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Papahānaumokuākea: A Sacred Name, A Sacred Place

The meaning, pronunciation and significance of our name

  • Listen to the correct pronunciation of Papahānaumokuākea (mp3).
  • Listen to the meaning of our name (mp3).
Sacred Landscapes

Native Hawaiian culture is living––it is the expression of a people that continue to evolve in great part through the perpetuation of a rich, oral tradition.  Genealogies are still spoken through oli (chant) and mele (song), as are histories, natural resource management knowledge, philosophies, and medicinal and spiritual knowledge. 

The longest recorded traditional Hawaiian chant, the Kumulipo (Source of deep darkness), is the history of how all life forms came and evolved from Papahānaumokuākea, beginning with the coral polyp – the building block for all life.  Thus, the genealogy of Papahānaumokuākea tells the story of Native Hawaiians’ ancestral connection with the gods who created those coral polyps, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or Kūpuna (respected elders) Islands, and everything else in the archipelago, including Native Hawaiians.

Papahānaumokuākea is considered a sacred area, from which Native Hawaiians believe all life springs, and to which spirits return to after death. There are many wahi pana (places of great cultural significance and practice), which, like a lei, are strung together throughout the expanse of the ten main atolls and islands. Papahānaumokuākea is also a place for Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners of today to reconnect with their ancestors and gods, who they believe are manifested in nature, as with the Polynesian deity Kanaloa, who they believe is embodied by the vast expansive ocean, and can take the form of all life within it.

A Name of Honor

The name Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-koo-ah-keh-ah) comes from an ancient Hawaiian tradition concerning the genealogy and formation of the Hawaiian Islands, and a deep honoring of the dualisms of life. Papahānaumoku is a mother figure personified by the earth and Wākea is a father figure personified in the expansive sky; the two are honored and highly recognized ancestors of Native Hawaiian people. Their union resulted in the creation, or birthing, of the entire Hawaiian archipelago––thus the naming of the monument is to honor and preserve these names, to strengthen Hawaii’s cultural foundation and to ground Hawaiians to an important part of their history.

Taken apart, “Papa” (earth mother), “hānau” (birth), “moku” (small island or large land division), and “ākea” (wide) bespeak a fertile woman giving birth to a wide stretch of islands beneath a benevolent sky. Taken as one long name, Papahānaumokuākea can be seen as a symbol of hope and regeneration for the Kūpuna Islands and the main Hawaiian Islands. And through the mana (spiritual power) of Papahānaumokuākea’s name, one that encourages abundance and the procreative forces of earth, sea, and sky, the Native Hawaiian people hope that the cultural, spiritual and physical health of their people will grow as well.

The Naming Process

The process to give a Hawaiian name to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument began during the Sanctuary designation process as an initiative of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group. In 2006 the group chose two distinguished members of the Hawaiian community to contribute names, Uncle Buzzy Agard and Aunty Pua Kanahele.  Once the names were put forth, the Cultural Working group selected a name that they felt was an appropriate name for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands managing entity and region.

Uncle Buzzy Agard, an esteemed kūpuna (elder) and long time fisherman in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was instrumental in the establishment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve in 2000, and a long time advocate for the protection of this special place.  Uncle Buzzy Agard, who is also affiliated with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), was one of three Native Hawaiian representatives on the Reserve Advisory Council.  Aunty Pua Kanahele, is a well known and respected kumu hula, scholar, and spiritual practitioner from Hilo, Hawai‘i.  Since 2003, she has been the main catalyst for the revival of cultural access trips to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in partnership with the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a.

The names offered by both Aunty Pua and Uncle Buzzy were brought to the Cultural Working Group in September 2006, along with submisisons from Keoni Kuoha, who was then with Kamakakūokalani, U. H. Center for Hawaiian Studies and Native Hawaiian Consultants to the Department of the Interior, Office of Hawaiian Relations, which included: Prof. Fred Kalani Meinecke; Professor Emerita Rubellite Kawena Johnson, Hawaiian Language and Literature; Mr. Tom Cummings, Culture Education Manager, Education Department, Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum; and Ms. Emma Emalia Keohokālole, Cultural Researcher & Communications Manager, Ka‘ōlaniali‘i & Associates, Hawaiian WordTech. Three subsequent meetings were held to discuss the submissions, their meanings and purpose.  On January 4, 2007 the group selected Papahānaumokuākea. 

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group is comprised of members with long standing interest and involvement in the region. Members come from varied relevant backgrounds, and include academic scholars, teachers, cultural practitioners, community activists, and resource managers that have experience in working directly with issues concerning the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Representatives from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Office of Hawaiian Relations, State of Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLRN), Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), and Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) were involved in the meetings and discussions that led up to the final decision.