As the nineteenth century progressed, Polynesian culture in Hawaii was shaken first by indigenous reform and then by the strong external challenges of Christian evangelism, Western economic expansion, Asian immigration, and American political domination. By the early twentieth century, Polynesian self-respect had ebbed; the traditions of this once-proud people were being forgotten. At the Gateways of the Day and its sequel, The Bright Islands, were commissioned in an attempt to preserve aspects of traditional Hawaiian culture.
As a nationalistic Irishman, Colum sympathized with the islanders, whose culture, he felt, was threatened in ways similar to that of Ireland's. His collection of skillfully narrated stories reflects deep appreciation for the traditional literature, myths, and folktales of the islands.