Wai Momi: Pearl Harbor and the Native Hawaiians

October 04, 2019

Most people associate the name Pearl Harbor with one event - the surprise attack by the Japanese that drew America into World War II. December 7, 1941, certainly became “a date which will live in infamy,” as President Roosevelt predicted. But what most people don’t consider is that Pearl Harbor existed long before that fateful date. Long before a United States military installation was created, Pearl Harbor was there, known to the native Hawaiians as Wai Momi. How much do we really know about this place?

Hawaii had not yet become a U.S. state in 1941, though it had been a U.S. territory since the late 19th century. Before America became increasingly interested in the island kingdom, Hawaii had its fair share of European visitors, the first documented being Captain James Cook in the 1770s. But long ago, according to local legends, Hawaii had been a world all its own, away in the Pacific far from the shores on either side of the ocean.

Wai MomiLooking at a bird’s eye view of Pearl Harbor, its shape resembles that of a tree, the roots of which are where the harbor meets Mamala Bay. The trunk rises and the branches split off into the West Loch, Middle Loch, and East Loch. Today, when you look around Pearl Harbor you see signs of modern life everywhere, but a few hundred years ago you would only find the natural beauty of the island.

How did Pearl Harbor get its name? The 1941 Japanese attack cemented the words “Pearl Harbor” into the world’s memory, and its original name is very similar in meaning. The native Hawaiians named the lagoon for the wealth of pearls that once could be found within its waters, and so they called it Wai Momi, literally translated as “Pearl Waters.” Due to the appearance of the terrain, another name used for that area is Pu’uloa, or “Long Hill.”

Hawaiian legends state that Pu’uloa was the home of a shark goddess, Kaʻahupahau. The details of the stories vary a little, but all agree that the Queen of the Sharks lived in the lagoon and she protected the island and the people there. Both she and her brother Kahiʻuka lived in caves in the lagoon; hers in the West Loch and his near Ford Island. Together they would ward off man-eating sharks that dared to eat her people, and the people worshipped them. Some stories say that when she saw Wai Momi being damaged by humans in the 19th century, she left the area, taking with her the abundance of oysters that had given the harbor its name. Ancient stories in the Hawaiian legends also tell of how Pearl Harbor was formed by Chief Keaunui of Ewa. He opened the area by making it both wider and deeper, thus creating the lagoon.

Priests traveling across Kealakekua Bay

In addition to the legends of Wai Momi, the natives also used Ford Island—which lies roughly in the middle of the harbor—for fertility games. The basic rules were that the chief paired a man and woman and they would spend the night together. The participants were not considered married during the game, and once the ritual ended at daybreak, they returned to their own spouses. The game was brought to an end when missionaries arrived in the early 19th century.

Pearl Harbor's ancient origins are steeped in legends, but we don't know much about the daily lives of the native Hawaiians who lived along the coast, canoeing through the calm waters to fish and gather pearls. We do know that their lives would change dramatically after explorers from Europe and the North American continent found their way to the Hawaiian islands and took an interest in what would eventually become known as Pearl Harbor.

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