Known as the Valley of the Kings, Waipiʻo was the island's ancient breadbasket and also its political and religious center, home to the highest aliʻi (ruling chiefs). According to oral histories, several thousand people lived here before Westerners arrived, and the remains of heiau (temples) can still be seen. In 1823 William Ellis, the first missionary to descend into Waipiʻo, estimated the population to be around 1300. In the 1880s Chinese immigrants began to settle in the valley's green folds, adding rice to the native taro cultivation.

In 1946 Hawaiʻi's most devastating tsunami struck the valley, traveling over a mile inland. No one perished despite the massive flooding but, once the waters receded, most people resettled 'topside' in Kukuihaele. The valley floor has been sparsely populated ever since, attracting only a few dozen nature lovers, recluses, pot farmers, hippies and kamaʻaina (people born and raised in Hawaii; literally ‘child of the land’) seeking to reclaim their history.

Still regarded as a sacred spot, a voluntarily enforced policy of isolationism continues to this day. Taro cultivation and poi production are building blocks of Hawaiian identity, and both valley residents and Native Hawaiians across the island fiercely guard Waipiʻo Valley – its residents have a long history of disagreement with the outside world. Said residents point out that their home is sacred in traditional Hawaiian culture, contains an intangible spiritual energy, holds a special place in Hawaii's history, is limited in space, and has a natural beauty that must be protected. Others above the rim say the valley’s residents simply wish to separate themselves from the outside world for reasons ranging from misanthropy to marijuana growing.