The Cultural Scene in Lanai

With only more than a thousand permanent residents, Lanai is a definitely a small island. Lanai cannot boast of skyscrapers or complex road structures but Lanai prides itself of its rich and diverse culture - a culture that was made unique by the island's colorful past.

Added to the abundance of natural resources on the island is its very rich tradition and history. The people, the language, the literature, the religion, the cuisine, and the history of Lanai are as colorful as the sunset, the ocean, and the fields and the rain forests on the island.


Lanai, the so-called "Secluded Island," is actually home to people of diverse roots. People with Japanese, Filipino, Polynesian, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, and Spanish ancestry make up Lanai's population. In spite of this though, the people of Lanai consider themselves pure-blooded Lanaians. The people of this island are known for their friendliness and hospitality. Visitors who come here are always greeted by the locals with the warmest of smiles. The aloha spirit, which is always present and evident in each welcome, never ceases to impress the many tourists that come to the area.

Time seems to have been frozen on this island. The island's utter lack of the kind of sophistication that is usually found in many big cities allows its people a calm, relaxed and laid back lifestyle. Once there, you would also be able to feel it and you could forget about time while you drink in the beauty of everything that surrounds you on the island.

Although the island has a city, the ambiance of the place is much more like that of a village. This is probably one of the reasons why Lanai holds a special charm for visitors. The rustic simplicity of the island is really charming. The presence of the grand Four Seasons Resort on the island only adds to the enchanting atmosphere of the place. The contrast between the rusticity of the place and the sophistication of the resort makes the island look like one of those enchanted places in fairy tales.


The language of the people of Lanai is as diverse as everything else on the island. There are two official languages in this island, English and Hawaiian. English is the language usually used in education. For many Lanaians, the native Hawaiian remains to be the language of their hearts. From the 1830s to the 1950s, there was a decrease in the number of people who used the native Hawaiian language. It was because the United States subjugated Hawaii and English took the place of the native Hawaiian language. But after some time, the Hawaiian language resurfaced through the people's effort to promote the language in the schools. Many of the residents also use the Hawaiian Pidgin. During the heyday of the sugar plantations in Hawaii, there was a need to develop a language for the people from different races that flocked to Hawaii. Out of this came the Hawaiian Pidgin. It is a local dialect that is a combination of English and Hawaiian. Until today, Pidgin is used by many residents not just in Lanai, but in all the other islands of Hawaii.


The first religion in this island came from the Polynesians who came here thousands of years ago. The ancient Hawaiian religion was basically, polytheistic in nature. The ancient people of Lanai believed in various deities. The earliest Hawaiians, had both male and female deities. Aside from being polytheistic, the religion is also animistic, because they believe that powerful spirits reside in non-living things. One of the powerful deities that the earliest settlers believe in is Pele, the goddess of the volcano. According to accounts, the early people believed that Pele is actually present in the flowing lava. The first monarch of Hawaii, Kamehameha, was a follower of the early Hawaiian religion. It is said that he punished people who broke the kapu or the prohibitions imposed by the religion.

Christian missionaries also came to the Hawaiian islands and introduced Christinanity. Later, the Chinese came to the island and brought along their own religion. Then came the Japanese with their Buddhist and Shinto beliefs. Because of the fusion of the different beliefs and traditions, the religion of the ancient Hawaiians lost its great influence. In spite of that though, the ancient Hawaiian religion could still be seen and its spirit continues to live on until this day through the many ceremonies that are still held on the islands. The famous Hula dance itself is a religious practice that originated from this ancient Hawaiian religion. Today, this dance is performed during state ceremonies, festivals, and welcome parties.


The literature of the ancient people of Lanai, like in the rest of the islands of Hawaii, is oral in nature and is deeply rooted in religion. The "mele" (poetic language) is a chant through which the ancient people told their stories and honored their deities and chiefs. Today, the word "mele" is also used to mean "song."

One of the most important oral literature of the ancient settlers in this island is the Kumulipo, an epic poem and a chant, which is said to have been composed to honor a high chief.

The mele can be categorized into two, mele hula and mele oli. The former is a chant accompanied by musical instruments and a dance and is usually performed by several people. The latter, on the other hand, is a chant unaccompanied by musical instruments and is usually performed by just one person. In this type of hula, the focus is on the chant rather than on the dance.

Today, chanting is still performed during the Hula. During official state functions, for instance, Hula is performed as a form of prayer. It is usually accompanied by mele.

Myths and legends also abound in Lanai. One of the island's popular legends is that of Puu Pehe. The story is said to have taken place in the offshore Sweetheart Rock located left of Hulopoe Bay. The legend tells about the maiden Puu Pehe who was kept in a cave near the rock by her lover. She drowned after a big wave washed the shore. With the help of the gods, her sweetheart buried her body on top of the rock before he himself leapt into the sea.

The people of Lanai explain through their legends the amazing geological features surrounding them. The existence of the awe-inspiring Keahiakawelo, for instance, has various mythical explanations. According to one account, the gods were so fond of creating art that they sent a strong wind to sculpt the rocks and boulders. Another explanation tells that the formations were created in order to house the spirits of the dead Hawaiian warriors. Still, a third version points to the the gods who dropped these rocks and boulders from the sky as they tended their garden.


The spirit of aloha characterizes the tradition of the people. The Hula, for instance, is still performed to greet visitors. Aside from this, the luau, or the traditional Hawaiian party, is still held on this island. There is actually a resort in Lanai where you can request for a luau.


The staple food of the people of Lanai is still the traditional poi. But Lanaian cuisine is also influenced by various cultures that came in contact with the culture of the native Lanaians. Because of the abundance of marine life in the place, seafoods have always been a part of the cuisines of the people of Lanai. Today, many restaurants in the place also boasts of their seafood offerings. Expect therefore that Lanaian cuisine, seafood or not, will taste of many influences.

How Lanaian culture came to be so rich

The diverese culture of Lanai is the result of the various migrations of people to this island. The most important event that influenced the history of Lanai is when James Dole purchased the island and turned it into a pineapple plantation. Because the industry fared well, many people from China, Philippines, Japan, Hongkong, to name a few, were invited and were lured to go to Lanai to work in the plantation. This is why the culture of the people of Lanai, just like in the rest of Hawaii, is a hodgepodge of various cultural influences. You can see this intermingling of many different cultures in Lanai's traditions, language, religion, cuisine and in many other aspects of their lives. But it is well to remember that foreign influences did not start until the 1920s and that Lanai and the rest of Hawaii had its own culture and traditions long before.

So if you want to visit a place teeming with diversity, not just in terms of environment, but also in terms of culture and tradition, Lanai should be on your list. On this island, you would not want for beautiful sights to see and you would be amazed at how so many diverse cultures could come together and form one very rich, unique and interesting culture.