Following is Kumu Leilehua’s recommended reading starter list. The books are listed in the order in which Kumu Leilehua recommends you acquire them. In this order, they build on each other, providing an excellent foundation for beginning to understand Hawaiian culture. As we remember and learn about more books, they will be added to this list, so please check back periodically!
Looking for out-of-print, hard to find, limited edition, and really wonderful books about the islands? Our favorite bookstore is Basically Books in Hilo, Hawaiʻi. We recommend checking there, first.
Hawaiian Dictionary, Pukui and Elbert – If you can only buy one Hawaiian/English dictionary, buy this one. Yes, you can go on-line to www.wehewehe.org for free, but there is nothing like having your own print copy on-hand for perusing, annotating, and rambling through the Hawaiian language.
Māmaka Kaiao: A Modern Hawaiian Vocabulary – The serious student of Hawaiian culture will find this invaluable in understanding the evolution of Hawaiian culture into modern times.
Hua ʻŌlelo Lei, Yuen – This glossary specializes in the vocabulary of the lei. The art of lei making is in a renaissance, with talented artisans developing beautiful new lei for every occasion. But the ancient language and traditional terms are disappearing. Here, they are gathered together in one handy reference book so that they can be remembered, enjoyed, and used.
Place Names of Hawaiʻi, Pukui – Teach respect for Hawaiian culture by using the correct names for places. It’s not “A-Bay,” It’s “ʻAnaehoʻomalu.” Hawaiian names are filled with meaning and beauty. This book is a great starting point for learning.
From the Mountains to the Sea, The Ahupuaʻa, Williams – Julie Stuart Williams has written many books for Kamehameha Schools. While they were written for classroom use, they are an excellent resource for adults just learning about Hawaiian culture as well. Be sure to read the review by RS Cobblestone.
ʻŌlelo Noʻeau, Pukui – Not only a collection of wisdom of Hawaiian kūpuna (elders), but a wonderful way to learn how the language and poetry fit together.
Nānā i ke Kumu: Look to the Source, Volumes 2 and 1 – No, not a typo. If you are new to Hawaiian culture, it’s better to read Volume 2 first. These books are basically oral history/case studies written in a conversational style. Topics range from traditional healing to ho‘oponopono, spirituality to sexuality. The books were written for clinical practitioners / social workers, but they offer valuable insight into Hawaiian culture for the serious student.
Hawaiiʻs Story by Hawaiiʻs Queen, Liliʻuokalani – The autobiography of the last monarch of the Hawaiian Islands. A must-read for those interested in understanding the heart of Hawaiʻi.
Shoal of Time: A History of the Hawaiian Islands, Daws – Begins with Capt. Cook’s arrival in Hawaiʻi, and is written from a Euro-centric viewpoint, but gives a readable overview of Hawaiian history from 1778 through much of the 20th Century. It is an important work in that it was the first major history published in English which saw Hawaiian people as people, rather than as “natives” who needed to be colonized, civilized, and commercialized.
A Shark Going Inland is my Chief, Kirch – An excellent history covering the period from Cook’s 1778 arrival back to the ancestors of today’s Hawaiian people leaving the shores of the South China Sea. Read Shoal of Time, then read this. But if you can only get one, get this one.
The Polynesian Family System in Kaʻū, Hawaiʻi, Pukui – Yet another book by the most prolific Kanaka Maoli writer of the 20th Century, Mary Kawena Pukui. In this she chronicles Hawaiian life and tradition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Change We Must, Veary – One of our highly respected kūpuna talks about growing up with her grandparents, learning ho‘oponopono, feeding sharks, listening to plants, and her religious journey of spirituality from ʻaumakua to Pentecostalism to Unity to Zen Buddhism.
Native Land & Foregin Desires, Lilikala –
Traditional Classics of Hawaiian Literature
Once you have some foundational knowledge, I recommend reading these classics by Kanaka Maoli historians.
Hawaiian Antiquities, David Malo – Malo was born while the old ways still held sway and saw the new ways sweep over Hawaiʻi. He was one of the first Kanaka Maoli to receive a Western education. He became a Christian minister, so his view of Hawaiian culture is colored by his new faith. The Amazon reviews by Kameaiulanalole and RS Cobblestone are excellent and thoughtful. Read them to gain an understanding of the context of the book.
The People of Old, The Works of the People of Old, Tales and Traditions of the People of Old, Samuel Kamakau – Kamakau was born three years before the old regime ended. He was one of the first Kanaka Maoli to receive a Western education. He studied at Lahainaluna Seminary under the Reverend Sheldon Dibble. Kamakau and other students, under Dibble’s direction, collected and documented information on Hawaiian culture, language, and history. Kamakau is renowned as one of Hawaiʻi’s foremost historians. Be sure to read the review by Cortezhill, which can be found at the People of Old link.
Fragments of Hawaiian History, John Papa ‘I‘i – Read the biography first. It will really help in contextualizing his own writings. ʻIʻi was born into the chiefly classes, and was a hereditary kahu (caretaker, assistant, right-hand-man) who served Liholiho (Kamehameha II). He was trained in the ancient political/religious system and served the rulers of Hawaiʻi and the Hawaiian Kingdom. He was one of the first Kanaka Maoli to receive a Western education. His writings blend autobiography, court intrigues, and history in a way that immerses the reader in the era of the Kamehamehas.
Traditions of Hawaiʻi, Kepelino – While he is ranked with Malo, Kamakau, and ʻIʻi as one of the great Kanaka Maoli historians, I classify him in the modern era. He was born in 1830, well into the Hawaiian Monarchy. While he had access to informants who were born before the massive cultural change, he, himself was not a primary source. He was born into a high-ranking priestly and chiefly family, and received the best of both Hawaiian and European education. He was fluent in English, French, Latin, and Greek. Be sure to read the Amazon review by RS Cobblestone.
Memoir of Keōpūolani, Late Queen of the Sandwich Islands, Richards – A biography of the highest ranking queen of Hawaiʻi nei, compiled by William Richards. Click image for free e-book.
In Hawaiian thought, physical and spiritual health are so part and parcel of each other that it is non-productive to discuss them without each other. The above link provides some information on useful books.
Resources for the study of the traditional dance of Hawaiʻi.
Favorite Hawaiian language resources. This list includes both on-line resources, and books.
I am often asked to recommend works of fiction about Hawaiʻi. Not being a big reader of fiction, it takes me a while to think of titles. I have collected what I find to be the most noteworthy at the above link.