A Brief History of the Shaka sign

The shaka sign, made with the thumb and pinkie up, and the three middle fingers curled into a fist, then lightly shaken, is ubiquitous in Hawaii. Locals use it as a sign of solidarity and friendship. It can be used to say “howzit? (how’s it going?)” or “thanks” or “hello” or “hang loose.” Most associate it with Hawai’i but some believe it’s roots began in California.

Here in Hawai’i, when attempting to seek the origins of the shaka, no one can definitively say where it came from. There are a few different origin stories that revolve around a “man” missing his three middle fingers. Some believe it began with a surfer who lost his three middle fingers to a shark. Another story is that a young man lost his fingers while throwing dynamite into the ocean. Still another variation is that a man in the 1960’s lost his fingers in an industrial accident and was known by all his neighbors, including the mayor. When the mayor was running for re-election, he adopted the man’s missing-digit wave while he campaigned.

Finally, one story that seems to be catching steam as the definitive truth involves a man named Hamana Kalili. Kalili lost three fingers to a sugar cane feeder. Once he lost his fingers, he could no longer work in the mill so he became a security guard. Part of his duties included overseeing the train that carried away the sugar cane. When kids would try to sneak onto the train, they would give the “all clear” sign to their friends by mocking Kalili’s fingerless wave. Charming!

So, if that solves the mystery of how the shaka came into existence, the next question is, where does the name “shaka” come from? In the 1960’s, local TV personality David “Lippy” Espinda ended his TV car commercials with “shaka, brah!” Most believe this is the origin of the name. But, even this is in dispute.

Remember that mayor that purportedly co-opted the sign from this fingerless neighbor? Well his name was Frank Fasi (1920-2010) and he credited the late boxing promoter Bill Pacheco for flashing the sign and saying “shaka brother.” Others believe the word “shaka” is derived from the name of a Buddha, Shakyamuni, who pressed his hands together in the shapes of the shaka. Another belief is that shaka is an amalgamation of “shark eye,” a compliment given to friends and relatives. The true origin of the name “shaka” may never be known.

No matter where the shaka sign came from and how it was named, shakas are a part of every day life here in Hawai’i. If someone flashes you a shaka, don’t hesitate to send one right back!

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