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Renaming federal marine monuments to honor Pacific Island cultures

Palmyra Atoll
Erik Oberg/Island Conservation
Island Conservation
Palmyra Atoll

Before it was officially called Papahānaumokuākea, it was known as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

The name changed in February 2007 — less than a year after the islands received federal environmental and cultural protection in June 2006.

Papahānaumokuākea is a combination of two significant characters in ancient Hawaiian religion — Papahānaumoku the earth mother and her husband Wākea the sky father.

The then-called Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group selected two Native Hawaiians, Dr. Pualani Kanahele and Louis "Buzzy" Agard, to choose a name that better represented the community.

Now, a similar conversation is emerging to change the name of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument to better honor Pacific Island cultures.


The protected area spans nearly 500,000 square miles and includes Johnston Atoll and Baker Island.

"There is a group of us that are currently in conversations. So the members of the Papahānaumokuākea Native Hawaiian Cultural Working Group are part of that naming process along with others throughout Hawaiʻi," said Hōkūkahalelani Pihana, a science communication fellow on the E/V Nautilus expedition NA141 to Johnston Atoll.

"We are looking to reach out to others who are connected to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument throughout the Pacific. So we're wanting to have a collaboration amongst Polynesians and other Indigenous peoples who have a relationship with Pacific Remote Islands to contribute and be part of that conversation in the renaming efforts," Pihana told HPR.

Island nations that will likely be involved with the decision-making process include Kiribati and Guam.

Zoe Dym was a news producer at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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