story by Genevive Bjorn
photo by Shuzo Uemoto
Ni‘ihau is an island of prayer. The Hawaiians who live there pray for rain, pray for a calm ocean and pray for shells. Generations of Ni‘ihau women have kept their hands busy by stringing tiny shells. The shells are hand-plucked from the sand after storms and are so small that it can take fifteen to twenty years to gather enough shells for one lei and longer than six months to string it. The Ni‘ihau shell lei has become a symbol of this unique island’s heritage, but the symbol, like the heritage, is slowly vanishing.
Ilei Beniamina is among the first generation of lei stringers to share the craft with the outside world. After World War II, shell lei became popular items to buy; before then, they were given as gifts and usually only to royalty. Today Ilei, her children and her grandchildren are part of a dwindling number of Ni‘ihauans still practicing the art; they now live on Kaua‘i and return to Ni‘ihau every year. “I used to worry more,” Ilei says, “but now the youngest generation is interested.” Teaching them about stringing, she says, is about something much deeper than passing on techniques. “We teach our culture through the lei; they are the history books of our heritage.” Just by looking at a Ni‘ihau shell necklace, Ilei can tell who strung it and guess what was happening in the ocean by the colors and shapes of the shells.
While the tradition has found a few younger practitioners, “The more serious problem we face now is finding the shells,” explains Ilei. “The ocean levels are rising; some of the reefs that used to be visible are deep underwater. The ocean also has more mercury in it. More than anything, pollution is threatening our shell beds … and our way of life.” Mercury causes the shells to lose their rich earth tones, become brittle and break. The other Hawaiian islands once had shell beds like those on Ni‘ihau, but pollution from plantations and industry killed them. (Pearl Harbor on O‘ahu gets its name from once-glorious shells now gone.)
Each spring, the women of Ni‘ihau visit Maui with their precious lei and join other Hawaiian artists at the Celebration of the Arts Festival at the Ritz-Carlton in Kapalua. March 2008 marks their fifteenth visit. But with each season, fewer of the older generation make it to the festival, instead remaining on their island. “What makes Ni‘ihau different is the agreement with the Robinson family to protect the Kanaka Maoli [Native Hawaiians] in perpetuity,” Ilei says, her eyes filling with tears. “Because we cannot sell our land, we are a unique window into Hawaiian culture.” For as long as that window remains open, we can encounter this ancient tradition and meet the women who keep it alive. HH
The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua