Should the south Kona community be called “Captain Cook” or its original Hawaiian name, Ka’awaloa?

That was the question surrounding Hawaii House Concurrent Resolution 27, a measure to change the name of the community named for the 1900s post office established by the Captain Cook Sugar Company.

Although this particular resolution didn’t make it out of the state Senate Committee on Public Safety, Intergovernmental, and Military Affairs, it highlights a topic that’s gotten more traction lately in Hawaii: restoring Hawaiian place names.

When Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini wrote their 1976 edition of Place Names of Hawaii, they estimated that 86% of place names in the island chain were in Hawaiian.

Of course, prior to European arrival, all of the place names were named by the native Hawaiians. However, once outside influences were brought to bear on the Hawaiian Islands, the tide began to shift.

Take, for example, the “Sandwich Islands.” This name was given to the archipelago in 1778 by Captain James Cook in honor of his patron, John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich. Prior to this designation, scholars argue that the native Hawaiians didn’t even have an overall name for the archipelago, which came to be known formally as “the Hawaiian islands” around 1840.

Along with the Second Hawaiian Renaissance came greater interest in Hawaiian culture and language. Two key publications emerged around that time to capture and record Hawaiian place names: the first edition of Place Names of Hawaii (1966) and the Atlas of Hawai’i (1973), which was the first resource of its kind to prioritize Hawaiian place names and incorporate the kahakō and ‘okina.

The Importance of Hawaiian Place Names

As more interest emerges in restoring original Hawaiian place names, you might wonder why it’s so critical. Like the history of the Hawaiian Islands themselves, it’s complex. However, to sum up some of the most common arguments in favor:

  • Understanding the original Hawaiian place names is one way to respect the culture of the native Hawaiians—and deepen residents’ and visitors’ understanding of it.
  • As Danny “Kaniela” Kahikina Akaka put it in the August–September 2022 issue of Hana Hou, substituting an English name or shortening the original Hawaiian name means “losing the mo’olelo [stories] behind the name as well as the mana [spiritual power] associated with the name.”

A Note About Diacritical Marks

Note: If you look through our other articles, you’ll notice that we don’t always use the ‘okina or the kahakō, with a few exceptions and largely for usability reasons. However, diacritical marks can change the meaning of Hawaiian words. For example, as the introduction to Place Names of Hawaii demonstrates:

  • ‘Alae = mudhen
  • ‘Ala’ē = sweet smell or strange fragrance

Within this article, we’ll use both to give you the most accurate and authentic Hawaiian name for each of the places we discuss.

Next, let’s take a quick tour around the Hawaiian Islands! We’ll point out some notable places and give you both the common name you might hear as well as the Hawaiian place name.

Hawaiian Place Names: Oahu

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Diamond Head?

Lē’ahi, which literally means the forehead of the ‘ahi (tuna) fish. If you’re having trouble visualizing the volcanic tuff cone as the forehead and dorsal fin of the ‘ahi, you might try viewing it from the east. Hawaiian legends say the goddess Hi’iaka, one of the younger sisters of the volcano goddess Pele, gave this formation its name.

What Was Pearl Harbor Originally Called?

Before it became Pearl Harbor, the area was called Pu’uloa (“long hill”) or Wai Momi (“waters of pearl” for the oysters once found in the harbor).

A little history: When the Reciprocity Treaty of 1875 was renewed in 1887, the U.S. received the right to establish a naval base at Pearl Harbor. Once the base was established, the name “Pearl Harbor” became the more established name for the area.

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Barbers Point?

Kalaeloa. Barbers Point in southwestern Oahu got its current name from an unfortunate accident. On October 31, 1796, Captain Henry Barber’s ship, The Arthur, hit a coral shoal. All twenty-two crew members evacuated, and six perished in the process.

Had the captain known the meaning of the Hawaiian name for the point—”the long point”—he might have given it a wider berth.

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Chinaman’s Hat?

Mokoli’i, which literally means “little lizard.” Hawaiian legends say that this little island in Kaneohe Bay was a piece of the tail of a lizard named Mokoli’i, who was killed by the goddess Hi’iaka.

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Sandy Beach?

‘Awāwamalu or Wāwāmalu (the shortened version), which means “shady valley.”

A little trivia: Wāwāmalu is a favorite of President Barack Obama, who has been known to body surf at the beach while visiting Oahu.

How Did Lanikai Get Its Name?

In the 1920s, several businessmen bought land in windward Oahu and developed a subdivision called “Lanikai.” Their intention was to name the area “heavenly sea/ocean.” However, in Hawaiian grammar, the noun comes first, followed by its modifier. So “heavenly sea” would actually be Kailani.

The community now known as Lanikai used to be called Ka’ōhao, which literally means “the tying,” as in joining together two pieces of rope. This name finds its origin in a Hawaiian legend that tells the story of two women who were tied together after losing a game of kōnane, a Hawaiian game similar to checkers.

In recognition of the original Hawaiian name, Lanikai Elementary Public Charter School recently changed its name to Ka’ōhao Public Charter School.

Hawaiian Place Names: Maui

What Is the Hawaiian Name for La Pérouse?

Keone’ō’io, which means “the bonefish sand.” (keone = sand; ‘ō’io = bonefish) Interestingly enough, there are three beaches with the name Keone’ō’io, one in Maui and two in Oahu. Bonefish can be found at all three.

The current name of the beach in Maui, La Pérouse, comes from the French explorer, Jean-Francois de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse. He is often credited with being the first European to set foot on Maui.

What Is the Original Name of Polo Beach?

Polo Beach, a gorgeous beach on Maui’s south side, originally was called Ke One o Polo, which translates to “the Sands of Polo.” Like many original Hawaiian names, it was shortened, becoming just “Polo Beach.”

Hawaiian Place Names: Big Island

What Was the Original Name for Captain Cook in South Kona?

Ka’awaloa, which literally means “the distant kava.” Runners went to Waipi’o and Puna to obtain ‘awa (kava) plants that made up the traditional ‘awa drink that chiefs consumed at Ka’awaloa. And since HCR27 never made it out of committee, it looks like the area will continue to be called “Captain Cook”—at least for now.

What Was the Hawaiian Name for Leilani Estates?

Before the Hawai’i Land Hui purchased the land that would become Leilani (“heavenly lei” or “royal child”) Estates, the area was called Keahialaka. The legend of Ai-Laau, the Forest Eater, identifies Keahialaka as the first place Pele stopped when she came to the island of Hawaii. Additionally, Keahialaka literally means “the fire [made] by Laka.” Like Hi’iaka, Laka was one of Pele’s sisters. She is also the goddess of the hula.

The original name and the legends associated with Keahialaka imply a fiery past—or future. This future was realized in 2018, when a significant eruption from Kilauea caused lava to flow through Leilani Estates, destroying more than 700 homes.

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Coconut Island?

Mokuola, or “healing island,” is the original Hawaiian name for this little islet in Hilo Bay. At one time, people came to Mokuola for a spring that they believed contained healing properties. Today, it’s a place where many families come to relax and play together.

Hawaiian Place Names: Lana’i

What Is the Hawaiian Name for Sweetheart Rock?

Pu’u Pehe. This literally means “Pehe’s hill.” The striking rock formation off the coast of Lana’i got its name from a Hawaiian legend.

As told in King David Kalakaua’s The Legends and Myths of Hawaii, a Lana’i warrior named Makakehau fell in love with a beautiful woman named Puupehe. To protect her from other potentially jealous men, he hid her in a sea cave. When a kona storm blew in and drowned Puupehe in her cave, the bereft Makakehau scaled Pu’u Pehe—a superhuman feat that likely involved the help of an akua or a spirit. At the top of the precipice, he built her a tomb. Afterwards, he jumped off the rock to his death.

Today, Pu’u Pehe remains a monument to devotion, to not being able to go on without one’s true love. Although Puupehe & Makakehau’s story didn’t have a happy ending, today Pu’u Pehe is a place where many couples stroll to enjoy the sunset or make a lifelong commitment to each other by getting engaged.

Hawaiian Place Names: Kaua’i

Was There a Russian Fort on Kaua’i?

Now called Pa’ula’ula, Russian Fort Elizabeth Historical Park commemorates the building of Fortress Elizabeth near Waimea on Kauai. The chief of Kaua’i at the time, Kaumuali’i, allowed Georg Anton Schaffer, an agent of the Russian-American Company, to build a fort on the island.

Pa’ula’ula was the traditional name for this area, which formerly housed the royal compound of Kaumuali’i.

How Did Princeville Get Its Name?

Originally called Halele’a (“joyful house”), Princeville was named for the Crown Prince Albert, the son of King Kamehameha IV and Queen Emma. The family were the guests of Robert Crichton Wyllie, who bought the land in the mid-1800s and hosted the royal family in 1860.

Why Do They Call It Shipwreck Beach on Kauai?

The beach got its nickname from a shipwreck that once sat near the shore. The beach was originally called Keoneloa, which means “the long sand.”

On the western end of the beach, you’ll find a set of petroglyphs, but they’re only visible at low tide after storms have washed away some of the beach’s sand.

Tracing Hawaii’s History & Traditions

Researching the traditional Hawaiian names for many of Hawaii’s locations can be a rewarding journey. These original names often reveal the nature and characteristics of a place (like Keahialaka), as well as the legends and the stories surrounding it. By taking the time to learn more about Hawaiian place names, you’ll offer yourself a new window on Hawaiian culture—and a deeper understanding of the islands of Hawaii.

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