Hawaii News

State conversation about Big Island’s official name sparks minor controversy

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An image of downtown Hilo on the Big Island from March 2022. (Big Island Now file photo)

Amid a week when everything Hawaiian was in the spotlight — especially hula and the Hawaiian language — as part of the 61st annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, a state board tasked with designating the official names and spellings of geographic features in Hawai‘i found itself in the middle of a minor moniker controversy over the official name of the Big Island.

The Hawai‘i Board of Geographic Names during its April 2 meeting began a discussion about possibly changing the island’s official name in the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System, or GNIS.

“We’re talking about the official name of the Island of Hawai‘i,” said board member Arthur Buto, adding that all federal agencies are required to use the name listed in the GNIS database for official purposes. “Nothing radical, but again, it affects all federal agencies when they make a map, when they write their documents, when they create signage or create brochures. They have to use that official name that’s in the database.”

The official name of the island in the federal database has been Island of Hawai‘i since 2000. There are also several variants listed, including Hawai‘i Island; Hawaii Island, Hawaii and Hawai‘i.

Even if an official name change were to be approved, those other names used readily by organizations, community groups, businesses and even everyday people would not be impacted. Only the way the island is referred to in all official government documents.


The conversation that came up in March was that the state’s other islands are known by their island name — O‘ahu, Moloka‘i, Lāna‘i, Maui, Kaua‘i, Kaho‘olawe, Ni‘ihau — but the Big Island is officially Island of Hawai‘i.

“We can only assume that is to help with any confusion that folks might have,” said board member Lilliane Makaila, specifically when it comes to the name of the state vs. the island.

A board member, who was not present at last week’s meeting, asked if the topic could be placed on this month’s agenda so members could discuss the naming inconsistency and if the official name of the island should be changed.

“Who’s brilliant idea was this????” asked someone on an April 1 Facebook post sharing a story by Honolulu media outlet KHON2 about the topic being on the board’s April agenda.

Screenshot of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System website.

Another commenter said it’s “so maha‘oi,” a Hawaiian word meaning impertinent, impudent, presumptuous or brazen, for the board to think it can just rename the island: “Whoever had the brilliant idea is so culturally out of line.”


People who called or emailed the board about the topic were surprised it was on the agenda, and the original KHON2 story posted the night of March 31 didn’t have much more information to go on. The story was later updated with additional information and comments.

Those who reached out to the board wanted to know more and were upset that there was only a short amount of time to provide comment and feedback.

Others on social media and who testified during last week’s meeting thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke after seeing the original KHON2 story, only realizing the morning of the meeting that it was not.

Buto tried to make clear when returning the more than a dozen phone calls the board received about the topic that there is no rush to make a decision and what is being considered is perhaps not as sensational as people thought.

“I don’t fault KHON at all because there was so little information in the agenda,” Buto said, adding he didn’t receive any information about the name change discussion to put in the April meeting agenda or materials prior to them being posted on the board’s website. “Because it was so vague, so cryptic, I can understand that there would be concern and alarm about it.”


Makaila said the board is not comfortable making any type of decision without having adequate time to consult the public and gather input.

“We do want to hear from the public,” Buto said. “So I’m happy so many people are tuning in, and I think it’s an opportunity for us as a board to really make more people aware about the work that we do.”

The board was created in 1974 by the Hawai‘i Legislature to assure uniformity in the use and spelling of the names of geographic features in the state, such as bays, mountains and even island names.

It not only seeks input from the public as part of its deliberations, it also solicits and considers advice and recommendations from county officials and, as appropriate, other knowledgeable people.

Several of those who commented during the meeting and others on social media were of the mindset that no change is needed. Some noted that many references to the island called it Island of Hawai‘i even before 2000.

Makaila said if there was a change made to the island’s official name her preference would be its origin name of just Hawai‘i or Hawai‘i Island. Others agreed with Hawai’i Island or suggested an even older, more traditional moniker of Moku o Keawe, or Island of Keawe, which refers to Keawe‘īkekahiali‘iokamoku, a 17th century chief who ruled the island.

“That island is Hawai‘i or Moku o Keawe, period,” said one testifier. “Those are the only two names that you should be considering unless your intention is to once again cause the change of our history or to erase it.”

Some also said the board, a state agency, has no authority to change the name of something that belonged to the Hawaiian Kingdom. Others wanted to make sure the board wasn’t trying to change Hawaiian history or culture.

“I do not believe you folks have the authority as ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i [Hawaiian language] is our national language, so I’m very, very particular to ensuring, just like other places of the world, that our language is put first and it’s not put on the back burner to make it easier for people to understand,” said another testifier. “Whatever it may be, I just want to make sure that my island will remain the same and none of its history will be erased through any change of anything.”

Some also said the board needs to do more research on all of the different names the island has been called from Kingdom days through present to not only help the community relearn those names but to help inform a decision collectively if a change is to be made.

Others understood where the conversation was coming from and said if a change is needed in an official capacity to standardize naming conventions, that seems rational. One testifier likened it to a person’s legal or English name.

“I would say, like a few others have said, our name is Hawai‘i,” one testifier said. “If you get confused or get lost, that’s not my problem. So I would not object at all to being like the other islands and just going by the name Hawai’i with an okina in it.”

The board voted to continue the discussion at its next meeting, scheduled for May 7.

Board member Marques Marzan said the conversation will likely continue for several meetings until the board gets to a point where any action on the topic can be taken.

“Thank you again for all the mana‘o you’ve shared,” said Marzan, using the Hawaiian word for thoughts, ideas, opinions and suggestions. He added the board takes its kuleana, or responsibility, seriously. “We really hope that we can work more closely with all of you to come to a decision that everyone is comfortable within the best possible way.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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