Talk With Your Hands: The Shaka

In Hawai‘i, the most popular nonverbal gesture is the “Shaka”, which involves making a fist, extending your thumb and pinky finger and waving your hand from side to side. Often identified with early surf culture, the shaka symbol’s popularity grew in the late 1960s and became as iconic to Hawai‘i as surfing in Waikiki, Duke Kahanamoku, and hula dancers in grass skirts. The shaka is sometimes referred to as a way to symbol to others to hang loose or relax.

However, the shaka symbol is much more meaningful than just a wave of hello and goodbye. The shaka is a symbol of the Aloha Spirit, which is known as the widespread friendly attitude of friendship, understanding, compassion and solidarity of Hawaiian people and Kama‘āina (locals). To show the shaka symbol to someone, you are expressing gratitude, saying thank you, or even saying “howzit” (hello).


The origin of the shaka is one that has long been debated. The most credible story is of a local Hawaiian hero named Hamana Kalili from La‘ie, Oahu, who lost three fingers on his right hand in a sugar mill accident at the old Kahuku Sugar Mill. After Kalili lost his fingers, he no longer could work in the sugar mill and became a security guard on the train that traveled between Sunset Beach and Kaaawa. One of Kalili’s jobs was to keep children from jumping on the train and riding from town to town. To get around Kalili, the children began signaling each other that the coast was clear, by waving their hands in the same two finger out gesture that Kalili would wave.

Kalili’s wave became well known through his community involvement for the Mormon Church in Lā‘ie. He was the “moi (king) of the festivities” at an annual hukilau, a large community event that involved the gathering of fish, a luau, and hula show. His signature shaka was photographed in all the historic photos of this grand event.

The term “shaka” however, was not coined until the 1960s, when local TV and movie host Lippy Espinda signed off at the end of a used car advertisement by flashing the hand gesture and said “shaka braddah.”

Since then, the shaka has since become a symbol of greeting, to show aloha, to say thank you, or to express that something is alright. It’s a reminder of the easygoing, relaxed lifestyle in Hawai‘i and the welcoming attitudes of the local people so don’t be afraid to throw a shaka or two while out in the community