The Hawaiian island Niʻihau (anglicized to Niihau) is the seventh-largest inhabited island in Hawaii, measuring about 69.5 square miles or 28.2 square kilometers. It is located across the Kaulakahi Channel about seventeen and a half miles southwest of Kauaʻi with a population of 170 according to the 2010 census by the United States Census Bureau. Several intermittent playa lakes on Niihau Island provide the wetland habitats for species like the Hawaiian duck, Hawaiian coot, and Hawaiian stilt. Niihau has been designated as critical habitat for the endangered and endemic species of the Hawaiian labelloid, Brighamia insignis. The primary language of the inhabitants is Native Hawaiian and they are known for their gemlike craftsmanship.
The History of Niihau Island
In 1864 Elizabeth Sinclair purchased the island from the Kingdom of Hawaii for a sum of $10,000. Since then private ownership of the island has been passed on to title-holding descendants of the Robinson family and has remained in their possession till today. Because it has generally been off-limits to everyone except the Robinson family, their relatives, invited guests, government officials, and U.S. Navy personnel, it has been nicknamed “The Forbidden Isle”.
After the sale of ownership, the original inhabitants of the island, known as ‘Niihauans’, could remain but access by outsiders, including anyone from neighboring Hawaiian islands, was restricted. Niihauans on the island today live mostly according to the ways of their ancestors with hunting and fishing taking up most of their time. They speak Native Hawaiian but because of the island’s only school and access to the outside world, some speak English. They don’t pay rent, travel mostly on foot or by bike, and rely on rain catchments for water and generators for electricity.
To this day, only the Robinsons, Niihauans, and occasional invited guests are allowed on the island or near the dozens of homes on the only settlement, Puuwai. However, from 1987 a limited number of supervised tours and hunting safaris have been allowed on the island for tourists. The island is currently managed by two Robinson brothers, Bruce and Keith.
Sold with a Promise to Preserve
When King Kamehameha V sold Niihau Island to the Sinclair family in 1864 for $10,000 worth of gold, he apparently required the family to promise that they would preserve the native Hawaiian language and the unique way of life of the Niihauans. Those promises ensured that Niihauans could enjoy what many travelers today search for the world over – the luxury of a truly secluded and untouched habitat. In an interview with ABC News in 2010, Bruce Robinson said that the family tries to abide by the request of the King by maintaining the island for the native Niihaun people in the same way he had. Married to a Niihauan woman, preserving the unique culture of Niihauans is a priority for Bruce Robinson. According to him, there is a feeling of inner peace and renewal on the island that is not understood by the outside world. Western culture and the rest of the Hawaiian islands have lost it and the only place it can still be found is on Niihau.
Getting a Taste of the Forbidden Isle
Although the Robinsons and the native Niihauans are fiercely protective of their island, there are a few sanctioned ways to experience the island. You can get a glimpse of Niihau by exploring the pristine waters around the island on one of the tour boats organized by Kauai Tours that offer a day-long dive and snorkel trips to the Lehua Crater north of Niihau Island.
If you would like to go on shore, you can book a guided tour of Niihau and the Robinsons will ferry curious tourists to remote parts of Niihau on their private helicopter. The half-day tour includes an aerial tour of the island with lunch and snorkeling on a remote beach. Day-long hunting trips provide more access to the island at a cost of about $1,700 per person. These tours help support life on Niihau but in order to protect the privacy of Niihauans, their village is kept out of sight during tours.
Even though the island of Niihau is isolated from the rest of the world, the inhabitants of Niihau are not isolated from the world. The perceived mystery of the island has generated speculation over the years about the isolation of life on Niihau, however, according to Bruce Robinson, “While it is an ancient type of culture, Niihauans are a very modern type of people with the opportunity to live in a place very few people have the opportunity to see. People are constantly leaving the island and almost every person has been to the mainland. They know all about the cities and some are actually very well-traveled”.