• Culture

Inside The Privately Owned 'Forbidden Island' Of Hawaii

Although Hawaii consists of well over 100 islands, only eight are considered main islands. One is Niihau, which is privately owned and has a history wildly different from Hawaii as a whole. Niihau is known as the "Forbidden Island," and access is highly restricted. The family that owns the land reserves the right to evict people, regulating who is allowed to visit. There are also strictly enforced rules for those who live on Niihau - residents can't partake in illicit substances or alcohol, and they have to follow certain codes with regard to appearance. The small number of people who live on the island don't pay rent or buy their own food - it's all supplied by the island's owners.

Going to the island is easier today than it was in the past; for a little over $400, you can fly above the island in a helicopter and touch down on one of its well-preserved beaches. Though it's had its fair share of controversy, not unlike the Kingdom of Hawaii, Niihau has managed to preserve Hawaiian culture on a series of islands forcibly overtaken by American interests.

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  • Photo: Osugi / Shutterstock

    A Wealthy Scottish Matriarch Bought It From A Hawaiian King For $10,000 In Gold

    In 1864, Eliza Hutchinson, widow of Scottish sea captain Francis Sinclair, paid King Kamehameha IV $10,000 in gold to buy the island of Niihau. As he signed over the land, King Kamehameha IV allegedly said:

    Niihau is yours. But the day may come when Hawaiians are not as strong in Hawaii as they are now. When that day comes, please do what you can to help them.

    Hutchinson also bought a piece of land in the Makaweli District of Kauai, where she built a family compound. It was on this compound that her great-grandson, Lester Robinson, grew up. He would go on to own Niihau with his wife.

  • Photo: Kenneth Sponsler / Shutterstock

    The Island Has Consistently Resisted American Assimilation And Influence

    On Niihau, the primary language is Hawaiian. Students learn some English in school, but its use is otherwise limited. Niihau's children attend school through the eighth grade, but none have ever passed an armed services literary test.

    Post-war, Niihau modernized minimally. Some homes installed gas-powered refrigerators, and a number of residents got radios. The Robinsons also installed a phone line that reached Makaweli, which - in addition to carrier pigeons and signal flares - they use to contact the outside world.

  • Photo: Kristopher Mutafov / Shutterstock

    Niihau Rejected The 1893 Colonization Of Hawaii, And Its Residents Still Speak The Banned Native Tongue

    In January 1893, a group of businessmen and sugar plantation owners made Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani step down from the throne. Two years later, the Kingdom of Hawaii officially dissolved as American influence grew.

    Eliza Hutchinson and her family remained close with royals after her purchase of Niihau from King Kamehameha IV in 1864. She opposed the American takeover and preserved Hawaiian language and culture on the island. The provisional government banned all native Hawaiian languages. To this day, Niihau is one of the few places where Hawaiian remains a commonly spoken language.

  • Photo: Angel DiBilio / Shutterstock

    During The Pearl Harbor Air Raid, A Crash Landing Led To A Fatal Confrontation Now Known As 'The Niihau Incident'

    Following the air raid on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese pilot Shigenori Nishikaichi was escorting another aircraft to carry out a strike on nearby US Army airbase Bellows Field, but an American aircraft struck his plane. He crash landed on Niihau; the island had yet to receive news of the air raid and Japan's declaration of joining WWII.

    Polynesian native Hawila Kaleohano confiscated the pilot's papers with important codes and military plans. He called over Yoshio and Irene Harada to speak to the pilot in Japanese. He told them the news of Pearl Harbor, and they kept it a secret from their fellow islanders.

    Yoshi attempted to help Nishikaichi retrieve the papers Kaleohano had taken from him upon his landing. Kaleohano fled and hid the papers at his mother-in-law's house. Yoshi and Nishikaichi set fire to Kaleohano's home and took several townspeople hostage, including Benehakaka and Ella Kanahele. During an altercation, Nishikaichi shot Benehakaka, which enraged the captor. Benehakaka threw Nishikaichi against a wall, then cut his neck while Ella fatally beat the pilot with a rock.

    Yoshi also perished in the fight after accidentally shooting himself in the gut. Authorities imprisoned Irene for three years in Honolulu. Benehakaka received the Medal for Merit and a Purple Heart, and Kaleohano was awarded a Medal of Freedom and a sum of money to repair his property affected by the crash.