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The Significance of Ni’ihau Pupu Shells in Crafting Authentic Leis

Jun 10, 2022 0 comments

Introduction

    Modern-day Hawaiian leis are thought of as being made of flowers and are then given to arriving or leaving guests as a symbol of gratitude. Out-of-state citizens only have the general idea of what a lei is – a colorful flowery necklace. Still, reality has proven the vast variety this may have. Leis can be described as that of the Ilima lei of Oahu or Lokelani lei of Maui. A flower is a mere definition of what it can also be made of – leaves, orchids, seeds, feathers, or even selected animal remains such as hair, bones, and teeth. 

Blue and gold colored rosette garland lei for PNP SPD
Blue and gold rosette garland delivered to PNP Southern Police District

    With the wide selection of what a lei can be depicted as there remains a certain kind that is exclusively found on the island of Ni’ihau. It compromises a delicate material that is carefully sourced and crafted. The pupu shell is a commonality on the shores of this island and is illustrated as gem-like shells that can be small as the head of a pin. It is recognized as a prized possession among local Hawaiians. What makes the Pupu shell of Ni’ihau so special is not only due to its long-lasting pearly white color, but the lengthy amount of time it takes to create even one whole lei. The small population of Ni’ihau has the Pupu lei stuck in their time and tradition but its ancestral origins and beauty do not seem to fade.

The Origin of the Pupu Shell and Ni’ihau Island

     Being the smallest island among the seven in Hawaii, Ni’ihau is home to folks of pure native Hawaiian descent. It is currently home to a population under 200 and is privately owned by the Robinson family. Because of its meticulous preservation, the history of the past is similar to the present lived today. Such is the continuous tradition of turning the island’s traditional lei material into prized ornaments.

    Searching for pupu shells is not only exclusive to Ni’ihau but can also be found on the other Hawaiian Islands or elsewhere in the Pacific. Nevertheless, researchers have observed the unique evolution of the pupu shells from Ni’ihau. Its natural color can withstand over time and the shells are less susceptible to damage and deterioration than that of the shells in other locations. The little to no human activity may be the reason for the aforementioned purity of the island. In addition, no other water form, such as rivers, could overflow damage to the delicate shells laid on the coral beds.  

    A respected lecturer and staunch supporter of authentic Ni‘ihau shell craft, Pamela Ka‘ilikini-Dow, affirms the consequences of fair practices and good treatment of the island. She said that with Niihau, being home to only 200 residents, these are the only folks responsible and available to interact with the environment. Adding to that, if this continues, the beautiful shells on the shoreline will surely be continually present in the future.

Kinds of Pupu Shells

           There are about three variants that the pupu shells of Ni’ihau can be classified as. These are the momi, laiki, and kahelani shells. They come in different colors and sizes can range from small to smallest.

Momi (Euplica Varians)

From brilliant white to dark brown, this variant can be small as 3/8 inches in length and has an oil-like sheen. Usually, it is oval and can reach up to 20 varieties.

Laiki (Mitrella Margarita)

Being 3/16 inches in length, these are tiny shells that can be compared to lustrous grains of rice. Pure white and ivory to yellowish beige are the colors this can come in while some may have brown saturations. Leis made from laiki shells is what Hawaiian brides wear traditionally.

Kahelelani (Leptothyra Verruca)

This variant of pupu shell is the tiniest of them all. It is also the most difficult to string and leis made of Kahelelani can cost up to three times the price of a similar lei. Kahelehani is usually turban in shape and maybe white with red or brown striations to shades of tans, browns, and deep burgundy. Its rarest color is hot pink. 

White, orange and orange garland delivered to Caloocan City
Caloocan City's beautiful green and orange rosette garland

Crafting Process

    On paper, it can take up to years just to create one complete and authentic Ni’ihau shell lei. Patience and practice are particularly key as what Ni’ihau shell artisans have been doing for years. In the meticulous process, the delicate Pupu shells are stringed into leis and necklaces, forming works of art that are intended for wear. Traditionally, it is women who partake in this crafting process.

    Using the available shells at hand, the Ni’ihau shell artisan decides on a pattern to be followed. The selected kinds of pupu shells can either be the momi (euplica varians), laiki (mitrella margarita), and kahelelani (leptothyra verruca) variant.  Because of the traditional patterns handed down from ancestral natives, there are many choices and room for creativity. These shells and traditional patterns make each lei different from others that have already been made. 

    Next, the shells are cleansed of the sand on them. A fine-pointed awl will then be pierced by the lei maker; patience and skill are required at this step. In every three shells, one may break so it must be assured that the shells available are enough to complete the artisan’s intended pattern. The shells are afterward to be threaded together scrupulously. Needles are not to be used, and instead, nylon is. To stiffen the lei, beeswax or fast-drying cement is to be applied.

    The final product can come at a variety of lengths. Usually, 60 to 75 inches long is the measurement of a classic single-strung white momi lei. Cowrie shells are what ties the ends of the lei together, traditionally. But for shorter necklaces, a small button-shaped shell, such as a sundial or a punka, creates the closure of each strand.

Law in Accordance to Labeling Authentic Ni’ihau Lei

    Kaua‘i resident, Pam Ka‘ilikini Dow, took precautionary measures in a fight to promote the identification of Authentic Ni’ihau Leis. She proposed a law stating any lei that is not at least 80 percent pure cannot be labeled as “Ni’ihau.” With her objective of the bill to protect, preserve, and educate, she wants to prevent the pre-Western ways of lei making that has become prevalent in recent years. Also, it is to respect the traditions Ni’ihau lei-making process, which was possibly preserved thanks to the Robinson family.

    And in the year 2004, H.B. No. 2569 was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives declaring the prohibition of any sale of “seashell items” with a description or label of the word “Ni’ihau” or “Niihau” unless 100% of the shells are sourced from the island of Ni’ihau and the item is entirely within the state of Hawaii.


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