka, 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 ʻāina will care for us. In other words, the relationship between people and the land is fully interdependent and relies on mālama 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.


Lā and the Legend of Maui

If you’ve seen the movie Moana, you’re probably familiar with the mythical chief Maui. Maui appears in legends found around the Pacific islands—New Zealand, Polynesia, and Hawaiʻi 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 Haleakalā—which translates to house (hale) of (a) the (ka) sun (lā). 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 Mānaiakalani Kamakau’s Nā Hana a ka Po’e 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 Māhealani.”

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 without navigational instruments.

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.

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 pōlua) or
  • Fair (ʻoluʻolu).

Others get so specific as to describe the type of wind in a specific location, such as:

  • ʻAʻala honua – Wind accompanied with rain at Hilo.
  • ʻŌlaniu – The “coconut leaf piercing” wind at Kahaloa, Oʻahu.
  • Alaʻoli – Wind at Hulēʻia, Līhuʻe, 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 over the ocean.

Just as you can learn a great deal about Hawaiian culture by understanding the Hawaiian words to describe the wind, you can get similar insights from the words that describe water.

water crashing lava coast

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. 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: waiWai can also refer to any kind of liquid that’s not seawater, which is called kaiPuna 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 interpretation offers yet another example of the ways the cultural values of the Native Hawaiians are embedded in their language.


Understanding the Power and Meaning of Mana

As we mentioned earlier, Native Hawaiians believe that the land has its own mana.

But what is mana, exactly? Author, cultural specialist and educator Malcolm Nāea Chun says in his book, Hoʻomana: Understanding the Sacred and Spiritual, mana is not an easy concept to translate. Many scholars have devoted entire texts to the concept.

Its basic definition from the Hawaiian Dictionary will start to give you a sense of the meaning: “Supernatural or divine power.” The Mānoa Heritage Center suggests thinking of it as “spiritual energy and the universal life force.”

But as the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ book, Mana Lāhui Kānaka argues, there’s no English translation that fully captures the meaning and significance of mana from a Native Hawaiian perspective.

To give you a better sense of how the concept of mana infused the life of the Native Hawaiians, we’ve included a few examples from Mana Lāhui Kānaka:

“In ancient Hawaiian society, Native Hawaiians believed that the gods were both their ancestors and the primary source of the mana, which was embodied in the land, in objects and forces and in kānaka (people/Native Hawaiians).”

“Historical records and scholars indicate that Native Hawaiians believed there were two sources of mana in kānaka: mana that was inherited genealogically and mana that was acquired through belief or practice.”

“In a traditional Hawaiian context, nature and culture were intertwined. ‘The ‘āina (land), kai (ocean), and lewa (sky) were the foundation of life and the source of the spiritual relationship between people and their environs’ (Maly, 2001). It stands to reason, then, that places and resources were believed to hold, impart, and embody qualities of mana.”

Download your own copy of Mana Lāhui Kānaka from the OHA website.

We’ve given you a quick primer on the concept, but only by understanding the culture of the people who revered this powerful life source can you begin to truly grasp it.

The Beauty of Hawaiʻi’s Pua

Pua means flower, and it’s a word to know simply because of the sheer abundance of flowers you’ll find in Hawaiʻi. You’ll see pua as soon as you step off the plane and see arrivals being greeted with flower lei. Then, as you drive around the islands, you’ll be treated to pua in abundance. You might spot frangipani, bougainvillea, anthurium, gardenia, pikake, birds of paradise, ʻōhiʻa lehua, Lokelani roses, and hibiscus of every color, including the yellow hibiscus, the Hawaiʻi state flower.

Flowers play a number of roles in Hawaiʻi. For some, pua are simply decorative. They’re also given as gifts or used to make lei. Native Hawaiians used flowers in plant medicine practices.

Additionally, some flowers formed the basis for moʻolelo, such as the story of Naupaka, a Hawaiian princess. She fell deeply in love with a commoner named Kauʻi. This kind of union was not permitted at the time, so they traveled far to see a kahuna (elder) for advice. The kahuna asked the gods for a sign. In response, they sent rain, thunder, and lightning, dooming the union.

Naupaka pulled the flower from her hair, tore it in half and gave one half to Kauʻi. She sent him back to the coast and chose to stay in the mountains to live out her life, alone. To this day, the Naupaka bushes in the mountains and along the shoreline still feature the half-blossom that represents the division of the two lovers:

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The Majestic Mauna of Hawaiʻi

For a set of islands that owes its genesis to volcanoes, it’s easy to see how mauna (mountains) would play an important role in the lives of the Native Hawaiians. Nowhere is this more evident than the Big Island of Hawaiʻi and its sacred mauna, Maunakea.

Maunakea translates to “white mountain.”

However, there’s evidence that it used to be known as Mauna a Wākea or “The Mountain of Wākea,” as the Center for Maunakea Stewardship at the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo notes.

In his role, the Center explains, Maunakea is the “the first-born mountain son of Wākea and Papa, who were also progenitors of the Hawaiian race. Maunakea is symbolic of the piko (umbilical cord) of the island-child, Hawaiʻi, and that which connects the land to the heavens.”

In other words, Maunakea plays a central role in the Native Hawaiian creation stories. It’s also a shrine for worship and a home to the Hawaiian gods, including Poli‘ahu, the snow goddess.

So the next time you look up at Maunakea or any of Hawaiʻi’s other impressive mauna, think about the sacred role they hold for the Native Hawaiians. It will only increase your awe for these incredible natural formations.

The Importance of Living Pono

You saw the word pono earlier in the Hawaiʻi state motto, where it was translated as “righteousness.”

Truth be told, you could probably talk story all day about what pono truly means. The first definition from the Hawaiian Dictionary hints at all the levels of meaning within the word (and there are five more definitions beyond this one!):


Goodness, uprightness, morality, moral qualities, correct or proper procedure, excellence, well-being, prosperity, welfare, benefit, behalf, equity, sake, true condition or nature, duty; moral, fitting, proper, righteous, right, upright, just, virtuous, fair, beneficial, successful, in perfect order, accurate, correct, eased, relieved; should, ought, must, necessary.


In simpler form, pono can mean restoring natural balance and maintaining harmony.

Malcolm Nāea Chun believed that pono was the most critical core value for Native Hawaiian thinking and decision making.

His book, Pono, the Way of Living, argues that pono represented “an overarching belief system that defines the right way to live” for the Native Hawaiians. He points out that the Hawaiian language has no words for the concepts of “values” or “morals.” Instead, acting pono, or acting in the best interest of the community, was simply an integral part of everyday life.

The concept of pono extends to all aspects of life. Being pono isn’t just about treating other people well but also maintaining (or restoring) nature’s natural balance. Caring for the ʻāina is pono, and it’s critical for maintaining the balance that will help the community thrive for centuries to come.

The Native Hawaiians understood the power of pono—and continue to share it today.

The Useful—and Sacred—Niu

It’s hard to imagine the landscape of Hawaiʻi without its swaying coconut palms. But if Polynesian voyagers hadn’t brought coconuts on their voyage to the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiʻi might look very different today.

Niu played a number of roles in the lives of the Native Hawaiians:

  • The tree trunks were used to build houses, canoes, and drums.
  • Leaves formed the basis for baskets, thatch, and fans.
  • Niu husks were woven into nets or ropes.
  • And, of course, shells could be used for storage, utensils, plates, and even small instruments.

And that’s not even to mention the nourishing water and flesh that acted as an important food source. Niu hiwa, one of the two varieties brought over, were also used for medicinal and ceremonial purposes.

But maybe most importantly, niu played a spiritual role as the kinolau (the earthly form) of Kū. As one of the four great gods of the Native Hawaiians, Kū is often called the god of war, but he also was associated with industry, building, labor, fishing, and farming.

Kinolau literally means “many bodies.” So while niu are one form that Kū could take, he could also take the form of a manō (shark), ʻio (hawk), ʻulu (breadfruit), or the ʻōhiʻa lehua blossom—among others. Given that the Native Hawaiians believed that their gods could take the form of the flora and fauna around them, it’s easy to understand why nature was so sacred to them.

And from there, it’s also easy to understand why it’s so important to mālama ʻāina.

Embracing the Culture, the Spirit, and the Natural Beauty of the Hawaiian Islands

Living in Hawaiʻi 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 by, 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!)

Planning to make Hawaiʻi your home? Or maybe you already call Hawaiʻi “home,” but you’re ready to move to a different island?

Whether you’re moving from the mainland, from abroad, or within the state, our crews on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and both sides of the Big Island would be happy to help you get settled in your new home. Just get in touch with us for a quote to get started.

Or, if you want to read more about what it takes to move to Hawaiʻi, check out our article on



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