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A Rare Glimpse into Life on Niihau, Hawaii’s Forbidden Island

This story was 12 years in the making and traces the last leg of my journey from newcomer in Hawaii, here for the sunshine, to insider with a deep and abiding love for the islands and its people. Hana Hou!, the¬†inflight magazine of Hawaiian Airlines,¬†published another short story I wrote on the same theme entitled “Strands of History” in the April/May 2008 issue.

First Glimpse

I first came to appreciate the intricate detail and amazing beauty of shell leis from Niihau when I attended graduate school at the University of Hawaii. I took a course about the history of the Pacific Islands. One day a woman from Niihau brought several leis, some that looped down to her waist, and explained that the leis tell the history of her people. I was astonished by the leis’ beauty, the tiny colorful shells and her thick fingers; by how much history I never learned on the Mainland, despite being well-educated.

Niihau is off-limits to visitors. Even though my curiosity was piqued that day in school, I was never able to go, meet the Hawaiians who call it home or see the reefs that produce the shells. Instead, I read a few books and hoped one day to earn enough money after graduating to buy a lei of my own and in a small way integrate their history with mine.

Maui Meeting

Years later I moved to Maui. Engaged and in the thick of wedding planning, my dear friends urged me to attend a Hawaiian arts festival with them for a much-needed break. So my fiance and I ditched our wedding planner for a weekend and joined the fun.

The Hawaiian women from Niihau were the center of the festival, literally with tables covered with shells spreading in every direction in the courtyard. I ponied up $60 to make my own pair of shell earrings, the first Niihau shell jewelry I would ever wear, guided in the making by the experienced hands of tutu Ilei. An hour later after painstaking work, I proudly produced a pair of simple earrings made of white momi shells that I promptly dangled in my ears and wore the rest of the weekend.

During the session, my pent up curiosity about the island and its inhabitants spilled out alongside the shells. Ilei told me a few things, explaining patiently the basics of life there — what they eat, how they live, why they gather shells. The picture she painted was of a simple life deeply connected to the land, the ocean and the ancestors.

Money, canned food and wooden houses are involved, but no cars, utility wires or TV. They use horses for transport, but don’t like beer because it smells like horse urine. They brew an especially strong liquor from taro, evidenced by bloodshot eyes. The children speak Hawaiian first, and only a few learn English later. Many straddle the Kaulakahi channel and have lives on both Niihau and the western side of Kauai.

Watch and Learn

For the rest of the weekend, I hovered around their display tables like a bee at a picnic. All of my senses were engaged by these women: the sound of the Hawaiian language spoken fluently, punctuated with outbursts of belly laughter; the sweet smell of flowers and coconut oil in thick black hair; the smooth feel of tiny shells in my palm; the sight of earthy colored shells arranged in spiral and spotted patterns. I soaked it all in, letting my imagination and curiosity off leash.

While pacing a trail in the grass around their tables, I observed the women carefully. As Hawaiians from other islands came to see them over the course of the weekend, I finally understood the meaning of the term “haole” used to describe white people, often in a derogatory way. When these women greet each other or other Hawaiian people, they press foreheads together and exchange breath. In other words, their spirits meet.

I imagined the first Christian missionaries showing up in Hawaii and wanting to shake hands. No breath, no embrace. How strange that must have been for the native Hawaiians! So they called the missionaries “haole”, which literally means lack of breath. Even now when local people in Hawaii meet, they hug in a friendly manner, but the intimacy of Hawaiian breath exchange is not practiced.

While observing this simple and ancient cultural greeting in action over and over, my hands kept finding their way to one particular lei. It was strikingly modern with a design very unlike all the others. Three thick, rope-like strands — each a different and solid color — formed a cascade of lengths. The shortest was a rich cocoa brown, the next a vibrant coral red, and the longest a softly glowing yellow.

This lei was the masterpiece of tutu Ilei’s daughter, Kahealani. She spent the first 15 years of her life gathering the shells and then 6 months stringing them into her own, unique design. It was a coming of age piece that marked the beginning of another generation of Niihau shell lei makers. About to get married and enter a new phase of my life, I felt a strong emotional connection to the lei.

Lei Fever

I tried on Kahealani’s lei about a dozen times. I showed my friends, my fiance, all the women from Niihau and strangers passing by. I imagined wearing it on my wedding day with my gown of the same color as the longest strand. I saw myself passing it on to a future generation. I checked my bank account balance and ran the numbers to see if there was any way to afford it. My hope of one day having a Niihau shell lei of my own was close to being realized, but still out of reach. The price was too high, unless we didn’t want food at our reception.

As the weekend was winding down and the women were packing up, I sat with Ilei under the shade of a palm tree. We talked more about life on Niihau and the struggles facing this small pocket of Hawaiian people. I came to understand how much she loves what the shells represent: her family, her history, her culture. I felt a deep gratitude for the time she spent with me, a curious but ignorant outsider. It was a rare window into another way of being on this planet.

At the very last minute, Ilei slipped me a note note with a price jotted on it. I was surprised and humbled; a discount on Kalealani’s masterpiece is something I would have never asked for. The lei was far too beautiful and valuable. But it was an amount I could afford, and I think Ilei knew that. She told me that the lei wanted to come with me, and it did.

On my wedding day, I slipped the lei around my neck. The smooth shells felt cool against my flushed skin. Years of Kahealani’s practiced calm and patience washed over me. Walking toward the beach holding my fiance’s hand, I exchanged breath with the sky around Maui, with the waves washing ashore and, ultimately with my beloved, as one Hawaiian woman’s history merged with my own.

Links to learn more about Niihau:

KHON Channel 2 special that aired June 25, 2009

Monk seals thrive on Niihau

Music by the Makaha Sons of Niihau

Niihauans advise State on Native Hawaiian resource management practices