11 Best Books to Deepen Your Understanding of Hawaiʻi

Over 10 million tourists visit Hawaiʻi each year. Despite these numbers, I am always surprised at the general lack of knowledge about Hawai’iʻs history, social climate, and or laws.

Over 300,000 tourists flock to the islands each day, awaiting a tropical paradise promised by the tourist industry. As a result, many visitors are surprised to find a local community that is frustrated with the overtourism and disrespectful visitor behavior.

Recently, numerous videos have emerged on social media of visitors disrespecting engaged species like the Hawaiian monk seal and the Hawaiian green sea turtle (Chelonia mydas) sparking community outrage. Both species are protected by Federal and State law. Disturbing, touching, or harassing these animals is a Class-C felony punishable by five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Local residents have taken to social media to express their ongoing frustration with the “blatant disrespect” of visiting tourists. Despite the ongoing education campaigns by The Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Department of Land and Natural Resources tourists continue to dismiss the laws of the state.

Kūleana: Your Responsibility As a Malihini (Tourist)

As a flight attendant, I am a perpetual tourist — constantly traveling to unfamiliar places as a visitor, malihini, and haole to various regions of the globe. As such, an important part of our crew training is to continue to educate ourselves on the ongoing events of the places that we are visiting, thereby always being aware of the socio-political climate of each region.

My training has taught me that as a tourist (and an adult), it is my responsibility alone to educate myself on the people, places, and social climate of the places that I am visiting.

Similarly, it is the responsibility of every traveler to educate themselves on the history of the people, culture, politics, and laws of the region before coming to Hawaiʻi.

It is a wonderful habit that all travelers and globe-trotters should adopt. Observing oneʻs environment and being aware of oneʻs surroundings is a practice steeped in the Native Hawaiian practice of kilo.

Understanding Hawaiʻi: A Start

If youʻre interested in understanding Hawai’i beyond the surface level and need some reliable resources, fret not. I have compiled a list of the best books to help anyone deepen their understanding of Hawaiʻi, itʻs native people, history, and social climate.

Aside from the novel Dragonfruit, all of the books on this list are written by scholars and Native Hawaiian historians.

Hawaiian History: A Short Summary

It is important to note that these reads alone cannot fulfill the thousand years of Hawaiʻiʻs rich history.

First, there is an over thousand-year history of Polynesian voyagers who discovered the isolated isles in the middle of the Pacific and cultivated the resources to grow the population to over 1 million native residents.

In addition, there is a language, culture, mythology, practices, values, and societal hierarchy to learn. There are medicinal remedies, fine arts practices, and agricultural sciences that will blow your modern mind.

And then there are the socio-political effects of post-colonial contact. Foreign diseases that reduced the indigenous population by 40% in 40 years.

Regardless of whether youʻre a visiting tourist, curious traveler, or local resident looking to understand the prevalent juxtaposition of Hawaiʻiʻs history, the solution is always understanding.

The introduction of foreign policies, the sugar business, and the privatization of Hawaiian land for the foreigner’s interests completely disenfranchised many Native Hawaiians.

Finally, there was the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy, the outlawing of the Hawaiian language for over 100 years, and the subsequent annexation of Hawai’i to the United States.

A few of these reads will cover these topics in great detail.

Understanding Hawaiʻi

Regardless of whether youʻre a visiting tourist, curious traveler, or local resident looking to understand the prevalent juxtaposition of Hawaiʻiʻs history, the solution is always understanding.

If you’re looking to comprehend the intricacies of Hawaiʻiʻs current social climate it is best to look to Kānaka Maoli ancestors who said, “I ka wā ma hope, i ka wā ma mua,” or simply, look to the past to find answers to present-day problems.

There is no shortage of literature on the topic, and if youʻre looking for the best books thatʻll help you understand Hawaiʻiʻs convoluted history, I would suggest starting with these 11 reads:

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1. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

About the book Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature

You might be wondering how a book about the politics of African language and literature tops the list of best books about Hawaiian history. The answer is simple, the cultural bomb.

According to scholar Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, colonization is a “cultural bomb that annihilates a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves” (Thiong’o 1986, p.16).

Thiongʻo argues that colonizaton cultivates people who see their past as a wasteland, and want to distance themselves from it, disconnecting from that culture completely. The result is a culture that is in despair, and in their hopelessness, collectively kills off its own art, music, and literature by assimilating to the new glorified, colonial structure.

Thiongʻo brilliantly deconstructs the effect of colonization on language, proving that it suppresses any valuable use of the native language, while obstructively appropriating it for the benefit of the colonizer (*ahem, the Hawaiian word “aloha”), resulting in indigenous people who want to disconnect and dissociate from the trauma of their past.

This is the root of cultural shame that shows up as a reproach in one’s language and cultural practices, the chastising of one’s own people or culture, and an appropriation of native language and meandering of history to benefit the colonizer.

When I began to understand the effects of colonialism on my own cultural heritage, language, and history, I began to see everything differently. This book is the perfect starting point to understand the underlying dynamic and history of Hawaiʻi without bias.

2. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi by Haunani Kay-Trask

About the book From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaiʻi

Described as “a provocative, well-reasoned attack against the rampant abuse of Native Hawaiian rights, institutional racism, and gender discrimination,” From a Native Daughter is a collection of 17 impassioned essays by Trask.

Her article titled Lovely Hula Hands masterfully describes corporate tourism as the prostitution of the Hawaiian culture using a metaphor of a hula girl. Genius.

Her powerful resistance to colonization has made her a target for social attack under the trope of “angry native.” I have heard the comments circulate in my own community. Complaints mostly that women shouldnʻt be as “hard, tough” and letʻs be honest — smart.

Everything about Trask was provocative. From her defense of the word haole against a studentʻs article in the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa newspaper to her blatant address of the United States military invasion and oppression, her ideals have always been ahead of her time.

Each article in From a Native Daughter unravels the disintegration of Native Hawaiians in a clear and straightforward way. Itʻs well-worthy of a read.

3. Hawaii’s Story by Hawaii’s Queen by Queen Liliʻuokalani

About the book Hawaiiʻs Story by Hawaiiʻs Queen

Somebody get the tissues, cause this one’s a tear-jerker from start-to-finish.

The book was originally published in 1898, just five years following the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the same year that the United States annexed Hawaiʻi. In it, Queen Liliʻuokalani explains her upbringing, her accession to the throne, the overthrow of her government by pro-American forces, her appeals to the United States to restore the Hawaiian monarchy, and her arrest and trial following an unsuccessful 1895 rebellion against the Republic of Hawai’i.

Itʻs a tough read throughout, and not just because of injustices that Queen Liliʻuokalani faced during her tenure as the last reigning monarch of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, but also because itʻs written in the words of an educated and intelligent Queen.

The humanity in her writing is imperfect and admiring. For instance, she references other Royal families, unflatteringly too! I especially loved her honesty about the family feud with Queen Emma and her blunt criticism of the Kamehameha Dynasty. It was, if nothing else, real.

The book is a great source for understanding the events that lead to the overthrow and subsequent annexation of Hawaiʻi to the United States. However, I would suggest you do your own due diligence in corroborating important dates.

4. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism by Noenoe Silva

About the book Aloha Betrayed Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism

Dr. Noenoe Silva is one of my favorite indigenous scholars of all time. Her rigorous academic research unearthed thousands of pages of newspapers, books, letters, and official documents written in the Hawaiian language by Native Hawaiians.

With few exceptions, most histories of Hawaiʻi had been based exclusively on English-language sources. In her analysis of these documents, specifically, the Kūʻē petitions, Silva filled the gap for the historical record and changed the narrative of Hawaiian history.

Her work refuted the long-held idea that Native Hawaiians passively accepted the erosion of their culture and loss of their nation, providing print evidence that they actively resisted political, economic, and cultural domination. This read will break your mind all the way open and likely lead you down a Hawaiian newspaper rabbit hole on the Papakilo Database.

5. Sugar Water: Hawaii’s Plantation Ditches by Carol Wilcox

About the book Sugar Water: Hawaiiʻs Plantation Ditches

For hundreds of years, Native Hawaiians, local residents, and farmers have protested, contested, and been disillusioned by Hawaiʻiʻs water rights (or lack thereof).

If youʻre looking to demystify the history of land ownership, water rights, and economic power in Hawaiʻi, I would suggest you pick up this read. Itʻs a non-biased, fact-based histography of the sugar plantation and water rights in Hawaiʻi, and itʻs a total revelation.

Opening the book with, “Sugar is a thirsty crop.” Wilcox marvelously outlines how the sugar industry dominated the physical and economic landscape of Hawaiʻi. She covers the Pioneers, Politics, and Profits of the industry, Water Rights, and the historic water diversion ditches that continue to control and divert Hawaiʻiʻs water sources today.

Itʻs a waiwai (rich) read that should be read hand-in-hand with Aloha Betrayed and Hawaiiʻs Story by Hawaiʻiʻs Queen. In doing so you might uncover a role that the Sugar Plantations and their owners played in the Overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

6. Hawaiian Antiquities (BERNICE PAUAHI BISHOP MUSEUM SPECIAL PUBLICATION) by David Malo

About the book Hawaiian Antiquities

Have you ever heard the term, “Straight out of the horse’s mouth?” Well, this is Hawaiian history straight out of the horseʻs mouth, or so to speak.

You see the author David Malo was a Native Hawaiian scholar and historian born in 1795 and raised among chiefs, priests, and scholars in the court of Kamehameha I.

He was one of the first Native Hawaiians to by missionaries. Although he was influenced by Christianity, he was raised under the traditional Hawaiian kapu system and his account of Hawaiian knowledge embodies a worldview that is engrossed in Hawaiian traditions.

His singular account of Hawaiian culture and society in pre-Christian times is fascinating since he details (and corroborates) the origin story, beliefs, and myths of Native Hawaiians as he knew it.

7. Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea La E Pono Ai? How Shall We Live in Harmony? by Lilikalā Kameʻelehiwa

About Native Land and Foreign Desires: Pehea La E Pono Ai? How Shall We Live in Harmony?

Each time there is a dispute in Hawaiian modern issues like the Native Hawaiian protest against the construction of the Thirty-Meter-Telescope on Māuna Kea, I want to throw this book at the opposing side. Because if they read this book they would understand the ancestral connection that Native Hawaiians have to their place. Specifically, why Native Hawaiians experience a familial relationship with their ʻāina.

In this book, Kameʻelehiwa starts by explaining the Hawaiian cosmogonic genealogy, Native Hawaiian worldview and the social, political, and economic structure of Hawaiian society prior to colonization.

She masterfully describes the reciprical relationship that Native Hawaiians have with their environment. Then she brilliantly details how The Great Māhele, or the privatization of Hawaiʻi land, systematically erodded that connection and disenfranchised many Native Hawaiians in Hawaiʻi.

If there is an all encompassing read on Hawaiian history, I would say this one is it.

8. Ka Poʻe Kahiko Trilogy by Samuel Kamakau

About the book Ka Poʻe Kahiko

Samuel Kamakau was a prominent Native Hawaiian scholar of the nineteenth century. His Ka Poʻe Kaliko Trilogy is a collection of reads that outline the traditions, myths, and ways of the Native Hawaiian people prior to European contact and Christian influence.

Similar to Hawaiian Antiquities, Kamakau details the ancient traditions of Native Hawaiian people. Itʻs a fascinating collection of knowledge about the stories, mythologies, practices and traditions of ancestral Hawaiians.

9. Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887 by Jon Osorio

About the book Dismembering Lahui: A History of the Hawaiian Nation to 1887

This book is an impressive political investigation into the events leading to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Using extensive resources like legal documents, newspapers, and works by Hawaiian historians, Osorio outlines the course that transformed the subsistent modern nation into the hands of foreign businessmen.

Osorio explains the effects of instating a Western Law and how the Bayonet Constitution of 1887 transitioned power from the acting King Kalākaua to a group of foreign businessmen.

10. Ancestral Places: Understanding Kanaka Geographies by Katrina-Ann Kapā Oliveira

About the book Ancestral Places: Understanding Kanaka Geographies

If youʻre interested in diving deeper into Native Hawaiian’s connection to place this is the read for you. It is a thorough histography of the Hawaiian culture, language, and place. Oliveira meticulously describes Native Hawaiian connection to place using the Hawaiian language. Specifically, she explains the Hawaiian words for particular places, terrains, rains and much more.

For instance, Oliver says,

“Only a people intimately connected to nature are able to see the correlation between scenery and knowledge (ʻikena), coining a single defining word, “ʻikena”, to refer to both concepts.”

Oliveira 2014, p. 95

In this book, she describes Kānaka traditions of close observation and how that was interconnected to ancestral knowledge. Moreover, she uses the Hawaiian place names to explain the Native Hawaiian sense abilities that were rooted in place.

Like the sense ability of taste, which she describes as being linked to where one is born and raised. She argues that people tend to acquire taste for the foods that are readily available in our kulaiwi. “In that our way our taste is a sense ability of place… (it) is a reflection of who we are and where we come from.” Deep.

Find more on the Native Hawaiian Land division and the ahupuaʻa system here.

11. Dragonfruit by Malia Mattoch McManus

About the book Dragonfruit

If you prefer a less cerebral read, I would pick up this novel by Malia Mattoch McManus. It’s a wonderfully written fiction novel about a Hawai’i-born daughter of a missionary living during the time of the overthrow.

McManus encapsulates what it might be like to be a Hawai’i-born, non-native during the time of the overthrow of Hawaiʻi. She seamlessly unravels a love story whilst tying in actual events of Hawaiian history.

Set it a pre-overthrow Hawai‘i, the author weaves in historical events into the love story at the heart of the page. Itʻs a captivating read that draws the reader in while keeping much to the imagination and research of the reader.

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