Place Names of Hawaiʻi

Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park


Dean: Aloha and welcome to the podcast. I’m ranger Dean Gallagher and today, we continue our celebration of May as Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Since the first humans could speak, we have been ascribing names to places. Whether used to provide directions, meeting spots, or context for a specific location, these place names eventually evolve into common usage. As humans migrated and cultures and languages evolved, place names may also change in more than one language. In many places, efforts are being made to find and restore the original place names given. This is no easy task as even among indigenous peoples, multiple tribes speaking different languages have laid claim to the same land at different times. So why is it important to find the earliest possible names? Well as we celebrate Pacific heritage we acknowledge names can be more than just a description of place. These names can actually help to preserve a language and restore a culture. My guest today is park ranger and visual information specialist, Michael Newman who is working to bring some of the original Hawaiian place names to our park maps, apps and signs. Michael, I’m so glad you could join us today.

Michael: Aloha. Hauʻoli wau e kamaʻilio pū me ʻoe i kēia lā. I’m really excited to talk to you today about the preservation of our culture and the restoration of traditional place names at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.

Dean: Yeah, I think that is so nice to be able to hear the Hawaiian language it is such a beautiful and melodic language. This could really be a daunting project, but obviously it's well worth the effort. So why do you think it's so important for us to try to find these early as possible place names and put them on the map.

Michael: Names are incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, historical ancestral connections. Our names give us a sense of who we really are in the communities in which we belong and our place in the world. Native Hawaiians have always had strong ties to their ancestral lands and have their own names for important places and landmarks. Unfortunately, during the late 18th and early 19th century, traditional place names were ignored or erased by colonization. Today, many indigenous people around the world are reclaiming their original place names and returning them back to the maps. This process is aiding in the preservation and protection of cultural heritage.

Dean: Yeah, we should probably go and mention at this point that this has been a collaborative effort with assistance from folks like Bobby Camara or formal visual information specialist Andrew LaValle, who worked on this project as the park was looking to replace outdated and damaged signs. So where can the park visitors see some of the new signs with their Hawaiian place names restored?

Michael: Park visitors can find these signs along the caldera rim at a number of viewing areas of Kaluapele, or the Kīlauea caldera. [laugh] In fact, you will even notice traditional place names on the map you receive once you enter the National Park. I really recommend downloading the NPS application on your smartphone. This will help you respectfully visit some of these revered places.

Dean: So just go ahead and give us a few examples of place names that people may already be familiar with. And then the original Hawaiian names for that same location.

Michael: Well, to name a few, there's Kīlauea Caldera, or Kaluapele. Many people know the Jagger Museum where we had an eruption in 2018. This place is traditionally known as Uēkahuna or the weeping priest. And we have Waldron Ledge or Kūpinaʻi Pali, which is the echoing cliff.

Dean: That's great. I was also trying to memorize that what we call Sulphur Banks is Haʻakulamanu, gathering place of the birds. So as we look more closely into some of these place names, it is apparent the names do carry deeper meaning behind them. Sometimes the names are descriptive of that location, but others may be acknowledging an event or a person. Can you give us an example of a Hawaiian place name and then that meaning behind the name?

Michael: Well, just to name a few. I would like to share this in a story. So in 1996, reprint of Hawaiian legends of Volcanoes by Westervelt, we learn about Pele and Kahawali. In this story, Kahawali is a chief of Puna. And Pele is a Hawaiian volcanic deity and they both compete in a sledding race, called hōlua sledding. The chief obviously loses the contest against Pele and he retreats back to the island of Kauaʻi where he gathers a company of the most powerful priests to return to the island of Hawaiʻi for the destruction of Pele. The priests make their positions near Kīlauea and challenge Pele. This inevitably leads to their own demise. The priests Kaʻauea, the fiery current, and Uēkahuna, the weeping priest and Halemaʻumaʻu, the house of ferns, were the only ones who left their names to localities along the rim Kīlauea.

Dean: I think that is amazing because you've been able to share the Hawaiian story behind those place names. And I think that's just great change for the better when people are gathered on the rim, and they get familiar with those stories. I've, as you heard in the introduction, I was mentioning that we were celebrating Asian American Native Hawaiian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. These place names really provide that deeper story of migration of the Polynesian and the Pacific Islander people. So where does the Hawaiian language originate from?

Michael: The Hawaiian language along with 1200 or so languages can be traced to the Austronesian language family. Hawaiians closely related to other Polynesian language such as Samoan, Marquesan, Tahitian, Māori, Rapa Nui, and Tongan. And the Marquesan first colonized the one archipelago and was later followed by waves and waves of immigration from the society islands in Samoa, Tonga. Their languages over time became the Hawaiian language that we see and speak today.

Dean: I think that's really interesting the way that as people migrated to these different islands, they're separated from where they came from, the languages begin to evolve over distances and time, you can see how the language can morph and change but still share similar words or sentence structure providing clues to their origins. And that's how they've identified this Austronesian language family, which I should point out is very, very diverse. So what are some of the challenges that you're facing when you're trying to trace these early place names?

Michael: Well, we're very fortunate the knowledge that we're sharing with you is the product of the collaborative effort of our kūpuna, which is our elders and ancestors, kumu, or teachers, cultural practitioners, academics of Hawaiiana studies, and the many people in organizations have implemented these changes over a long period of time. These names you know, that were once passed down through a ritual, tradition and process can now even be traced to early maps, books, deeds and legal descriptions. Right now we are at the brink of change. And it's just a matter of going through these old maps and books and deeds to learn more about the place names of Hawaii.

Dean: This is, really a positive thing for the park, but also for park visitors because it increases that depth and authenticity. I know you and I have both worked as Rangers leading programs. And we both noticed that folks can have very much difficulty pronouncing Hawaiian place names. This can be really frustrating, but it's obviously important. So what advice would you give to the people who are having difficulty pronouncing Hawaiian?

Michael: The most important thing is to keep trying to speak the Hawaiian language and keeping it alive. It is important to take time to pronounce these words correctly. And really feel the meaning of these words as you say them, so you need to understand them as well. The Hawaiian alphabet has 13 letters, five vowels a, e, i, o, u, ā, ē, ī, ō, ū, and eight consonants h k l m n, p, w, ʻokina, or he, ke, la, mu, nu, pi, we. This includes a glottal stop called the ʻokina, which is often a short pause between vowels. But more than anything, just keep practicing. The more we hear something, the more familiar it will become to our ears.

Dean: And that is so true. I think anybody who's ever moved to Hawaii and lives here for a while, because they hear these things over and over again, it starts to feel very, very natural. I don't think many people realize even back on the US mainland that places like Topeka, Seattle, Milwaukee, Syracuse, those are all Native American names from diverse tribes and nations. But today, they're spoken and woven into the daily American lexicon. Do you see the same thing happening here in Hawaii?

Michael: Well, believe it or not, it's already happening here as we speak, Ranger Dean, and it's happening here at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. We use these names almost on a daily basis because we are the stewards of our Hawaiian heritage. We share these places that have existed longer than any other because it is important for others to understand the stories of these sites. I definitely see that it will be woven into the daily American lexicon.

Dean: And that is all the time we have for this program. But I do want to thank our guests, ranger and visual information specialist Michael Newman for his ongoing work to restore Hawaiian place names to many locations throughout the National Park. If you would like to start connecting to these sacred landscapes and special places, check out some of the new signs within the park. They're right on the rim of the caldera behind Volcano House up at Kīlauea overlook, and then keep updated by downloading the new NPS Park app. And we'll keep updating the app. Until next time, this is Ranger Dean and Ranger Michael wishing you a hui hou.


In many places, efforts are being made to find and restore the original place names given. This is no easy task as even among indigenous peoples, multiple tribes speaking different languages have laid claim to the same land at different times. These names can actually help to preserve a language and restore a culture. Guest speaker, park ranger and visual information specialist, Michael Newman talks about bringing some of the original Hawaiian place names to our park maps, apps and signs.

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