HONOLULU (KHON2) — One of the most endearing things that can happen to a new person to the islands is to experience the shaka for the first time while out driving.
When someone is showing their aloha and waving that shaka at you to let you know that you can go or that they are making accommodations for you, there is a rush of surprise and awe.
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The shaka has become endemic to Hawaiʻi, but not many people outside of Hawaiʻi understands it or knows how to use it.
It outwardly demonstrates friendship and compassion. For visitors, they see it as a gesture. But what does it mean?
For locals, we see it as a sign of connectedness, or lōkahi, and embrace its use to communicate that. It is through this shared use of the shaka that we say, ‘We see you, and we respect you’.
“When someone throws, like, a shaka when they’re moving around in traffic, it lets me know that guy’s a local. He gets it,” said Ahilani, a resident of Mānoa.
We see it in photos. We see it when celebrities and politicians throw it. Of course, don’t forget the surfers who use it and have spread it worldwide. But where did it come from and how did it become so popular? And why does it mean so much in a world that seems so divided?
With these questions on our mind, KHON2.com decided to explore the history of the shaka, what it means to those who use it and ask a few folks what it means to them.
According to legend, the shaka was first embraced by locals in the early 20th century. The story goes like this.
A man by the name of Hamana Kalili was a worker on a sugar plantation in Lāʻie on Oʻahu. He was a worker that fed sugar cane stalks into a grinding juicer that extracted the “liquid gold” from the canes.
One day, he got his forefinger, middle finger and ring finger caught in the machine which ripped them off. He was left only with his thumb and pinky.
Due to this accident, the old Kahuku Sugar Mill for which he worked placed him in a new position as a security guard.
So, when he would wave to all the school children as they passed by, he could only use the two remaining fingers and his palm. The school children quickly picked up his gesture of good will and began using it for themselves to greet one another.
This symbol was then adopted by surfers who exported it to other islands and to the rest of the world.
“My dad always told me that the shaka is a way of letting the other guy know that you, like, see them, you know, that they, like, matter,” explained Teo, a resident of Kahlihi.
One of the things that made the shaka more deeply entrenched in the Hawaiʻi zeitgeist was its use in mid-century car commercials.
David “Lippy” Espinda was a used car salesman, and he used the shaka to sign off from his commercials along with the slogan ‘shaka, brah’.
Atlas Obscura cites Espinda as being the first person to correlate the hand gesture with the word ‘shaka’.
Following this, Frank Fasi utilized the shaka as part of his political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s.
These three legendary figures along with surfers cemented the use of the shaka in everyday life in Hawaiʻi.
The shaka has become so entrenched in local culture that it has layers of meanings both for those using it and for those receiving it.
It also speaks to the amazing ability of kānaka maoli and locals to take something so tragic and make it into a symbol of lōkahi.
And it is this connectedness and compassion that makes Hawaiʻi’s culture and society incredibly unique.
So, as the world continues to wage war and produce famine, Hawaiʻi’s multitude of cultures has a special way of nurturing lōkahi.
“A shaka is an extra special gesture. I use it to let people around me know that they’re valued,” said Wilson, a surfer at Diamond Head Beach. “I may not know you, but I see you. And, it’s also a great way to squash road rage, just throw a simple shaka, brah.”
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We have the freedom to bring a smile to someone’s face with a simple shaka. We have the power to change the world with a simple shaka.