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Hawaii Declares ‘Shaka’ Its Official State Hand Gesture

Use of the sign symbolizing aloha and cultural pride has the support of many Hawaii residents.

By Grace Olson  |  June 12, 2024

Flash a closed hand with the thumb and pinkie sticking out, and every Hawaii resident knows what it means.

Used by everyone from kids to elders, the “shaka” represents aloha spirit, love and local pride. And now, following the passage of a bill during the 2024 Hawaii legislative session, it’s poised to become the state’s official hand gesture, making Hawaii the first state in the U.S. to have an official hand sign.

The bill passed unanimously in both chambers, and Hawaii Gov. Josh Green is expected to sign it into law before the end of June.

“It’s about really celebrating what is uniquely Hawaiian with the rest of the world.”

—Hawaii Sen. Glenn Wakai

Filmmaker Steve Sue, who’s based in Honolulu and who created a documentary about the shaka, says the most likely origin story comes from a legend about a railroad security guard who lost his three middle fingers in an accident. Kids who were hopping trains flashed each other the shaka to mimic the guard’s hand and warn each other he was coming.

While making his film, “Shaka, A Story of Aloha,” Sue says he thought Hawaii should officially take ownership of the shaka. He proposed the idea to Sen. Glenn Wakai and authored a bill.

“As I researched the value of the shaka as this secret to paradise, it’s certainly an economic driver for our state because there are so many businesses that use it as a symbol of the state,” Sue says. “If you put the word Hawaii, aloha or a shaka on any product, it’s pretty instantly worth more money, so we felt it was really important to preserve this for our economy here.”

Wakai says he was happy to back the bill and honor Hawaiian traditions.

“I think in Hawaii we take so much for granted,” he says. “Everything from our natural beauty to some of the products that we produce, and we didn’t want to see another state take what is uniquely Hawaiian.”

Wakai says Hawaiians want to spread the symbolism of the gesture with others around the world, adding that use of the shaka has the support of many native Hawaiians, as it gives more visibility to their heritage and culture.

“Shaka really is about happiness and conveying goodness and good intentions when you give it to someone or you receive it from someone,” Wakai says. “Hawaiians love the fact that it is something that Hawaii can be proud of. Anybody who lives in Hawaii understands the goodness embodied in this hand gesture.”

Feel-Good Bill

House Minority Leader Lauren Matsumoto says that passing feel-good legislation like the shaka bill shows that politics can be positive and uplifting.

“I’ve heard a few people going, ‘Why is the Legislature focusing on passing a bill about the shaka?’ not realizing that there are so many other bills that we’re working on as well,” she says. “But in a time where there’s so much negativity in politics, I think that this bill brings something everybody could get behind, because it’s such an ingrained part of our culture.”

Wakai echoes Matsumoto’s sentiments.

“I’ll be the first to admit, we’re not changing the course of Hawaii history with this. But it’s about really celebrating what is uniquely Hawaiian with the rest of the world.”

Grace Olson is an intern in NCSL’s Communications Division.

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