The People of Hawaii's Big Island

Like the rest of the Hawaiian state, the Big Island takes pride in its rich heritage and diverse culture. This hodgepodge of ethnicity and traditions is a result of a colorful history marked by various groups who have stumbled upon the islands. The first known settlers in the Hawaiian islands were seafarers from other Polynesian islands. Then came the European and American colonizers, followed by the missionaries who brought Christian influence into the native Hawaiian’s animistic worship. Merchants, whalers, ranchers, and business people also set foot on this island. There were migration waves of plantation workers recruited to Hawaii from the Asian and South American regions, particularly, China, Japan, Portugal, Puerto Rico, Korea, and the Philippines.

In contemporary times, Hawaii’s Big Island has become home to migrants from the Pacific and almost any other part of the world. All these cultures that blended into the spirit of Aloha made Hawaii’s Big Island what it is today--an island of unadulterated adventure for the body and soul.


Administered under the County of Hawaii, the total number of residents in Hawaii’s Big Island by the end of 2008 was 201,109. The island continues to grow in size because of the activity of the formidable Kilauea Volcano. It is most likely the same reason the population of Hawaii’s Big Island-—though expected to grow—-did not rise exponentially. If you take a look at Oahu’s population, you'll see that the population of Hawaii’s Big Island does not live up to its name in terms of quantity. What it lacks in number, though, it makes up for diversity.


Hawaii’s Big Island is home to a number of races, a majority of which are Caucasians. More than 31% of the resident population is white, while native Hawaiians (known as Kanaka Maoli) make up only 0.45% of the residents. More than 11% are Pacific Islanders, while 27% of the population consists of Asians. African Americans are less than 0.5%, while various Latino or Hispanic groups make up 10% of the residents. Other races also accounted for 1% of the population. With such a variety of ethnicities inhabiting one picturesque island, multi-cultural marriages are not uncommon. This is why among the largest portion of the population are residents from two or more mixed races at 29%.

More than half of the population is made up of married couples living together, and on the average, there are at least three people in each household. The density of the population is spread out well across various age groups. With 39 years as the median age, the male to female ratio is 100:100. It’s no wonder why Hawaii’s married population is more than 50%.


For every ethnic group, there is a unique way of life and set of traditions. With the cultural diversity of Hawaii’s Big Island, there is a rich and vibrant interplay of customs, philosophies, and tastes that find their way into the Orchid Isle’s cuisines, language, religion, music, performance arts, and sense of family and community. In Hawaii’s Big Island, you'll get to see Hula dancers swaying to the ukulele, a guitar of Portuguese origin. The tapestry of several cultural influences that the people brought from their home countries would allow you more choices.

Would you like to tap your heels to the Caribbean-inspired “Jawaiian” pop, or dance to the beat of African drums? No problem! The people of Hawaii’s Big Island will encourage you to have it your way.

Hawaii’s Big Island is also the home of the Merrie Monarch Festival that honors King David Kalakaua, one of the ancient Hawaiian rulers who had an affinity for merriment and the cultural arts. With its ethnic opulence, the Big Island’s people get to enjoy almost everything, from Tahitian dance and Russian ballet to Italian opera and street parties. For this reason, some visitors who come to the island return as residents.

The Aloha spirit

Another thing that gets tourists hooked on Hawaii is the spirit of Aloha that permeates through the heart of every local and transmits itself to the visitors. If you think about it, the Hawaiian islands are geographically detached from the rest of the world and even from its own country, the US mainland. So why do people across different races choose to settle on Hawaii’s Big Island, further contributing to its already colorful tapestry of cultures? This may be answered with just a single word, “Aloha!”

Today, the word conjures images of rolling waves, crystal clear turquoise waters, white sand beaches, and Hula dancers. Its popular meaning nowadays is an expression of both “hello” and “goodbye.” However, in the Hawaiian language, it also means affection, compassion, sympathy, kindness, and grace—-a sweeping plethora of emotions that radiates from every resident of Hawaii’s Big Island. The state law actually defines it as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person. It brings each person to the self. Each person must think and emote good feelings to others.” Needless to say, the law encourages locals to manifest such to every person who sets foot on Hawaiian soil.


The spirit of Aloha is rooted on five distinct Hawaiian values: akahai (expressing kindness with tenderness), lokahi (unity through a sense of harmony), oluolu (conveying agreeability by being pleasant), ha'aha'a (humility and modesty), and ahonui (having patience and persevering through challenges). These are values that the people of Hawaii’s Big Island live by, giving them those unique warmth and welcoming qualities. According to locals, “aloha” also means the importance of each person for the overall well-being of the community, which is why the Hawaiian islands are ultimate epitomes of synergy.

The spirit of ohana, or family, is also strong among Hawaiians. Most of the native Hawaiian households consist of extended families, and it is not uncommon for them to be living with their grandparents, aunts, and cousins. There are also the “calabash,” or people with whom they have a close familial relationship. They are of not really related by blood, but they are more like “friends of the family,” which Hawaiian culture takes to a higher level. The sense of family in Hawaii is rooted on two foundations: the keiki (children) and kupuna (elders). The community gives them utmost care and respect. It is also the deep sense of family and community that makes it so easy for locals to welcome outsiders into their island world.


The presence of various cultures makes the Hawaiian religious background just as diverse. The majority of the people are Christians, whether Roman Catholic or Evangelical Christians. This is because the influence of the missionaries who came to the island in the early 19th century was so strong. It replaced the ancient religious practices and forms of worship of the early Hawaiian settlers, which consisted mostly of paying homage to nature, such as making an offering to Pele, the Hawaiian volcano goddess. Although some native Hawaiians continue to perform them today, it is now more of a cultural than a religious act. The presence of an assorted Asian group has also maintained Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism on the island.


English is widely spoken all over Hawaii’s Big Island, especially since it is a travel hub and considering the variety of ethnic groups inhabiting the island. Hawaiian Pidgin English, which is actually an English-based Creole language consisting mostly of local slang, is what residents actually use for everyday conversations. The native Hawaiian language still prevails and in use in schools. Just about a decade ago, it was feared that the diversity of the island will cause the demise of the native Hawaiian language. With the emergence of Hawaiian language (olelo Hawaii) immersion schools, the people experienced a revival in the use of their native tongue, as it was reinforced-—and expected to be sustained-—through educating the children (or keiki) in the island to develop love for their dialect.

Conversing with the locals

Residents don’t really expect tourists to speak anything Hawaiian other than “aloha” and “mahalo,” which means “thank you.” Still, with the ultimate travel experience and the hospitality that the locals give you, why not return the favor and try to learn the language? Here are a few Hawaiian words and phrases that you should at least know the meaning of in English:

A Hui Hou – Goodbye, until we meet again!
E komo mai – Welcome!
Hale – house
Hele mai – Come with me!
Haole – a foreigner, particularly a “white person”
Kapu – Keep out, forbidden
Kamaaina – a long-time resident of Hawaii
Lua – bathroom, loo
Makai – toward the ocean, popularly used by locals when they give directions
Mauka – toward the mountains
Ohana – family
Pau hana – literally means “quitting time,” used to refer to closing time or time to stop an activity

Speaking like a local

Be like an authentic resident of Hawaii’s Big Island and pick up on the Creole language. Spice up your conversations with Pidgin. Speak or simply understand the island lingo.

Bodda you? – Does this bother you?
Brah – brother or a close guy friend
Broke dam out – Delicious!
Chicken skin – goose bumps
Da kine – means nothing, a filler that locals use when they run out of words
Grind – eat
Kau kau – food
Talk story – small talk
Pupu - appetizers