How Did Hawaii Get Its Name?

The island state reportedly got its name from the native population, which called their home by name that sounded much like the modern pronunciation of Hawaii. Exact origins of the name are still debated, though general agreement puts a Polynesian word at the heart of the issue. Various spellings are used in early records, including Hawa’I and Hawaiki.

hawaiiSome people show that the name came from another island with a similar name – Havaii – though the island is also known as Raiatea.

Most written history, especially in school settings, credits Captain Cook with “discovering” the group of islands. But the islands were inhabited for many years by people of the Polynesian culture and they may have been the true discovers. The islands were governed under a king for much of the 19th century. That period ended with the takeover by business people from the United States and Europe.

Eventually this “republic” was closely associated with governments of the U.S. and Europe. This status changed in 1959 when Hawaii became a state.

This brief summary might stand as an explanation of how the islands got their name, but detailed research shows that there is much more to the Hawaiian story than Cook finding Polynesians on Havaii or Hawa’I.

Archaeological discoveries indicated centuries of activity on the islands, most likely from Polynesian people who traveled from other Pacific islands. Some of the source islands include Bora Bora and the Marquesas, in addition to the previously mentioned Raiatea. The exact year of this immigration is not known and can only be estimated as about three centuries before the birth of Christ. Some studies of archaeological records show a connection to the island of Tahiti, which may have contributed to some of the cultural practices if not the name of the islands.

The spelling and pronunciation of the name is similar to other words in the native language. Chiefs who ruled over small areas of the islands were called ali’i. Cook used a native word “Owyhee” that might be the source of the island’s name. Some scholars and historians don’t believe this theory is completely credible. The language of the islands uses many “i” and “a” letters, with other names like Maui, Molokai and Kaua’i commonly used.

In any case, these beautiful and generally peaceful islands were the scene of much violence as the long-standing government by kings was replaced. A new political system was established using both aggressive and passive means, a system that would be of great benefit to the commercial interests that took control of Hawaii.

Category: History, Government & Society

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