Restoration of Indigenous Place Names

Composite image of steaming bluff with a hula dancer
These places are living landscapes and hold the mana (spiritual energy) of ancestral Hawaiian people.

NPS Photo

 

Think of these revered places as stories waiting to be discovered. Learning about traditional place names can reveal deeper cultural relationships and impart more meaningful experiences when visiting the park.

 
A cultural practitioner throws an offering in a crater
Pūʻolo (tī leaf bundles with an offering) are commonly seen along the crater’s rim. They represent a personal connection to the site. These should not be touched or disturbed. (NPS Photo/D.Boyle)

"He aliʻi ka ʻāina; he kauā ke kanaka (The land is a chief; man is its servant)." - Mary Kawena Pukui

Since their arrival hundreds of year ago, Hawaiians have ascribed names to places throughout the islands. Names provide directions, historical accounts, and context to a specific location. These place names eventually evolved into common usage and over time, place names became interwoven into cultural practices. As they have for centuries, people come to these revered places for ceremonies, guidance, and inspiration. These practices are a form of acknowledgement of living cultural landscapes throughout the islands.

Hawaiian place names have been around longer than any others and are an invaluable resource for learning and understanding indigenous culture. Even before the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1893, western colonization had already erased many indigenous place names. This stifled Native Hawaiian peoples’ access, practice, and connection with the place names. Restoring place names is no easy task, even among indigenous people. Traditionally, these names were passed down in most cases through oral tradition. Today, advocates of this process link indigenous names to early maps, books, deeds and legal descriptions. Through these efforts indigenous place names can be restored to maps and the modern lexicon, a process that aids in the preservation and protection of cultural heritage.


“Place names in the Hawaiian Islands reveal a transformation from being reflections of Hawaiian geographic discourse to being encoded within Western approaches to knowledge, commodification of the environment, and control of territory. In the course of this transformation, the language/order of the native peoples was displaced and subordinated to that of Western powers, ultimately the U.S.”
- RDK Herman, Senior Geographer at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

 

Last updated: May 20, 2021

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