Niihau

From Academic Kids

Ni‘ihau, at 70 sq. miles (182 sq. km), is the smallest of the inhabited Hawaiian Islands in the U.S. State of Hawai‘i. Ni‘ihau is also known as the "Forbidden Island". This is due to the fact that until recently, the island was off-limits to all but family members, U.S. Navy personnel, government officials and expressly invited guests. Now, tourists can see the island through a limited number of supervised tours, including diving, hiking, and hunting safaris.

Contents

Geography

Ni‘ihau is the geologically oldest of the eight main islands. The island is relatively arid, because it is situated in the rain shadow of Kaua‘i and lacks the elevation needed to catch significant amounts of Trade Wind rainfall (see orographic precipitation).

The island is located about 18 miles west of Kaua‘i. Its dimensions are 30 km by 10 km (6.2 x 18.6 mi; 50% larger than uninhabited Kaho‘olawe). The maximum elevation (Paniau) is 390 m (1280 ft).

On the beaches of the island are found shells which are the only shells to be classified as gems. Ni‘ihau shells and the jewelry made from them are very popular. Many, especially those with darker and richer color, are collectors' items. The sale of shells and shell jewelry provide an additional source of income for the local populace. The Robinson family claims that the unusual luster of Ni‘ihau shells is due to the island's extremely low pollution levels (in relation to the other islands).

People

The island has approximately 160 permanent inhabitants, nearly all of whom are Native Hawaiians who live in the island's main settlement of Pu‘uwai. They support themselves largely by subsistence agriculture and generally lead a rural, low-tech life. They speak the Hawaiian language and keep traditions alive. This is enabled by terms in the purchase contract obligating the owner to help preserve Hawaiian culture and tradition. Ni‘ihau is the only one of the Hawaiian islands on which the Hawaiian language is still the main form of communications.

However, the Native Hawaiians are hardly cut off from the outside world; Ni‘ihau is subject to regular droughts that occasionally force the population to temporarily evacuate to Kaua‘i until the water supply is replenished by the next big rainstorm. In recent years, another problem has been tourists and fishermen overfishing the surrounding waters. This is troubling because the island residents already compete (disputed fact) with the local endangered population of Hawaiian monk seals for seafood (and the seals themselves are protected by the Endangered Species Act).

Economy

The entire island is owned by the Robinson family who purchased it from the Kingdom of Hawai‘i for $10,000 in gold in 1872. It was said that the purchaser, Elizabeth Sinclair (later Sinclair-Robinson), bought the island in preference to other real estate parcels such as Waikīkī, Pearl Harbor, or the island of Lāna‘i. In 1915, grandson Aubrey Robinson closed the island to most outside visitors; even relatives of the inhabitants could visit only by special permission.

Despite the self-imposed isolation, Ni‘ihau has a long-standing relationship with the U.S. military dating from before World War II. There is a small U.S. Navy installation on the Island, but no military personnel are permanently stationed there. More recently, however, the U.S. military has used the island for training special operations units, hiring the Niihauans as "enemy" trackers.

Many of the residents of Ni‘ihau were employees of the Ni‘ihau Ranch until the Robinson family finally had to shut the operation down in 1999; it had not been profitable for most of the 20th century. Many of the residents ended up on federal welfare, although these benefits will end soon because of the five-year limit on such benefits. The Robinson family has been considering alternative economic options to keep their residents employed, such as an increased economic role for the U.S. military (an earlier 1999 proposal to establish a missile testing program on the island fell by the wayside), or increased tourism. Either of these would erode the relative isolation that the residents currently enjoy.

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