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The Hawaiian Islands are a volcanic archipelago located in the central Pacific Ocean, which is today part of the U.S. state of Hawaii. The islands are incredibly biodiverse, boasting stunning beaches, forests, and wildlife.

But what did native Hawaiians call these paradise islands before European explorers arrived in the 18th century? If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: the original name for the Hawaiian Islands was Hawaiʻi, referencing the largest island in the chain.

In this comprehensive article, we will explore the origins and meanings behind the indigenous name for Hawaii. We’ll examine Polynesian settlement and how the island chain was named after an ancestral homeland.

We’ll also look at the effects of Captain James Cook’s arrival in 1778 and how Hawaiʻi became known to Europeans as the Sandwich Islands before reverting to its original name.

The Original Inhabitants of Hawaii

Hawaii maui

The Hawaiian Islands have a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Before European exploration and colonization, the islands were home to the indigenous Polynesian people.

These early settlers were skilled navigators who sailed vast distances across the Pacific Ocean to reach the Hawaiian archipelago.

The Polynesian Settlement of Hawaii

The Polynesians arrived in Hawaii around 1,500 years ago, bringing with them their unique culture and traditions. They established thriving communities on each of the main islands, practicing agriculture, fishing, and crafts.

Their society was organized into distinct social classes, with chiefs (Aliʻi) at the top and commoners (Makaʻāinana) comprising the majority of the population.

The Polynesian’s connection to the land and sea was deeply rooted in their spiritual beliefs. They worshipped a pantheon of gods and goddesses and honored their ancestors through various rituals and ceremonies. Their close relationship with nature is still evident in Hawaiian culture today.

The Naming of Hawaiʻi

The original name of the Hawaiian Islands is believed to be “Hawaiʻi”. This name is said to have been derived from the Polynesian navigator Hawaiʻiloa, who is credited with discovering the islands. According to legend, he named the largest island after himself.

Each of the Hawaiian Islands has its own unique name, often reflecting a particular aspect of the island’s geography or history. For example, Oʻahu means “the gathering place”, Maui means “the great”, and Kauaʻi means “the proud one”. These names have deep cultural significance and continue to be used today.

It is important to recognize and honor the original inhabitants of Hawaii and their contributions to the islands’ history and culture. The Polynesians’ arrival in Hawaii marked the beginning of a new era, shaping the identity and spirit of the Hawaiian people.

Captain Cook’s Arrival and the ‘Sandwich Islands’

Cook’s First Contact in 1778

It was on January 18, 1778, when Captain James Cook, an English explorer, made his first contact with the Hawaiian Islands.

He arrived on the island of Kauai, not knowing he was about to change the course of history. Cook’s arrival marked the beginning of a new era for the Hawaiian Islands and their indigenous people.

Cook’s expedition was part of his third voyage, and he had been commissioned by the British Admiralty to explore the Pacific Ocean in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Little did he know that his visit to these islands would have a lasting impact on their identity.

The Sandwich Islands Name Takes Hold

After his initial contact with the Hawaiian Islands, Captain Cook continued his exploration and eventually made his way to the island of Maui. It was during his time here that Cook encountered a local chief named Kalaniʻōpuʻu, who welcomed him with open arms.

As a gesture of gratitude, Cook named the archipelago the “Sandwich Islands” after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. The name quickly caught on and became widely used by Europeans and Americans alike.

However, it’s important to note that the native Hawaiians had their own names for the islands long before Cook’s arrival.

Reclaiming the Name Hawaiʻi

Despite the popularity of the name “Sandwich Islands”, the native population continued to refer to their homeland as Hawaiʻi. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that efforts were made to reclaim the original name.

One of the key figures in this movement was King Kamehameha III, who ruled over the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1825 to 1854. He believed that it was important to honor the indigenous culture and language of the islands, including the use of their original names.

Today, the name “Hawaiʻi” is widely recognized and used to refer to the entire archipelago. It serves as a reminder of the rich history and culture of the Hawaiian Islands, and the resilience of its people in reclaiming their identity.

For more information on the history of the Hawaiian Islands and their original name, you can visit

The Meanings and Significance of ‘Hawaiʻi’

When we think of the Hawaiian Islands, the name that comes to mind is ‘Hawaiʻi’. This name holds deep cultural and historical significance to the people of Hawaii.

Let’s explore the meanings and significance behind the name ‘Hawaiʻi’.

Etymological Theories

The origin of the name ‘Hawaiʻi’ has been the subject of much debate among linguists and historians. There are several theories regarding its etymology.

One theory suggests that the name ‘Hawaiʻi’ is derived from the Proto-Polynesian word ‘Savai’i’, which means ‘sacred’ or ‘holy’. This theory suggests that the early Polynesian settlers who arrived in Hawaii found the land to be sacred and named it accordingly.

Another theory suggests that the name ‘Hawaiʻi’ is derived from the word ‘Havai’i’ in the Tahitian language, which means ‘homeland‘. This theory implies that the early settlers considered Hawaii to be their ancestral homeland.

Hawaiʻi as an Ancestral Homeland

The name ‘Hawaiʻi’ holds great significance as an ancestral homeland for the people of Hawaii. It represents their deep connection to the land and their ancestors who first settled in these islands.

The Hawaiian culture places immense value on their ancestral roots, and the name ‘Hawaiʻi’ serves as a reminder of their rich heritage.

Throughout Hawaiian history, the islands of Hawaiʻi have been a center for cultural and spiritual practices. Ancient Hawaiians believed that the islands were the dwelling places of powerful gods and goddesses. The name ‘Hawaiʻi’ reflects this spiritual significance and the belief in the islands’ sacredness.

Today, the name ‘Hawaiʻi’ not only represents the islands themselves but also serves as a symbol of Hawaiian identity and pride. The people of Hawaii take great pride in their cultural heritage and strive to preserve and honor their ancestral homeland.

Hawaiian Identity and the Island Names

Islands names

The names of the Hawaiian Islands hold significant cultural and historical importance to the native people of Hawaii.

These names not only serve as geographical references but also contribute to the overall identity and connection to the land for the Hawaiian people.

Each island name carries its own unique story and symbolism, reflecting the rich traditions and values of the indigenous culture.

Importance to Native Culture

The island names in Hawaii are deeply rooted in the native culture and language. They often reflect the natural features, legends, and historical events associated with each island.

For example, “Hawai’i” is not only the name of the largest island but also the name of the Polynesian deity believed to be the creator of the islands. This connection between the name and the mythology adds a spiritual dimension to the identity of the island.

Similarly, the name “Maui” is associated with the legendary demigod who is said to have pulled the Hawaiian Islands from the ocean with his fishing hook.

The name “Oahu” means “the gathering place”, signifying its historical role as a meeting place for chiefs and the center of political power in ancient Hawaii.

These names not only serve as identifiers but also evoke a sense of pride and cultural heritage for the Hawaiian people.

Hawaiian Renaissance and Revival

In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of interest in Hawaiian culture and language, known as the Hawaiian Renaissance.

This movement has led to a renewed appreciation for the original names of the Hawaiian Islands, as well as the revitalization of traditional practices, arts, and language.

Efforts have been made to promote the use of the Hawaiian names alongside their English counterparts.

For example, the island of Kauai is often referred to as “the Garden Isle” in English, but its traditional name is pronounced as “kau-wa-ee”.

By embracing and using the original Hawaiian names, the native people of Hawaii are reclaiming their cultural identity and ensuring the preservation of their language and traditions for future generations.

It is important to acknowledge and respect the indigenous culture and language of Hawaii by using the correct names when referring to the islands.

This not only shows appreciation for their heritage but also helps to preserve and honor their unique identity. To learn more about the Hawaiian language and its significance, visit this website.


In conclusion, the Hawaiian Islands were originally named Hawaiʻi by the Polynesian settlers who voyaged there between 300-500 AD. This ancestral name references the largest island and remained in use until Captain Cook arrived in 1778.

While the islands became known as the Sandwich Islands for a time, the name Hawaiʻi was restored in the 19th century as native culture experienced a rebirth. The original name carries deep meaning for Hawaiians as their ancestral homeland.

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