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The whole island is owned by the Robinson family. They bought it from the Kingdom of Hawaii for $10,000. It was said that the buyer, Elizabeth Sinclair (later Sinclair-Robinson), liked the island better than other places such as Waikiki, Pearl Harbor, and the island of Lanai. There is a small US Navy base where a handful of Navy people work.
The island has a few hundred permanent inhabitants. Almost all of them are native Hawaiians. They support themselves largely with small family farms. Many work for the ranch owned by the Robinsons. The native Hawaiians lead a rural, low-tech life. They speak the Hawaiian language and keep traditions alive. This is because Ms. Sinclair promised to help preserve Hawaiian culture and tradition when she bought the island. Niihau is the only one of the Hawaiian islands where the Hawaiian language is the main language.
Niihau is also known as the "Forbidden Island". This is due to the fact that until recently, the island was off-limits to all but family members, US Navy personnel, government officials and expressly invited guests. Now, tourists can go on one of a limited number of supervised tours or hunting safaris.
On the beaches of the island are found shells which are the only shells to be classified as gems. Niihau shells and the jewelry made from them are very popular. Many, especially those with darker and richer color, are collectors items. The sale of shells and shell jewelry brings extra money for the local people.