The best books for understanding traditional Hawaiian culture before visiting Hawai‘i

Dennis Kawaharada Author Of Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place
By Dennis Kawaharada

Who am I?

I taught traditional Hawaiian literature to college students and established Kalamakū Press in 1990 to publish Hawaiian folktales, narratives, autobiography, and poetry. I also worked for a decade as a writer for the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS), a scientific and cultural non-profit that builds and sails double-hulled voyaging canoes to explore how the Polynesians, without modern navigation instruments, found and settled Hawai‘i. Long before Europeans arrived in Hawai‘i, Polynesians discovered and lived sustainably for centuries on an isolated chain of eight islands. The practices and values of the traditional culture have a lot to teach communities struggling to find their way in an overdeveloped, overpopulated world today. 


I wrote...

Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place

By Dennis Kawaharada,

Book cover of Storied Landscapes: Hawaiian Literature and Place

What is my book about?

One reviewer wrote of Storied Landscapes, “Kawaharada, a teacher and historian long active with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, has created a work highly useful for students of Hawaii history, but also very readable; it will change and enrich your view of the islands’ landmarks.” Another reviewer wrote, “In 112 pages, Kawaharada manages to cover much.... The overall sense one gets from reading is one of deeper meanings and an interconnectedness of names and places. ...the book plants the seeds of a lifetime’s challenge for its readers: to take an active role in learning about the land, to celebrate the myths that humanize, and to incorporate those myths into a daily existence that meshes culturally, economically and politically with life on these islands.”

The books I picked & why

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The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawai'i

By E. S. Craighill Handy, Mary Kawena Pukui,

Book cover of The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawai'i

Why this book?

Despite the scholarly title, this book is a highly readable account of traditional Hawaiian culture in Ka‘ū, the southernmost district of the Big Island of Hawai‘i. Mary Kawena Pukui (1895–1986) was a preeminent Hawaiian scholar, author, composer, hula expert, and educator. She was born and raised in Ka‘ū, a remote, rural area where the old culture endured outside of the Westernization of the islands. In 1935 she traveled home with anthropologist E.S. Handy to gather information from her elders. Their book provides details and insights about the district’s history and ecology, the legendary setting (gods and spirits), the extended household and kinship system, the life cycle of individuals, manners and customs, and the relationships between people and ancestral spirits and animals.

The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawai'i

By E. S. Craighill Handy, Mary Kawena Pukui,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Polynesian Family System in Ka'u, Hawai'i as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This classic book on Hawaiian families and culture is an essential text for anyone interested in pre-American Hawaii.

The Polynesian Family System in Ka-'U, Hawai'i is a collaboration of the distinguished scholars Dr. Mary Puku and Dr. E.S. Craighill Handy. It provides us with this fascinating review of traditional Hawaiian life. Manners and customs relating to birth, death, marriage, sexual practices, religious beliefs, and family relationship are all clearly described. The main sources of information were elderly Hawaiian informants of then remote Kacu district of the island of Hawaii.

This Hawaiian history and culture book provides professional scholars and laymen…


Hawaiian Antiquities

By David Malo,

Book cover of Hawaiian Antiquities

Why this book?

Hawaiian Antiquities, published in 1903, was translated into English from the nineteenth-century writings of David Malo (1795–1853). Malo was a major scholar of Old Hawai‘i who spent his life among the courts of the kings and chiefs, where he learned traditional practices and oral traditions. His writings cover a wide range of topics, including cosmogony, origins and genealogy, social classes, geography (land, sea, and sky and clouds, winds, and rains), the calendar (seasons, months, and days), flora and fauna, fishing and farming, houses and canoes, food and clothing, sports and games, religious worship and observances, healing practices and necromancy, and traditions about the ancient kings of Hawai‘i.

Hawaiian Antiquities

By David Malo,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hawaiian Antiquities as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

1951 2nd. ed.


Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi

By Samuel M. Kamakau,

Book cover of Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi

Why this book?

Samuel Manaiakalani Kamakau (1815–1876) was one of the most important and prolific Hawaiian scholars of the nineteenth century. His history of the ruling chiefs of Hawai‘i begins with the high chief ʻUmi, eight generations before Kamehameha I, who established the Hawaiian Kingdom in 1795, and continues to the death of Kamehameha III in 1854. Ruling Chiefs, published in 1961, was translated from Hawaiian newspaper articles that appeared in the 1860s and 1870s. The stories include Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1776, the coming of Western missionaries, and the changes that followed. All of the writings of Kamakau are highly recommended, including The People of Old, The Works of the People of Old, and The Tales and Traditions of the People of Old.

Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi

By Samuel M. Kamakau,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Ruling Chiefs of Hawaiʻi as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Eighteenth-century Hawaiian historian Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau traces Hawaiʻi’s history from ʻUmi, high chief eight generations before Kamehameha I, to the death of Kamehameha III in 1854. This volume covers the arrival of Captain James Cook, the consolidation of the Hawaiian kingdom by Kamehameha I, the coming of the missionaries, and the changes affecting the kingdom through the reign of Kamehameha III.

This history was originally written by Kamakau in Hawaiian as a series of newspaper articles in the 1860s and 1870s. The English translation was completed by a team of esteemed Hawaiian scholars including Mary Kawena Pukui, Thomas G. Thrum,…


Hawaiian Fishing Traditions

By Moke Manu, Dennis Kawaharada (editor),

Book cover of Hawaiian Fishing Traditions

Why this book?

Hawaiian Fishing Traditions celebrates famous Hawaiian fishermen. Fish was the main source of protein. The first story, by Moke Manu, tells of Kū‘ula-kai, who became deified as a god of fishermen because of his power to control fish. He built the first fishpond, in Hāna, Maui, to supply the chief and people with food. His son ‘Ai‘ai, featured in the second story, continued his father’s good work by locating offshore fishing grounds and teaching the people how to catch fish, practice conservation, and distribute the catch with generosity. Also included are the stories of other legendary fishermen and of battles with man-eating sharks. Two articles in the appendix describe the vast array of traditional fishing methods; a third article gives an anthropological account of the worship of shark gods.

Hawaiian Fishing Traditions

By Moke Manu, Dennis Kawaharada (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hawaiian Fishing Traditions as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A celebration of the great fisherman of ancient Hawaii, known for attracting and propagating fish, inventing fishing techniques, and bringing in extraordinary catches.


Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance

By Sam Low,

Book cover of Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance

Why this book?

How did Polynesians navigate without instruments in voyaging canoes made with stone-age tools to discover and settle an isolated island chain in the middle of the Pacific, over 2,000 miles from their ancestral homelands in Tahiti and the Marquesas? Their navigational practices are lost in time, but the Polynesian Voyaging Society was established in 1975 to explore how it might have been done. Low tells the story of the society’s early work, a marvelous combination of adventure, exploration, and research that contributed to the contemporary revival of the spirit, pride, values, and traditions of the ancient culture. Also highly recommended on this subject are books by the three founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society: artist and scholar Herb Kawaianui Kane, anthropologist Ben Finney, and writer and waterman Tommy Holmes.

Hawaiki Rising: Hōkūle‘a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance

By Sam Low,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Hawaiki Rising as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Attuned to a world of natural signs-the stars, the winds, the curl of ocean swells-Polynesian explorers navigated for thousands of miles without charts or instruments. They sailed against prevailing winds and currents aboard powerful double canoes to settle the vast Pacific Ocean. And they did this when Greek mariners still hugged the coast of an inland sea, and Europe was populated by stone-age farmers. Yet by the turn of the twentieth century, this story had been lost and Polynesians had become an oppressed minority in their own land. Then, in 1975, a replica of an ancient Hawaiian canoe-Hokule'a-was launched to…


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