The "Flowers" of Niihau
From tiny shells that wash ashore on this forbidden island come priceless treasures.
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Photography by Cecilia Fernández Romero, Nina Lee, Jason Moore, Shuzo Uemoto/Honolulu Academy of Arts
The lei that Kalei Aloha wears around her neck is worth thousands of dollars. It's a lei that took her years to make-a waist-length bounty of white, brown, pink and gold pupu that she takes with her wherever she goes. Someday, it will be passed on to one of her seven children, just as she was given lei by her mother and by her auntie on her wedding day.
Born and raised on Ni'ihau, Aloha started learning the art of lei pupu at a very young age. She would go with her family to the windswept beaches to “pick pupu,” lying on her stomach for hours in the hot sun. She quickly learned how to spot the delicate types of shells in the sand: the oval-shaped momi 'o ke kai, or pearl of the sea, sometimes pure white, sometimes almost black. The prized kahelelani-named after an ancient chief of Ni'ihau-tiny turban shells less than five millimeters across, with colors ranging from soft pink to deep brown. The laiki, like lustrous grains of rice, used to make the traditional wedding lei of Ni'ihau women, sometimes with strands reaching to their knees.
The lei are family heirlooms, so valuable they are even used among the island's inhabitants as collateral for major purchases.
“Kahelelani are the only shells in the world that gemologists will grade and use for insurance purposes,” says K-La'n Curley-Rohde, manager of Maui Hands gallery in Pa'ia, which carries Maui's largest selection of Ni'ihau shell lei. Prices there start at $235 for a single-strand lei momi, and go up to $15,000 for an elaborate, five-strand lei roselani, composed of thousands of shells that took three years to collect.
“When we buy, we look for how the lei is strung, if the shells are strung evenly, if there is a nice balance to it,” says Curley-Rohde. “Color is very important, especially with the kahelelani.” Gallery owner Panna Speas is meticulous about the quality of the collection, buying only genuine Ni'ihau shell lei-a product that is becoming increasingly rare.
Ni'ihau is a private island with a population of 160, mostly of pure Native Hawaiian descent. The seventy-two-square-mile island located off the southwestern tip of Kaua'i is part of Kaua'i County but has been privately owned since 1864, first by the Sinclair and now by the Robinson family. The family's cattle ranch once employed many Ni'ihau men, but today, with most of its operations ceased, residents are increasingly dependent on federal welfare and selling the precious lei for their livelihood.
As residents get older, the population is slowly dwindling. With no cars or electricity, it's a way of life that seems too sedate for many of the younger generation. Paired with the migration of younger residents is a decreasing quantity of pupu washing up on the beaches, the result of changing ocean conditions.
Although the tiny shells can also be found on the islands of Kaua'i, Moloka'i and Lana'i, they have always been the most abundant and of the finest quality on Ni'ihau. The island has no rivers running into the ocean, carrying pollution or debris, and the surrounding coral beds remain unspoiled and untouched by outside influences, allowing the pupu to develop their prized shine and delicacy.
Pollution can not only roughen the shells, but endanger the health of their miniscule inhabitants, causing a gradual decline in the number of shells. The resulting scarcity of authentic lei is driving prices upward, even as awareness of the art form rises.
Betty Lou Kam, vice president of the Bishop Museum's Cultural Resources division, says she sees plenty of interest from the public about the Ni'ihau pupu. The museum has hosted events where people can bring in their lei to determine their authenticity.
“When you look at a Ni'ihau shell, it's so small,” Kam says, “but when you see them strung all together, they are tremendously beautiful, like stars in the sky. There's a little bit of magic to them.”
She describes photographs taken in the 1800s of Queen Emma and Queen Kapi'olani wearing lei pupu 'o Ni'ihau-“strands and strands, just spilling down. These shells may be found in the ocean, found in the sand, but they are worn by ali'i [royalty].”
The museum's collection is mostly kept in storage, but is pulled out on occasion-padded trays of lei pupu 'o Ni'ihau of all colors and styles, some pristine, some in need of repair, some simply bags of shells and string; but all with that unmistakable luster. For collections manager Maile Drake, the lei are not only beautiful but represent “a whole lot of work.” “You can imagine the hours and hours of collecting, sorting, stringing-you can see the patience there,” she says.