The Forbidden Isle Of Ni’ihau

Grace Higgins | August 22nd, 2020

Ni’ihau is the seventh-largest island of Hawaii located southwest from the island of Kaua’i across the Kaulakahi Channel, just 69.5 square miles in area. In 2010 it was recorded to have a population of 170 but many believe it is around 50 to 60 inhabitants. Extraordinarily, the island was purchased by Elizabeth Sinclair in 1864 for $10,000 in gold from the Kingdom of Hawaii. And the island has been privately owned ever since, now owned by her descendants, the Robinsons.

Famously the Robinsons keep the island’s culture and heritage intact. You cannot enter the island without special permission. Which is why the island is known as The Forbidden Island. It is pretty much impossible to step foot on the land unless you are a relative to the Robinson family, U.S. Navy personnel, government official, or a guest. From 1987, a couple of very limited highly supervised activity tours and hunting safaris did start for tourism.

The people of Ni’ihau are most famous for their craftsmanship of seashells. The selling of these cultural crafts is one of the island’s primary economic sources. Furthermore, they speak a Hawaiiwain dialect which is thought to be closer to the original language. The island is very arid, and without running water, the residents have to rely on capturing rainwater. As a result, there are various times in history where the people of Ni’ihau have been forced to abandon their homes and move to Kaua’i. This is to escape drought and famine.

Despite the self-imposed isolation the island can survive. All residents do not have to pay any rent and all meat is free. Many people live a more simple life, supporting themselves with subsistence fishing and farming. The Robinson family has chosen to not embrace any modernities and set down many strict conditions to protect the island’s environment. There is no telephone service or even paved roads on the island. Transportation is mainly done by horses. You can’t visit because there is no hotel, sometimes groceries are delivered by neighboring islands by barges.

One of the reasons the Robinson family can support the island in this way is because they have a Navy installation on top of their high cliffs. This provides for over 80% of the needed income to keep the island running.

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