Hawaii’s Forbidden Island: The Story Behind Ni‘ihau

An aerial view of Ni‘ihau Island in Hawaii | © Christopher P. Becker / WikiCommons

None of Hawaii’s treasured shorelines are quite as untouched as those of Ni‘ihau, known to locals and foreigners as the “Forbidden Island.” Even though it’s so close to modern civilization, in 2018, there are still no roads or running water, and the village runs solely on solar-powered electricity. On Ni‘ihau, islanders speak their traditional dialect of Hawaiian, and the entire island operates in a completely self-sustainable way by growing, foraging, and hunting for their own food. This island, free of the restrictions of modern time, has earned a respectable spot on every curious traveler’s map, due in most part to its shroud of mystery.

The Past: A Promise to the King

In 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair-Robinson, born in Scotland and a plantation owner in New Zealand, purchased the island of Ni‘ihau from King Kamehameha V and the Kingdom of Hawaii for $10,000. With this exchange, she promised to preserve the “kahiki” or native Hawaiian culture. The natives of the main village of Pu‘uwai spoke a dialect that was a variation of Hawaiian and continued to practice hula. This dance was used as entertainment for special occasions and a way for them to preserve and pass on their history. Land was not considered property to natives of Hawaii, and this allowed the islanders to live freely, without having the responsibility of renting or leasing land. Wild sheep, boar, and cattle roamed the land as well and were merely considered neighboring inhabitants of the island.

A group of villagers at Puʻuwai Beach settlement, Niʻihau in 1885. Photograph taken by Francis Sinclair, son of Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair. | © Francis Sinclair / WikiCommons

Considered a Hawaiian dream for some time, travelers were permitted to visit and observe the culture and community. Almost a century later in 1952, outsiders were forbidden due to a polio outbreak among the Hawaiian Islands. In order to protect the natives, the Robinson family decided to revoke visiting rights to anyone who did not live on the island. And although the polio epidemic is long behind them, the island of Ni‘ihau is still off-limits to the general public, and visitors require an invitation from the current island caretakers, the Robinson family.

The Present: Malama Ka‘aina

Today, Ni‘ihau sits just off the western coast of Kauai as a bit of a tease to curious hikers visiting nearby. The 100 or so Ni‘ihauan population inhabiting the forbidden island are, for the most part, self-sustaining. They are able to grow, find, and hunt whatever they might need on a day-to-day basis, but living in a very arid climate, the people of Ni‘ihau still rely on resources from Kauai to survive. To make some money from the outside world, locals rely heavily on the tiny Ni‘ihauan shell, scattered along the beaches of this small island. This shell was once considered to be the flower of Ni‘ihau, as the temperature was not ideal for flowers to grow. It sometimes takes years and a number of people to work to create Ni‘ihauan shell leis, which are considered extremely valuable all over the world.

View of the rugged cliffs of windward Niʻihau (the northeastern shore) | © Christopher P. Becker / WikiCommons

Even now, the Robinson family continues to support and provide for the Ni‘ihauans by facilitating the trade for their artisanal goods. Perhaps it’s in their blood—the family holds steadfastly to their ancestors’ promise by not only preserving the culture and traditions of the native Hawaiian people but also by making a large effort to protect the endangered flora and fauna that is native to the islands of Hawaii. The family also continues to commit to the preservation and cultivation of the life and culture of not only Ni‘ihau but the rest of Hawaii as well.

The Future: How to Visit the “Forbidden Island”

Today, though the Ni‘ihauan population is able to preserve their traditional culture, interest from travelers has put the tiny island into the spotlight. Aside from a rare and sought-after personal invitation by the Robinson family, the island community of Ni‘ihau is off-limits to outsiders. Many tours are available from Kauai that take visitors close enough to the island itself, with options like boating and snorkeling in and around its waters.

Snorkeling off the shores of Ni’ihau | © Holo Holo Tours

But, understanding the immense intrigue by the outside world, the Robinson family allows visitors a small taste of the Ni‘ihauan life. The family provides helicopter tours of the island, landing on Nanina Beach away from the main village of Pu‘uwai. They also offer unique hunting safaris to the more adventurous travelers that are interested in experiencing something very traditionally Hawaiian.

Source by theculturetrip.com

11 Fascinating Things To Know About Hawaii’s Forbidden Island

1. It Was Originally Bought For $10,000 Worth Of Gold

One of the most riveting facts about the Forbidden Island has to do with the story of its purchase. History has it that in 1864, Elizabeth Sinclair originally bought the island from King Kamehameha V for a mere $10,000 in gold. Though this amount of money can’t even buy a small home in today’s economy, it was quite a large sum of money at the time.

The king’s only request was that the Sinclair family protect the island and its residents from outside influences, a promise that still rings true today.

Today, Keith and Bruce Robinson, descendants of the Sinclairs, are the sole owners of the island and are committed to its preservation and its proud Hawaiian heritage.

In a plea to state lawmakers to help protect the island, Bruce Robinson stated that “over a hundred years ago, a king asked our family to take care of the people. We’re here today for that fulfillment of that promise.”

2. It Was Deemed The “Forbidden Island” Due To A Polio Epidemic

There are various myths and legends as to why Niihau is named the “Forbidden Island,” the most popular being that you have to be invited by the Robinsons in order to visit. Though this is presently true — minus a few exceptions (see below) — this wasn’t the case when the name was originally construed.

During a polio epidemic in the Hawaiian Islands in 1952, Niihau became known as the “Forbidden Island” since you had to have a doctor’s note to visit in order to prevent the spread of polio.

In an interview with ABC News, Bruce Robinson explained, “My uncle wanted to protect the residents here from the epidemic and it was forbidden to come out here unless you had a doctor’s certificate, and there was a two-week quarantine. And it worked. We never got polio out here.”

3. It Epitomizes A Nearly Forgotten Past

While some may consider it a modern-day nightmare and others view it as a peaceful utopian society, Niihau has rejected the use of today’s technologies and survives without electricity, running water, internet, shops, restaurants, paved roads, cars, or hotels.

Electricity on the Forbidden Island is produced by the sun or a generator, as opposed to an electric utility. There are few to no cars on the island, and most people get around by bike or on foot.

Residents on the island hunt and fish using age-old methods passed down from their ancestors. Unfortunately, today, the island’s natural resources are in danger. Pressures from outside sources have strained the island’s ability to uphold traditions and dying cultural practices.

4. It’s Home To The Largest Lake In Hawaii

Encompassing more than 840 acres of land, Lake Halalii is an ephemeral lake. During the rainy seasons, it becomes Hawaii’s largest lake. Since Lake Halalii’s size is dependent upon rainfall, it is sometimes referred to as a playa or intermittent lake.

Lake Halalii is situated near Halulu Lake, which, according to Niihau: The Traditions of an Hawaiian Island, is the largest natural lake in the Hawaiian Islands.

5. It May Have As Few As 70 Residents…And Its Population Is Declining

There’s a lot of debate about how many people actually live on Hawaii’s Forbidden Island, mainly due to the fact that the Robinson family isn’t required to report population numbers.

While a 2010 census estimated the island’s permanent residents to be at about 170 strong, the Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation claims this number is closer to about 70 inhabitants.

Due to factors including limited economic opportunities, few healthcare providers, and more homesites becoming available on the nearby island of Kauai, many Niihau residents are spending more time elsewhere, eventually leaving the Forbidden Island behind permanently.


6. Livestock And Other Animals Roam Freely

Livestock and other animals roam freely throughout the island’s kiawe trees, a species of mesquite. Sheep, cattle, and pigs are some familiar critters that can be found throughout the island’s kiawe trees, along with more exotic animals such as herds of eland, aoudad, and oryx. According to the Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, these animals were brought to the island from Molokai Ranch when its wildlife park closed in 1999.

7. There Are Many Rules To Follow

Established by earlier generations and upheld by the Robinsons, there are a number of rules that permanent residents of Niihau must follow.

Residents aren’t allowed to drink alcohol or own guns, and some residents have even claimed that men are not allowed to have long hair or earrings and that the entire village must attend church on Sundays. According to the New York Times, anyone caught breaking these rules can be evicted.

8. It’s Home To The Only School In Hawaii That Relies Entirely On Solar Power

Despite the fact that Niihau doesn’t utilize many modern-day technologies, residents’ practices are quite advanced when it comes to harnessing solar power.

The Forbidden Island is home to Hawaii’s only school that relies entirely on solar power for electricity. In December 2007, a 10.4 kW photovoltaic power system with battery storage was installed at Niihau School, making it the only school in the state — and quite possibly in the entire nation — that is run solely on solar power.


9. It’s The Only Place In Hawaii Where Native Hawaiian Is The Most-Spoken Language

When King Kamehameha V sold the island of Niihau to Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864, he made her promise that her family would protect the island and its residents from outside influences, which included an emphasis on maintaining the island’s proud Hawaiian heritage.

Today, the Forbidden Island is the only remaining island in the state where native Hawaiian is the most-used language. When the Hawaiian monarchy was overthrown in the late 1800s, the English language began to spread, and Hawaiian was inevitably spoken less and less.

Niihau’s isolation is one reason it was able to maintain the usage of its native tongue, and the small community has even developed its own separate dialect that’s only spoken on the Forbidden Island.

10. You Have To Be Invited To Visit The Island…

The Robinson family is so dedicated to protecting the island from the outside world and upholding the former king’s wishes that you have to be invited by either a member of the Robinson family or a permanent Niihau resident in order to visit the island.

Though this prevents travelers from visiting the Forbidden Island, there are a few exceptions to the rule (see below).

11. …Unless You Take One Of These Tours

If you’re looking for a way around Niihau’s travel restrictions, then you’re in luck. There are now two ways that travelers can visit Hawaii’s Forbidden Island: Niihau Helicopters and Niihau Safaris.

Niihau Helicopters offers exclusive excursions to the Forbidden Island on executive class twin-engine helicopters. Pilots provide a historical background of the island and guests are allowed to wander its secluded beaches, sunbathing, looking for shells, and gazing upon beloved monk seals. Half-day tours cost $440 per person and group rates are available.

The other way to visit Hawaii’s Forbidden Island is by embarking on a Niihau Safari. Niihau Safaris invites guests to a tropical and challenging safari experience, with the opportunity to hunt Polynesian boars, hybrid sheep, wild eland, aoudad, and oryx. Niihau Safaris welcomes participants of various ages and skill sets, and hunting rates are set at $1,950 per day.

Source by travelawaits.com

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