The People of Oahu

What Oahu really means in Hawaiian or how the island got its name is still an issue of debate for some people. According to an ancient Hawaiian legend, its hero Hawaiiloa was a Polynesian navigator who discovered the Hawaiian Islands by accident, while he was on his way to his homeland "Ka aina kai melemele a Kane," which means "the land of the yellow sea of Kane" in English. In the story, Hawaiiloa named the islands after his sons Kauai, Maui, and Oahu.


Today, the island of Oahu is popularly known among locals and foreign travelers as The Gathering Place. After all, about 75% to 80% of the population of the entire state of Hawaii consists of permanent residents of Oahu. Despite the fact that it is only the third largest among the Hawaiian Islands, Oahu is indeed the most populous with more than 900,000 people living on the island. What appears to be a population explosion in Oahu makes the island live up to its nickname, although it was originally referred to as The Gathering Place, because it has been the seat of power since the time of ancient Hawaiian monarchs. The first of these Hawaiian kings who ruled the rest of the Hawaiian Islands from Oahu was Kamehameha the Great.


Among the distinct characteristics that define Oahu are its rich history and the presence of various ethnic groups on the island. Oahu's population, so much like the rest of the state of Hawaii, consists of mixed races to which Oahu's diverse culture and colorful traditions are attributed. Native Hawaiians still make up the majority of people in Oahu, but the rest consists of immigrants who found their way to Oahu, either on purpose or by accident, through the years marking various stages of its development. East meets West in Oahu, with the profusion of Asians, Africans, Hispanics, and Europeans of various origins who have settled on the island.

In the state capital Honolulu, native Hawaiian and other Pacific islanders make up only 6.8% of the population, while the most dominant population is that of the Japanese at 23.3%. What comes in as a distant second placer in Honolulu's population is the white non-Hispanic race, which accounts for 18.7% of the people. Other racial groups and their percentages are as follows: multi-racial, or those resulting from marriages between two or more racial groups (14.9%), Filipino (11.6%), Chinese (10.7%), Hispanic (4.4%), other Asian groups (4.3%), Korean (4.2%), African (1.6%), Vietnamese (1.6%), and Native American (1.4%), while ethnicities outside these categories barely reach one percent.

In general, the majority of Oahu's population consists of families, and the 900,000 inhabitants are divided into thousands of households. The growth of Oahu's population is more intense compared with the other islands of Hawaii. The number of people in Oahu alone propelled Hawaii to become recognized as one of the 20 largest states in the United States. Perhaps a result of the island's romantic atmosphere, almost half of the population of Oahu is married. If you came to Oahu with the prospect of love lurking somewhere in your mind, keep your head up, because singles aren't that far behind at 31.6%. Even better news is that the divorced population is less than 10%, while those who filed for separation only make up 1.7%. With these demographics then, the population growth rate in Oahu doesn't come as a surprise.

History and culture

Learning about the people and their culture before coming to any place is the true mark of a seasoned traveler. So, make it a priority if you're coming to Oahu, especially since you'll have to get to know quite a number of people and cultures there. Even if you're heading for other Hawaiian destinations, such as Kauai, Molokai, Lanai, Maui, and the Big Island, it would do you a lot of good to start with getting to know the people of Oahu. Why? Well, for starters, they consitute three-fourths of all of Hawaii. Also, with Oahu being a cultural melting pot, you'll fall in love with their spirit of Aloha peppered with the quirks and colorful traditions of their homelands that make their island culture unique. The residents of Oahu show synergy at its best, as this is one place where differences are, in fact, celebrated.

Of course, when you want to learn about people, you'll need to dig in through their history. Immerse yourself in Oahu's history of ancient Pacific seafarers, British sailors, Hawaiian chieftains, Christian missionaries, and plantation workers. Without any of these groups marking significant periods in the island's history, Oahu would not be what it is today -- one-of-a-kind. The people of Oahu, as well as the rest of Hawaiians, are known for their hospitality, spirit of family, and warmth, as well as for their majesty, courage, and taste for adventure. If, for you, it sounds like these qualities contradict each other, well, you'll understand better once you learn more about the seafaring Pacific Islanders who first settled on Oahu. They found the island sometime between 600 and 750 A.D. They came all the way from the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia. Some sources say, however, that the first settlers on the island were Tahitians. In 1100 A.D. came a second wave of settlers—from the Society Islands this time. Always being a seafaring people, they were quick to adapt to their new surroundings and built social and political structures that governed the dynamics of the early Hawaiian society. By doing so, they unwittingly created a whole new culture out of combining old structures with a new environment. They divided the island into various small kingdoms ruled by chieftains and guided by a high priest.

The early Hawaiian society

As with most ancient societies, the islanders were divided into classes. The top belonged to the royal bloodlines from which high chiefs were chosen, and then came the kahuna, or priests, followed by craftsmen and artisans. They had a system of rules and punishment called the kapu system, which prohibited interaction across different classes. The first ruler of Oahu was Mailikukahi, but the island was conquered by the Maui kingdom until Kamehameha the Great took over and united the Hawaiian Islands under one kingdom, which he ruled from Oahu. The people of Oahu were introduced to modern methods, such as the use of metal and gunpowder, when the English sailor Captain James Cook and his crew stumbled upon the island and docked at Kealakekua Bay in 1778. Mistaken at first as the returning god Lono, Captain Cook was later killed in battle against the natives when he took a high chief, Kalaniopuu, as hostage during a confrontation. That was the first time the various groups in the island rose above their differences to fight for a common cause.

An influx of migrant workers during the Plantation Era

The last and only female Hawaiian ruler, Liliuokalani, surrendered the throne to colonizers in 1893 to prevent bloodshed. Christianity has long been introduced before this period, as missionaries were a strong influence during the reign of Hawaii's sovereigns. Social behaviors changed, and people became more open to Western and European influences. The island became popular as a place of commerce and trade, and it was around this period that Oahu began exporting sugar and pineapple. Oahu's plantation days were what brought in laborers from China, Japan, Russia, Korea, Puerto Rico, Portugal, and the Philippines to work the sugar cane and pineapple fields. Although the plantation villages were divided into ethnic groups, the laborers united as a working class and conducted a strike against the colonial plantation owners and demanded better working conditions. Later on, these workers sought other means of livelihood on the island and settled there.

The aloha spirit within the people of Oahu

It was in 1901 that Oahu became a destination for the rich and famous. The Moana Hotel, now known as the Moana Surfrider, was built on Waikiki Beach, the first hotel to operate in Oahu. Today, many landmarks serve as reminders of Oahu's colorful history, such as the Iolani Palace, the King Kamehameha I Statue, the Duke Kahanamoku statue on Waikiki beach, the Bishop Museum, the Wailua Plantation Village, and Pearl Harbor, among other points of interest. As Oahu continues to rise as an international center of commerce, the streets of downtown Oahu is now filled with suited up yuppies contrasting against the foreign tourists in Aloha shirts with loud hibiscus prints. Underneath the white business shirt, however, is the same aloha spirit that lives in the hearts of those waiting tables in Haleiwa, guiding tours in the Plantation Village and Pearl Harbor, and surfing the waves of the Banzai Pipeline. The people of Oahu continue to rise above their ethnic differences and celebrate each other's festivals through a wide variety of cultural and community events held throughout the year.

Grab the chance to immerse yourself in the island's rich cultural heritage and the assortment of significant customs and traditions for which Oahu is known throughout the world. Hear the different beats of many congo drums and dance to the one rhythm that they make. In Oahu, anyone will find a place to belong to and a perfect adventure to embark in, because everyone is on the island in more ways than one.