If you’ve spent any time in Hawaiʻi, you know that things just feel different out here—and we’re not only talking about the weather.

In the Hawaiian Islands, the culture of its indigenous people, the Native Hawaiians, still runs strong today. In this article, we’ll share a few traditions from Hawaiʻi’s original human inhabitants so you can appreciate their origins—and their presence in the islands today.

Waves of arrivals to Hawaiʻi brought additional customs and traditions to the archipelago. Many of them are woven into the modern culture you’ll find in Hawaiʻi today. We’ll talk about those, too, so you can respect these practices as either a visitor or a Hawaiʻi resident.

First, a cultural note:

What Does "Hawaiian" Mean?

Since people from California are called “Californians,” you might think that the people (and traditions) of Hawaiʻi are called “Hawaiian(s).”

However, the adjective “Hawaiian” is reserved for the cultural practices and the descendants of Hawaiʻi’s indigenous people—the Native Hawaiians.

For this reason, we’ve separated out the customs that can be traced back to Native Hawaiian practices from local traditions that have evolved over the islands’ history. Both have shaped modern traditions and practices in Hawaiʻi.

Traditional Hawaiian Customs You’ll Experience in Hawaiʻi

#1: Hula

The word conjures images of a bikini-and-grass-skirt-clad woman swaying in the Pacific breezes. But the pop culture image of hula is far removed from the reality. To the Native Hawaiians, hula is an art form and a sacred activity. It was also a way for the ancient Hawaiians to preserve their origin stories and history.

Today, that sacred tradition is carried forward by kumu hula, master teachers who oversee schools, called hālau hula. There, new generations of students learn this ancient art, along with its opening chants (oli) and its accompanying music (mele).

If you’re interested in seeing authentic hula in action, try to score a ticket to the Merrie Monarch Festival. Or, keep your eyes out for a performance from a local hālau. There, you’ll experience the traditions, culture, songs, and chants of the Native Hawaiians perpetuated through its teachers and its students of all ages.

What About the ʻUkulele and Slack-Key Guitar?

You can’t talk about the music coming out of Hawaiʻi without talking about the ʻukulele and slack-key guitar. Both traditions found their origins in the Aloha State and were inspired by immigrants to the islands.

Slack-key guitar is believed to have originated with the paniolo, Mexican cowboys who came to Hawaiʻi to teach the Hawaiians how to work with the horses and cattle brought to the island.

The paniolo arrived with their guitars, and the Hawaiians used them to create a whole new style of music: kihoʻalu or slack-key. By tuning these guitars differently, a whole new sound and style was born.

The ʻukulele‘s origins have been credited to the Portuguese, who are believed to have introduced a smaller, stringed instrument to the island’s inhabitants. It quickly took off in Hawaiʻi and produced some incredible musicians and unforgettable performances, like Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow.

#2: Moʻolelo

Stories, myths, and legends form an important foundation for Native Hawaiian culture, starting with the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant. For hundreds of years, these stories were passed down through oral tradition.

Once a system of written Hawaiian was developed, these stories began to be documented. One of the first texts published was David Malo’s Ka Mo’olelo Hawai’i/Hawaiian Antiquities, which was completed in the mid-1800s. King David Kalākaua made his own contribution by releasing The Legends and Myths of Hawaiʻi in 1888. The following year, King Kalākaua published a pamphlet containing the Kumulipo. All of these offer a fascinating glimpse into the ideologies, stories, historical people, and mythological figures of the Native Hawaiian people.

To learn more about the moʻolelo of the Native Hawaiian people, any of the titles above offer a great starting point. We’re also partial to Herb Kawainui Kāne’s book, Pele: Goddess of Hawaiʻi’s Volcanoes. It’s an excellent collection of stories about the mercurial Hawaiian goddess who is believed to make her presence known when volcanoes erupt on the Big Island.

#3: Lei Traditions

In Hawaiʻi, you’ll see lei used in all sorts of ways: to greet visitors on arrival, honor someone special at an event, celebrate a graduating senior, or share aloha with another person.

Lei traditions have changed over the years, but scholars have noted that Native Hawaiians wore lei, either around their neck (lei ʻāʻī) or on their heads (lei poʻo), usually to symbolize rank or status.

Hawaiian Language Tip: In contrast to English, tacking on an –s or –es doesn’t make a word plural in Hawaiian. So the plural of the word “lei” is still “lei.”

Lei can be made out of all kinds of materials, including flowers, leaves, shells, nuts, feathers, and seeds.

You’ll see a ton of lei on Lei Day, celebrated on May 1.  This holiday started as the brainchild of the poet laureate Don Blanding and soon became an honored tradition. In 1929, Governor Wallace Farrington officially named May 1 Lei Day, making it an honored day of celebration across the state.

#4: Lūʻau

Native Hawaiians brought some of their feasting traditions with them from Polynesia. However, recent scholarship suggests that these feasts weren’t lavish, celebratory meals, much like you might see at what’s called a “luau” today.

In fact, the name “luau” was essentially a mistake, when an 1856 edition of the Pacific Commercial Advertiser mistakenly gave these feasts this name. Lūʻau actually refers to taro tops often served at these meals. Before this mis-naming, these events were called pāʻina (meal, small party with dinner) or ʻahaʻaina (feast, banquet).

If you attend a luau in Hawaiʻi today, you’ll experience rituals, dances, songs, food, and practices from all over the Pacific, including places like Hawaiʻi, Tahiti, Samoa, Rarotonga, New Zealand, Tonga, and more. These events can be a fun experience. However, it’s worth noting that they’re not necessarily representative of the pre-arrival traditions of the Native Hawaiians.

If you spend time in Hawaiʻi, you may also get invited to a baby lūʻau. These parties are closer to ʻahaʻaina and usually celebrate a child’s first birthday. The tradition hearkens back to the days when a child living to their first birthday was a big deal, and it’s a tradition that’s shared by other cultures globally.

#5: Honi Ihu

This traditional style of greeting involves touching noses. Honi means “to kiss” and ihu means “nose.” This intimate version of “hello” gives the two parties the chance to exchange (breath).

Although you will still see people touch noses today, in many cases, the honi ihu has turned into a kiss on the cheek or a kiss on both cheeks, followed by a hug.

#6: Wayfinding

Wayfinding is the ancient Polynesian art of navigating by using the stars, the sun, ocean swells, and natural phenomenon (like bird flight patterns) to guide a boat at sea. Thanks to the efforts of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, this once-dying art is now actively being passed down to the next generation.

In 1976, the Hōkūleʻa, a traditional double-hulled sailing canoe manned by members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society traveled from Honolua Bay, Maui to Papeʻete, Tahiti, without the use of modern instruments, proving the effectiveness of the ancient art of wayfinding. Since then, Hōkūleʻa has circumnavigated the globe with the guidance of master navigators.

Prior to the voyage of the Hōkūleʻa, doubts circulated about the feasibility of navigating accurately using only natural elements. Instead, some believed the original Polynesian voyagers stumbled on the Hawaiian Islands by pure accident. The first voyage of the Hōkūleʻa put those doubts to rest, and the boat’s continued voyages only interest more young sailors to carry these traditions forward.

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Today’s Customs That You’ll Encounter in Hawaiʻi

After initial European arrival in Hawaiʻi, waves of immigrants from Japan, Korea, China, Portugal, the Philippines, North America, and neighboring Pacific islands brought their own cultures and traditions with them to the archipelago. Today, you’ll find many of those traditions blended into daily life in Hawaiʻi.

If you’re visiting or moving to Hawaiʻi, it’s important to recognize these customs so you can respect them—and the people who keep them.

#1: Leave Your Shoes at the Door

When you visit a friend in Hawaiʻi and notice a pile of shoes outside the door, there’s only one thing to do: Add yours. Even if you’re just going inside for a minute, it’s considered rude to wear your shoes indoors.

Some suggest that this custom was brought over by immigrants from Asia. No matter the origin, it’s a sign of respect—and a way to keep from dragging dust or sand into someone else’s house.

#2: Don’t Honk

Given Oʻahu’s legendary traffic, you might expect to hear horns honking all the way down the H1. You’ll find, though, that drivers across the Hawaiian Islands rarely use their horns—except in rare cases to warn others of danger or to honk in support of sign-wavers on the side of the road.

In fact, many people in Hawaiʻi find honking the horn rude. So if you’re used to driving on the mainland, lay off the horn and work on your shaka.

#3: Flowers Have Deeper Meanings

While walking around Hawaiʻi, you may see a woman wearing a flower behind one ear. But did you know that its purpose can be more than decorative?

  • Women who wear a flower behind their left ear are taken. They’ve got a partner, spouse, or significant other.
  • Women who wear a flower behind their right ear, though, are signaling that they’re unattached.

You’ll also see this tradition around Polynesia, so it’s not exclusive to Hawaiʻi. But it’s something to keep your eyes out for while you’re in the Aloha State.

#4: Don’t Take Shells, Rocks, Sand—Anything

Mālama ʻāina is a phrase you’ll hear often in Hawaiʻi. It means to take care of the land. Along those lines, don’t remove rocks, shells, sand, or really anything from the beach. (Except trash!)

Some might point to something called Pele’s curse to deter anyone from collecting lava rocks. The curse isn’t found anywhere in Native Hawaiian stories songs or chants, but some people believe they’ve been afflicted by bad luck or tragedy after removing lava rocks from Hawaiʻi.

Curse or no, the best way to mālama ʻāina is to leave everything where you found it—and leave behind only footprints.

#5: Respect Local Wildlife

Along these same lines, it’s also important in Hawaiʻi to show respect for the wildlife. This means keeping your distance so you don’t divert a creature from its natural patterns. For example, swimming on a collision course with a turtle, trying to touch one, or letting your dog get too close to one are all actions to avoid.

However, you’re always welcome to take in Hawaiʻi’s fascinating wildlife from a respectful distance. To give you a sense of what that means, check out NOAA’s recommendations:

Recommended Wildlife Viewing Distances
  • Sea Turtles: Keep at least 10 feet away on land and in the ocean.
  • Hawaiian Monk Seals: Keep at least 50 feet away on land and in the ocean; with mother seals and pups, stay at least 150 feet away. (This is also for your safety, since monk seals can be aggressive when they feel threatened!)
  • Dolphins: Stay 50 yards away from spinner dolphins, and do not attempt to approach or swim with them.
  • Humpback Whales: Stay at least 100 yards away.

#6: ‘Ohana Is Everything

ʻOhana was an important concept to the original Polynesian voyagers who arrived in Hawaiʻi. It was also an important concept to the Native Hawaiians, whose creation myths give a central role to the ʻoha, the kalo corm. ʻOha forms the root of the word ʻohana, essentially tying all humans together.

ʻOhana remains important today in Hawaiʻi to both Native Hawaiians and Hawaiʻi residents alike. The concept of family—of ʻohana—starts with your blood relatives, but it doesn’t end there. It extends to the community, reflecting the spirit of interdependence between everyone sharing the island.

In Hawaiʻi, kids grow up surrounded by a community of “aunties” and “unkos” who often aren’t related by blood but still represent an extended family that all looks out for each other. As Lilo puts it in the movie, “ʻOhana means family. And family means no one gets left behind—or forgotten.”

Discovering the Customs and Traditions of Hawaiʻi

Spending any length of time in Hawaiʻi offers the opportunity to learn new-to-you cultural traditions and customs. These experiences offer different perspectives, learning opportunities, and the chance to pay respect to the people that came before us. It’s all waiting for you as you explore Hawaiʻi’s rich cultural fabric.

Considering a permanent move to Hawaiʻi? If so, we’d be happy to help you make a safe, easy, and affordable relocation to the Aloha State. Just reach out to one of our Hawaiʻi-based experts to get started with a complimentary quote.

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