Just exactly how many islands are in the Hawaiian Islands? Eight, right? (Don’t forget Kahoolawe and Niihau.). One answer is on our State flag. Eight wide, horizontal stripes in red, white, and blue (but not in that order oddly enough), are proudly on display waving everywhere you go. Those eight stripes represent our eight islands in Hawaii. Too bad it’s not right. There’s more to Hawaii from Niihau to the Big Island.
With strange-sounding names like Pearl and Hermes, Lisianski, and the French Frigate Shoals, the rest of the Hawaiian Islands are an isolated and lengthy chain of atolls, seamounts, and specs of land that are dwarfed by the eight main islands. The Northwestern or Leeward Islands are older, uninhabited, and very mysterious.
The biggest of these islands are also the closest. One-hundred-and-sixty-six miles to the northwest of Kauai you’ll find a windswept and lonely rock jutting out of the Pacific Ocean. It’s a dramatic setting. Although it’s only one square mile, Nihoa Island has sea cliffs rising 900 feet into the air. It looks like something you’d see off the coast of Scotland instead of the central Pacific.
Beyond that lies Mokumanamana, a rocky crescent rising only a few hundred feet above sea level. When Captain La Perouse made his way through Hawaii, he christened the island after the Jacques Necker, a finance minister in France. Since then its Hawaiian name has been restored.
Native Hawaiians knew these islands were out there. Chants and other stories passed down through generations have referred to these places. Folktales indicate that this was the final settlement of the menehune. But by the time the islands had been settled and came into contact with Europeans, no one was living there. They were uninhabited by the time the first Europeans arrived there in 1789.
This isn’t the only place where that’s happened in the Pacific. Archaeologists have found small, marginal islands that once were inhabited but were later abandoned. The Cook Islands have Palmerston and Suwarrow. The Phoenix Islands have Howland. And we have Nihoa and Necker.
In the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom, these two islands were reclaimed by the crown. Queen Kaahumanu visited Nihoa in 1822 and declared that it was part of the Hawaiian Islands. During the reign of Kamehameha IV, the king sent a captain to claim Mokumanamana in 1857—which sparked some controversy with France that remained unsettled until 1894, when it was firmly part of the Hawaiian government.
So who were these people living out at the far, far end of the Hawaiian Islands? Nobody really knows. It wasn’t until the 1920s when the Bishop Museum sent out a band of archaeologists. Both islands were full of relatively undisturbed sites, encampments, and temples. They estimated that Nihoa could hold about 100 people there, but resources like fresh water must have been really limited.
But it was the artifacts that they brought back with them that make the place so strange. The icons on Nihoa and Necker look nothing like the images found in the rest of the islands. Stone carvings depict round, neckless heads that show traces of a faint smile.
Did the Bishop Museum archaeologists find a lost tribe? Who were these people? The prevailing theory takes us back to the golden age of Polynesian voyaging. For decades now, archaeologists and anthropologists have hypothesized that Hawaii was settled by two distinct waves of migrants from the South Seas.
The first wave came around 500 to 750 A.D. and they were from the Marquesas Islands. Centuries later, voyagers from Tahiti arrived. For centuries it was believed that the islanders made frequent trips across the long distances from Hawaii and the Society Islands. Then around 1300 it stopped. Hawaii remained in isolation and developed its own culture and heritage until European contact.
So where does Nihoa and Necker fit in? For the archaeologists in the 1920s, it was believed that the islanders out there were an outpost and remnant from the first wave of migrants. This nicely fits into the menehune theory.
But that may be changing. Recently, Dr. Kekuewa Kikiloi has posited a different view. That the islanders out there were very much part of the rest of Hawaiian society. They traveled frequently to Kauai and the main islands as a means for survival.
He compared it to the way we live now. In an interview, Dr. Kikiloi said that it was not unlike our dependency of Matson shipping to and from the mainland for our own survival.
Will we ever know what life was like for these islanders? Probably not. Much of their traditions and stories have been lost to time. They mystery islands will continue to hold their secrets.