Ni’ihau, also known as the “Forbidden Island,” has the most pristine beaches of any of Hawaii’s prized coastlines. In 2018, despite being so close to modern civilization, there are still no roads or running water, and the village is powered solely by solar energy. On Ni’ihau, islanders speak their native Hawaiian dialect, and the entire island is completely self-sufficient by growing, foraging, and hunting its own food. This island, free from the constraints of modern time, has earned a respectable place on the maps of all curious travelers, largely due to its shroud of mystery.
The Past: The King’s Promise
Elizabeth Sinclair-Robinson, a plantation owner from New Zealand who was born in Scotland, purchased the island of Ni’ihau from King Kamehameha V and the Kingdom of Hawaii for $10,000 in 1864. She pledged to preserve the “kahiki” or native Hawaiian culture with this exchange. The inhabitants of Pu’uwai’s principal village continued to speak a Hawaiian dialect and to practice hula. This dance was performed for special occasions and served as a means of preserving and transmitting their culture. Native Hawaiians did not consider land to be their property, which allowed them to live freely without the burden of renting or leasing land. Additionally, wild sheep, pigs, and cattle roamed the land and were considered the island’s neighbors.
Travelers were permitted to visit and observe the culture and community, a long-held Hawaiian dream. In 1952, as a result of a polio outbreak in the Hawaiian Islands, it became illegal for outsiders to visit. In order to protect the locals, the Robinson family decided to revoke visiting privileges for all non-residents. Even though the polio epidemic has passed, the island of Ni’ihau is still off-limits to the general public, and visitors must have an invitation from the Robinson family, the current island caretakers.
The Present: Malama Ka’aina
Today, Ni’ihau sits just off the western coast of Kauai, serving as a bit of a tease to hikers who visit the area. The approximately 100 Ni’ihauan inhabitants of the forbidden island are largely self-sufficient. The people of Ni’ihau are able to grow, find, and hunt whatever they require on a daily basis, but due to their extremely arid climate, they still rely on Kauai for resources. This small island’s inhabitants rely heavily on the tiny Ni’ihauan shell, which is strewn across its beaches, to earn money from the outside world. This shell was once believed to be the flower of Ni’ihau due to the unfavorable climate for flower growth. The creation of Ni’ihauan shell leis, which are regarded as extremely valuable around the world, can take years and a large number of individuals.
Even today, the Robinson family continues to support and provide for the Ni’ihauans by facilitating the trade of their handicrafts. Perhaps it’s in their blood; the family honors the promise of their ancestors by not only preserving the culture and traditions of the native Hawaiian people, but also by making a significant effort to protect the native flora and fauna of the Hawaiian islands, which are threatened with extinction. The family remains committed to the preservation and cultivation of the life and culture of all of Hawaii, including Ni’ihau.
How to Visit the “Forbidden Island” in the Future
Today, although the Ni’ihauan populace is able to maintain their traditional culture, tourism has brought the tiny island to the forefront. The island community of Ni’ihau is inaccessible to outsiders unless extended a rare and highly sought-after invitation by the Robinson family. Numerous tours departing from Kauai bring visitors close enough to the island for activities such as boating and snorkeling around its waters.
The Robinson family, however, provides visitors with a small taste of Ni’ihauan culture in recognition of the outside world’s profound curiosity. The family offers helicopter tours of the island, landing on Nanina Beach away from Pu’uwai, the island’s primary settlement. Additionally, they offer exclusive hunting safaris to the more daring tourists who wish to experience something uniquely Hawaiian.
Topic: The Story Behind Ni‘ihau: Hawaii’s Forbidden Island
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