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When Niihau was purchased by the Sinclair family in the 1860s, the island’s inhabitants — known as Niihauans — were allowed to stay, but access to the island by outsiders (including anyone from another Hawaiian island) was restricted.
To this day, only Niihauans, the Robinsons (the descendants of the title-holding family), and the occasional invited guest are allowed there (or near the dozens of homes in the island’s only settlement, Puuwai, seen below in a Google Earth photo).
”Niihau is yours,” Kamehameha IV said when he signed the contract, according to the New York Times. “But 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 Niihau Cultural Heritage Foundation reports that Kamehameha IV agreed to sell the land, but died in 1863. Records show that his brother, Kamehameha V, completed the transaction on January 23, 1864.)
Ownership of the island has stayed within the same bloodline ever since and access to the 70-square-mile island has remained extremely restricted.
Those promises afforded Niihauans a luxury that most modern travelers search the world for: A truly secluded and untouched island.
A Living Fossil
Niihau remains something of a living fossil — a glimpse into what life in the islands might look like if, over the centuries, the rest of Hawaii just stood still.
The Niihauans who remain on the island today live mostly as their Native Hawaiian ancestors did, with hunting and fishing taking up the majority of their days. There are an estimated 70 permanent residents on the island, although that number fluctuates as Niihauans move away or return to the islands. The 2010 census listed its population at 170, but since the Robinsons are not required to submit population estimates, the current number of permanent residents are unknown.
They speak mainly Native Hawaiian, but, because of efforts by the island’s only school and Niihauans access to other islands, some residents also know English. They don’t pay rent, they travel mostly by bike or on foot and most homes rely on rain catchments and generators for water and electricity.
If they see it at all, most Hawaii residents and visitors glimpse Niihau across the water.
According to one former resident, Niihau men aren’t allowed to have long hair or wear earrings, and on Sundays, the entire village is expected to go to church.
In 1969, the Milwaukee Journal called Niihau a “Puritan paradise,” because of the religious culture impressed upon the Niihauans by the Robinsons — a family of “strict Scots Presbyterians,” according to the Journal — and the missionaries that came to Niihau decades before it was purchased.
“All those rules came from the old-timers, so we just take care of that,” Wehi Kaaumoana, a 34-year-old Niihauan, told The Huffington Post.
The younger people in the village are also expected to take care of and provide for the elders.
“We live off the land. That’s all we have,” Kaaumoana said. Although Niihauans can hop on a barge owned by the Robinsons to go grocery shopping on the island of Kauai, they rely heavily on fishing and hunting to feed the village.
But “the old folks over there, they can’t go beach ’cause they growing old,” he added. “When we go out and fish and hunt and give them food like that, they happy. We take care of our elderlies. Elderlies are the main thing in life.”
To pass the time, Niihauans go to the beach or watch pre-downloaded movies on iPads, but, like any other small town, people get bored. Kaaumoana, for example, moved off the island in his mid-20s to find work on Kauai.
“People leave the island all the time,” Peter T. Young, Hawaii’s former Department of Land and Natural Resources director and Hawaii historian, told HuffPost.
“(Niihau])is isolated for the rest of us, but it’s not an isolated island for them,” Young added. “They don’t look any different, they don’t act any different,” they just “have the opportunity to live in a place that the rest of us have a very limited opportunity to see.”
The perceived mystery of life on the “Forbidden Island” has generated speculation over the years, but Bruce Robinson told ABC News that, “While it is an ancient type of culture, they’re a very modern type of people.”
“There are stories that have been generated of captives living out here,” Robinson added. “People who can’t get out to the cities. That is totally false. In fact, every person on Niihau has been to the mainland. They know all about it. It’s a well-traveled population.”
A Taste Of The Forbidden
Niihauans are fiercely protective of their island. In 2013, a group of residents discovered trespassers fishing on their shoreline; they used a digital camera to record the intruders, and presented the footage to lawmakers, asking for help with protecting their resources.
There are, however, a few sanctioned ways to see Niihau.
If you want to get on shore, the Robinsons offer extremely guided tours and hunting safaris, ferrying curious tourists on their private helicopter from Kauai to remote parts of Niihau. The half-day guided tour takes guests on an aerial tour, then to a remote beach for lunch and snorkeling.