Niihau – The populated but forgotten Hawaiian island

Paul Pinkerton
Niihau Island in Hawaii, looking southwestward from the north - Photo Credit: Christopher P. Becker & A group of villagers at Puʻuwai Beach settlement, Niʻihau in 1885. Photograph taken by Francis Sinclair

In Hawaii, there is a peaceful, quiet island which has been called “The Forbidden Island.” An island which is barely even taught about in Hawaiian schools, if at all. It is about 70 square miles and is owned by one family. There are no stores or cars, just dirt roads and sandy beaches touched more by wildlife than human footprints.

In 1864, King Kamehameha V sold the island to the Sinclair family for $10,000 worth of gold, with a requirement to preserve the Native Hawaiian language and way of life.


A group of men, women and a girl, standing and sitting in front of a thatched dwelling in 1885. A decorative cloth is attached to the thatched wall behind them.  This photo was taken by Francis Sinclair. Grass houses called Halepili were one of the last vestiges of Hawaiian culture in 1893

The King said “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.” The current occupants, of about 1000 natives were allowed to stay. At the time the people had tried to petition the King to allow them to buy it themselves but to no avail.


The owners interpreted helping the villagers as preserving their way of life as it was in the 1860’s. So here they speak an older version of Hawaiian than anywhere else. Also, the life style is spartan, no running water, no electricity. They fish and hunt. Church attendance is expected of all. Alcohol, drugs and guns are not allowed, and anyone breaking the rules can be evicted.


Men and boys fish in a bay, some in outrigger canoes, others in the water with snared fish. Beyond is a rocky shore with three thatched houses. This photo was taken by Francis Sinclair in 1885.

The Robinson’s (the defendants of the Sinclair family) insist that they are simply protecting the occupants against the vices of the modern world, just like they promised the king.

If there are any problems on the island they go to the ‘Elders for help resolving it’ and if they can’t resolve it, they hand it over to Keith and Bruce Robinson, the eldest Robinson’s.


A group of villagers at Puʻuwai Beach settlement, Niʻihau in 1885. Photograph taken by Francis Sinclair, son of Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair.

Over time as the owners have kept such strict rules for the Niihau’s it has become increasingly difficult for some to stay on their native land. They are allowed to move off the island, but for some it has become difficult for them to return when they have applied to move back.

The current population fluctuates from between 30 to about 130 over the year as people travel for work or pleasure. They don’t pay rent and live off the land as much as they can, they also have access of the Robinsons barge for shopping trips to the mainland, and fiercely protect their island. One of the rules of the island is to not talk about the island.


The Robinsons do offer extremely guided tours and hunting safaris, using a private helicopter and remote beach for lunch and snorkeling, but the village is kept out of sight in order to protect the Niihauans’ privacy.


Paniau Ridge, Island of Niihau, Hawaii
Navy contractors departing a helicopter on Niihau in Hawaii. Image credit: Christopher P. Becker

The main source of revenue on the island is from a Military contract. They hire people from the village to maintain equipment and use the land for Navy exercises. This helps to pay the taxes and support the village. Keith Robinson said this is a better option than tourism, “Military is stealth, and it doesn’t leave litter behind.”


View of the rugged cliffs of windward Niʻihau (the northeastern shore) Image credit: Christopher P. Becker

Written for Outdoor Revival by Shelly Bristow


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