Hawaiian Culture in Hana

The small town of Hana on Maui’s northeast coast exudes serenity. Walking its few streets along Hana Bay you get a sense of old Hawaii, peaceful and distinctly different from the bustling Maui resorts on the other side of the island. Hana also embraces the culture of traditional Hawaii and we got to experience Hawaiian culture both on display and in action.

"Hana Bay on the northeast coast of Maui"

Hana Bay, Maui

Hawaiian culture on display

Just a short, pleasant walk from our Travaasa Hana accommodations was the Hana Cultural Center which is comprised of a small museum and a historic one-room courthouse (built in 1871) exhibiting artifacts, though it is also still used as a court. The center, also called Hale Wai Wai (Hawaiian for House of Treasures), was established in 1971 to preserve and demonstrate traditional Hana life and the culture of east Maui.

"Hana Cultural Center and Courthouse, Maui"

Hana Cultural Center and Courthouse

Its exhibits are simple, but rich in the history of the town and the symbolism of Hana culture. The importance of community is an important aspect of Hana culture. It is inherent in daily life and evidenced in the museum by the poster-sized photos of Hana residents, past and present.

"Hawaiian culture artifact at Hana Cultural Center - Orange feather staff used to warn people that the king was about to arrive"

Feather staff

The beautiful orange feathers pictured above caught our attention, but we were stymied for a reasonable guess as to what it was. The friendly volunteer informed us that it was a tall staff carried by a herald walking before the king’s procession because if anyone’s shadow fell upon the king, it meant a death sentence. These were life-saving warnings to alert people of royalty approaching.

"Artifacts in Hana Cultural Center - basket traps, octopus lure, fishing weights"

Artifacts in Hana Cultural Center

The center provided numerous displays, such as the one pictured above featuring some basic tools of early Hawaiian fishermen such as basket traps, octopus lures and fishing weights.

"The making of kapa (barkcloth) was an important activity for ancient Hawaiians"

Kapa (bark cloth) made from plants — a valued activity in ancient Hawaii

We learned about the devastating tsunami that hit shore at about 2 a.m. on April 1, 1946, killing 14 Hana residents. A 7.4 earthquake in Alaska generated massive waves that moved at 500 mph toward Hawaii. The date was an issue because some people discounted the warnings, thinking they were April Fools’ pranks. The center has newspaper accounts of the disaster as well as the stories passed along by witnesses and their descendants.

"News clippings and information about the 1946 tsunami at the Hana Cultural Center"

News clippings and information about the 1946 tsunami

Hawaiian Culture in Action

One of the reasons we decided to visit the cultural center was that there was also a replica of a traditional Hawaiian living compound with a representative hale (house). Our timing was excellent as a volunteer at the center told us that there was a hale construction project currently in progress at the Kauhale O Hana living compound next to the center.

"Kauhale O Hana Hawaiian living compound where hale building competition team was at work, Maui 2013"

Kauhale O Hana Living Compound

Living compounds consisted of several hales used for specific purposes, such as a hale noa (sleeping quarters for the whole family) shown below, hale wa’a (canoe house), hale mua (men’s meeting quarters), hale kuke (a general cook house) and the hale imu (the men’s cooking house for cooking foods forbidden to women). The structures were built with open ends to allow strong breezes to blow through without knocking them down.

"Hale Noa in Hana, Maui"

Hale Noa

There were five teams at five different locations who had three days to complete their hale building in a competition sponsored by a benefactor seeking to promote and preserve this important part of Hawaiian culture. The winner was to be announced at the Hana Taro Festival the following weekend, which unfortunately, we would be missing. (I haven’t been able to find anything online about the results.)

"Student volunteers building a hale as part of the Maui hale competition in April 2013, Maui"

Student team members building a hale

As we walked toward the work area, the team welcomed us and talked about the project. We were very impressed by the level of camaraderie and teamwork among the individuals. In fact, that was an integral part of the competition — harmony and teamwork were elements on which the teams were judged. As one of the volunteers said — they could not be working on the project with any negative feelings.

"One of five teams of student workers building hales in Maui as part of a competition"

Enjoying the camaraderie of constructing the hale

The thatched roof structures were made from rocks for the platform, ironwood frames, tied together with cords  (traditionally made from plants, but now man-made materials are also acceptable) and leaves or grass (more commonly used because of the sweet smell) for the roof.

"Tree branches are cut to be used in the building of the hale, Maui"

Trees cut for use in building the hale

The team was working on gathering the materials and building the platform and in-ground oven for the hale imu. They commented that it was ironic that the building nearby, the hale wa’a, had been the victim of a fire rather than the hale with an oven.

"Kauhale O Hana Compound sign, Maui"

Kauhale O Hana Compound sign

Of course, human sacrifice in ancient times is not unexpected, as mentioned on the sign at the entrance to the hale compound shown above. But I was struck by the notation that it was usually a favorite male cousin who was picked for the sacrifice. Good enough reason to avoid the relatives!

We apologized to the hale builders for interrupting their work and I said, “Sorry we didn’t think to bring you guys some cold beverages.” The foreman said, “That’s OK. You came with a smile.”

Now that’s Aloha.

This is our contribution to Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Thanks!

48 thoughts on “Hawaiian Culture in Hana

  1. noel


    That was a beautiful post and explanation of the various hales, its great that the local community is making a nice representation of their culture and lifestyles. Thanks fo rsharing your experience.

    1. Cathy Post author

      The different hales really are interesting, aren’t they? I found so much in Hawaiian culture that was interesting — especially wonderful how the people are very serious about keeping the traditions alive.

    1. Cathy Post author

      I highly recommend a visit to Hana and as we said in a previous post, try to spend at least a night or two there instead of just making it a day trip.

  2. Andrea

    I found the human sacrifice issue interesting in Peru as well – how it was often the children of the rich and powerful who would be sacrificed. Like it was an honour. Unreal

    1. Cathy Post author

      I never cease to be amazed when I hear of human sacrifices in history and grateful that I don’t live in those times.

    1. Cathy Post author

      It’s such an unusual piece that it grabs your attention in the museum. Then when you hear the story behind it, you get really interested.

  3. Jackie Smith

    A most interesting tour you’ve taken us on today. Stirs the travel juices and makes me want to head to Hawaii. . .nuts, it makes me want to live in Hawaii — not in a thatched hale though.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Wouldn’t it be great to have a home (even part time) in Hawaii? But I agree the hale might be a little too much roughing it for me.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Good point — I wonder how many different guesses we could have gotten from people about the staff’s purpose.

  4. Leigh

    Although I’ve visited a few of the Hawaiian islands I’ve never experienced the Hawaiian culture to the extent that you did.I like the fact that no negativity is allowed during the building process – and would hope to never be a favoured male cousin. I can’t imagine the honour the sacrifice victims feel.

  5. Charu

    It really is incredible how Hawaii is managing to preserve its culture. I loved your article, Cathy! I recently visited The Big Island and wrote about Alii Drive and how you can see centuries of culture in a span of a few miles (http://su.pr/21VSRl ) –have you been? You’d love it there. And I love the bit about the colorful feathers–I figured it was regal , it certainly looks it.

    1. Cathy Post author

      It’s such a pleasure to find people who are so committed to preserving their heritage and culture. It’s not all that common these days.

    1. Cathy Post author

      It was obvious right away that those guys were enjoying working together and we were so impressed by the pride they had in their project.

  6. Mary {The World Is A Book}

    Love this post, Cathy! What a great experience to interact and see the hale construction project. I’ve always been fascinated with Hawaiian culture and I learned quite a bit from you here. How interesting to sacrifice favorite male cousin as well as the feather watching alert. We never made it to Hana and the closest Hawaiian culture we usually get is through the luaus and the Polynesian cultural Center in Oahu so this was refreshing and educational.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Mary. Happy that I could provide a different perspective of Hawaiian culture here. Hope you get a chance to visit Hana sometime, too.

  7. Erik

    I have no been to Hawaii (or Alaska, the only two states I have left). I love the smaller museums- I was enchanted by them all over New Zealand when I was there in 2012. This one look particularly good.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Only two more states to go — yay! I love the small museums you come across when traveling. You always learn something new.

  8. Vera Marie Badertscher

    This is exactly the kind of travel I love, where you get to see the native culture from the past beside just the beautiful landscape. And there is plenty of beautiful landscape in Maui!! Your pictures are an excellent lure for travelers.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks, Vera. Maui certainly has a lot going for it — native culture, beautiful landscapes, awesome resorts — can’t wait to go back!

  9. Marisol@TravelingSolemates

    Hi Cathy, I found the story behind the orange featherd staff interesting. Somehow it reminded of the caste system in India where the shadows of the lowest caste can’t fall upon Brahman, the highest caste. At least in Hana, they had the orange staff to alert them:) Anyway, the museum looks charming and quaint but seems to offer very rich cultural exhibits. It’s great you got to witness the hale building competition. The whose experience is fascinating and educational.

    1. Cathy Post author

      Interesting thought about the caste system in India. I guess the Hawaiians were fortunate that they at least had a warning.

  10. Abby

    My best friend is moving to Hawaii. It’s been a whirlwind! I can’t wait to visit — I’ve only ever been to Maui. Am sending her your blog as soon as she settles in!

    1. Cathy Post author

      Thanks for sharing the blog with your friend. There are quite a few articles out here now about Maui – hope she’ll like them.

  11. Sophie

    Very interesting. Sounds like you really got a lot out of your time in Hawaii, Cathy.

    I haven’t been yet, but from what I’ve read and photos I’ve seen, Hawaii seems very different than the rest of the USA. Is it? Do you feel like you’re at home – or in another country?

  12. Andrew Graeme Gould

    Very interesting… The only Pacific cultures I’ve got to see close up were those of New Zealand (Maori), Tahiti and Easter Island. That thing about the king and shadows is scary!

  13. Pingback: 3 Days on Oahu: 5 Honolulu Highlights » Traveling with Sweeney

  14. Pingback: 5 Honolulu Highlights - Dave's Travel Corner

  15. Pingback: From Shoes to Sex: 14 Intriguing Museums in North America - Traveling with Sweeney

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.