The Story Behind King Kamehameha Day
When many think of Hawai’i, they envision the group of islands with serene scenery, welcoming people, and a relaxed lifestyle of surfing, sun, and leis. However, it may surprise you to hear that the islands didn’t always exist with such harmony. That’s where the story of King Kamehameha comes in.
The Hawaiian islands had a storied history of division before King Kamehameha was credited for unifying them in 1810. Described as a “fearless warrior, a wise diplomat, and a highly-respected leader” by the people of Hawai’i centuries after his reign, every June for his birthday celebrations are held across the 8 major islands for the man that brought peace to the former monarch.
While the islands go all out every year for King Kamehameha Day, the honor has even spread to other states with a large number of Hawaiian community members. His significance is so strong that it has led to four statues of him standing tall throughout the US. Each state can pick only two people to memorialize inside the Capitol building and King Kamehameha was one of those chosen for Hawai’i.
In preparation for this year’s King Kamehameha Day, let’s take a look at the warrior this day is in honor of and the ways he’s traditionally celebrated.
Kamehameha I, the first king of Hawai’i—whose full name may take a while to master: Kalani Paiʻea Wohi o Kaleikini Kealiʻikui Kamehameha o ʻIolani i Kaiwikapu kauʻi Ka Liholiho Kūnuiākea—is also referred to as Kamehamela the Great. Born into Hawaiian royalty in Kohala [estimated] in 1758 to parents Kekuiapoiwa, the daughter of a Kona chief, and Keoua, chief of Kohala. His birth came during a time in Hawai’i where leaders from different islands were battling each other for widespread control.
His early years were accented by powerful premonitions and forewarning signs of his greatness including the sight of a bright star before his birth prophesied that a great leader would be born, as well as a comet being seen in the sky on the night he was believed to be born, interpreted as a sign from the gods. Originally named Pai’ea, he was hidden away after his birth from fear that the leaders of opposing tribes would see him as a threat until he re-emerged at the age of five and was renamed Kamehameha.
As he grew older, he trained under his uncle King Kalaniʻōpuʻu’u, who was the ruler of the island of Hawai’i at the time. After his uncle’s death in 1782, Kamehameha received the island’s war god, Kuka’ilimoku, while his uncle’s son, Kīwalaʻō, inherited control of the island. Shortly after, conflict erupted between their chiefs and the cousins ended up going to war. Kamehameha emerged victorious and went on to gain control over the other islands, peacefully negotiating leadership of the final two Kauai and Niihau in 1810.
Not only responsible for creating the first Hawaiian monarch, but Kamehameha also created many of the laws and codes that still guide the people of Hawai’i today. Reflecting on the impact of the first king of the 137 islands, there’s still immense pride in his principles to respect the land, human, and sea life, the way he built up the economy, and unified the islands with a peaceful political rule and sacred cultural traditions.
After the death of Kamehameha I in 1819, his wife Queen Ka’ahumanu, who was his trusted advisor while he was alive, became one the most impactful rulers in the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Kamehameha’s descendants ruled for nearly 100 years until the controversial overtaking of the Monarchy under the rule of Queen Liliuokalani by American businessmen in 1893, annexed by the United States in 1898.
Every island proudly showcases different traditions each year for the state holiday in Hawai’i on June 11 in honor of Kamehameha the Great. First established in 1871 as a national holiday of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, every year the people of Hawaiʻi come together to celebrate King Kamehameha Day.
On the island of Hawai’i, the entire weekend of King Kamehameha Day is filled with traditions. Leis are draped on two of the honoree’s statues located in Hilo and Kohala and there are also festivals and parades followed by a Ho‘olaule‘a (music and art festival) in Kailua-Kona and Kohala. The parade celebrates the pāʻū riding (on horseback) and paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) traditions featuring plants, flowers, and colors from each island. Throughout the festival, there’s local food to enjoy and masters creating traditional arts and crafts along with performances by radiant hula dancers and esteemed Hawaiian musicians.
In addition to these traditions, on the island of Oahu there’s a Floral Parade starting in the morning and ending in the early afternoon at Queen Kapi‘olani Park, named after the leader of the monarch who reigned from 1874 to 1891. As the name suggests, all floats, horses, and vehicles are draped with flowers native to the land. There are also parades, celebrations, and luaus on Kaua’i, Maui, and Moloka’i.
While many of the festivities were canceled in 2020 and are limiting in-person participation in 2021, the King Kamehameha Celebration Commission hopes to return these events to full scale for the special 150th anniversary of the holiday in 2022.
Communities across the country are still exercising caution when it comes to in-person gatherings. After being canceled in 2020, the Nā Kamehameha Commemorative Pāʻū Parade will return this year with a virtual event on June 19. Previously recorded parade entries and interviews from the island of Maui will be shared for everyone across the world to see during the live stream.
Prior to this year’s online parade, you can get an idea of what to look forward to if you’ve never celebrated before. Start by watching the 2018 King Kamehameha Day Parade that was previously live-streamed by Olelo Community Media.
Ever since the King Kamehameha statue was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Hawaii in 1969 there has been a yearly performance and dedication in front of the towering figure, now located inside the US Capitol Visitor Center. Just like in its homeland, the statue is adorned with leis made of flowers all the way from Hawai’i. There’s also a vibrant performance by hula dancers as well as portrayers of Kamehameha and his wife Ka’ahu-manu. While no events have been scheduled for this year as the visitor center is still closed, you can view photos from previous years’ ceremonies.
The day of recognition for this regal figure who played a central role in unifying the islands of Hawai’i is a great time to learn more about their indigenous history and discover the moʻolelo (stories) that makes them special beyond the leis and beautiful beaches.
Serita Braxton, USA Guided Tours Blog Contributor