The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument started out as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The ecological and recent-historical significance of the monument was already well established, but links to Hawaiian culture and history were lacking. The following provides a brief background to how the new name was chosen, and how it links native Hawaiian culture to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The process to give a Hawaiian name to the Monument began during the National Marine Sanctuary designation process as an initiative of the State of Hawai‘i Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group (CWG). The CWG is comprised of academic scholars, teachers, cultural practitioners, community activists, and resource managers that have experience in working directly with issues concerning the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Alongside cultural practitioners and experts, representatives from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), and the State of Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), and Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) participated in the meetings and discussions that led to the final decision.
Part of the history of a place is in its name, which often tells of people for whom it is famous, natural phenomenon specific to it, or its uses by gods and men. As a place changes over time, so may its name. Often, place names change at a time of great significance. For instance, when the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Hawai‘i’s and Hawaiians’ kūpuna (respected elders) islands were proclaimed a Marine National Monument and thus afforded a level of protection by the United States government previously unseen for any other of their sacred lands, Hawaiians wanted everyone to understand the cultural importance of the region. Everyone seemed to agree to the environmental significance, but Hawaiians wanted a name that would respect their kūpuna, for those islands generated both the rest of the archipelago and are in the direction of the source of all life, which began with a coral polyp, the archipelago’s majority of which are found in the newly proclaimed Marine National Monument.
The name Papahānaumokuākea (pronounced Pa-pa-hah-now-mo-ku-ah-kay-uh) comes from an ancient Hawaiian tradition concerning the genealogy and formation of the Hawaiian Islands, and a deep honoring of the dualisms of life. Papahānaumoku (a mother figure who is personified in the earth) and Wākea (a father figure who is personified in the expansive sky) are two of the most recognized ancestors of Native Hawaiian people. Their union resulted in the creation or birthing of the entire archipelago. Often known only as “Papa,” which also means “foundational earth,” her name at the beginning provides the imagery of the numerous low, flat islands and atolls that stretch into the northwest. “Ākea,” (wide) at the end of the place name, represents the dual idea of Wākea, the sky father, provides the imagery of the “expanse – of space,” and continues the Hawaiian tradition of sexual puns and innuendo in their linguistics. Also, from Mauna “Ākea” on Hawai‘i Island to the low flat “Papa” of the northwest, the physical features of the entire Hawaiian archipelago define Kanaka Mā‘oli’s (Native Hawaiians/people of the land) homeland and Hawaiian identity. The preservation of these names, together, as Papahānaumokuākea, strengthens Hawai‘i’s cultural foundation and grounds Hawaiians to an important part of their historical past. Taken apart, “Papa” (earth mother), “hānau” (birth), “moku” (small island or large land division), and “ākea” (wide) bespeak a fertile woman giving birth to a wide stretch of islands beneath a benevolent sky.
(This text adopted from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument Name Explanation Briefing)