Making a Ni‘ihau Shell Lei

A Day in the Life of a Ni‘ihau Shell Lei Artisan

Imagine waking up before dawn in the quiet village of Puʻuwai on the island of Niʻihau to prepare for a long day at a deserted beach gathering shells to make a lei. As is your custom, the first thing you do is say a prayer to God thanking Him for caring for you and your family throughout the night and asking Him to guide you through the day ahead. Mahalo i ke Akua.

Next it’s time to prepare your backpack and your lunch. You must remember to include some of the ziplock bags you purchased the last time you were on Kauaʻi as well as bottles of various sizes. For lunch, today you decide to take fried Spam and rice along with the usual soda and water for drinking. It’s going to be a long, hot day.

Walking, Horseback or Bicycle…

Your only choices of transportation on the island are walking, going by horseback, or—as you will be doing today—riding your bike. A bicycle pump and tire-patching kit are essential in case you run over a kiawe thorn along the way and get a flat tire.

A Handful of Secluded, White Sand Shell Beaches

As dawn approaches, you step outside and check the weather to see if it looks like it will be a good day for picking shells. You already know that winter is generally a good time of the year for finding the particular ones you are looking for because the large surf churns up the sand and makes the shells easier to find. You also know that you have to decide which beach to go to. You have a lot of choices, including Taununui, Pahuhau, Waiapalō, Tāhiʻo, ‘ Ōhi‘a, Puketua, or maybe Putaiti.

Today you decide to go to Waiapalō, and you know it will take you at least half an hour to get there on your bicycle, so you set out just before sunrise. That way, by the time the sun is up, you can begin work and spend the entire day picking shells. Today you especially want to find shells called momi uliuli ʻeleʻele (a dark-blue momi shell) to finish a special lei that was commissioned by a visitor you met at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo last year, but these shells are rare and difficult to find, especially in recent years.

Sometimes you gather every shell you can find and then take them home to sort by kind, color, and size, but today you will be a little more selective and especially be on the lookout for the kinds of shells you need to finish the special lei you are working on. You can still do the final sorting at home tomorrow.

It turns out to be a beautiful day with a light breeze to help keep you cool and aquamarine waves breaking gently on the shore. A Hawaiian monk seal, which has come up on the beach to rest, keeps you company along with long-legged ‘ūlili birds that run along the shoreline.

The hours pass and the sun creeps slowly across the sky, but you are so preoccupied with your work that you hardly notice that it’s gotten late and you’ve been picking shells mai ka ‘ō‘ili ʻana mai a ka lā ma Kumukahi a hiki i ka lā welo i Lehua (from the first appearance of the sun at Kumukahi on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi until the setting sun at Lehua off the north shore of Niʻihau).

A Day of Shell Picking Produces Less Than Half a Dozen of the Prized Shells Desired…

Now that it’s time to leave, you are disappointed that you have been able to find less than half a dozen momi uliuli ʻeleʻele. Yet you have found many of the other shells that you need to continue work on the special lei, so you pack up all of your shells and materials into your backpack and hop back onto your bicycle to head home.

After an ʻono dinner of flour poi and fresh moi that was caught by throwing net at Puʻuwai beach near your home, you hold ʻohana with your family before going to bed, reading from the Bible, singing church songs, and thanking God once again for caring for you and your family throughout the day. ‘Āmene, ‘āmene, ‘āmene.

With any number of individual variations, this has been a more-or-less typical day for Niʻihau shell lei artisans whenever they go to collect the shells that are needed to make a shell lei. Yet this is only the first step in the time-consuming and painstaking process required to produce the beautiful shell lei which has come to represent the unique culture of the Forbidden Island of Niʻihau throughout the world.

Watch the three videos below of Awapuhi Kahale as she uses the Ni‘ihau dialect to describe the process of making a shell lei. Awapuhi has lived most of her life on Ni‘ihau and is not only a fluent speaker of the dialect but also an experienced master artisan of the fine folk art of making Ni‘ihau shell lei.