We have all likely heard of flower leis in Hawaii and the rest of Polynesia. These sweet-smelling treats are a well-known perk to arriving there.
Leis came with the Polynesians as they moved eastward across the Pacific Islands before arriving in Hawaii. They are meant to symbolize welcome, protection, and mercy–the attributes of Hilaka, the volcano god Pele’s younger sister. The beautifully flowered necklaces are almost a symbol of Polynesia now.
Far less well known than the fragrant flower leis are the exquisite feather leis.
The Bishop Museum has a pretty broad range of these feather lei and capes that once belonged to various members of the Hawaiian royal family. Feather work was originally only for royalty due to the difficulty of getting the bright red, yellow and green feathers traditionally used. Villages had designated bird catchers whose sole occupation was to catch them and get the feathers.
One guy in the village had a full time job smearing sticky sap on tree branches frequented by the birds. He would then pluck a few feathers off the birds, clean their feet and let them go so the feathers could grow back–and he could catch them again. And again. And again.
This was a job for a patient person.
The now extinct O’o bird had only six collectible yellow feathers on him. He was an all-black bird with only three bright yellow feathers on each wing. Each time he was caught only yielded six small feathers.
The various islands of Hawaii had slightly different-sized versions of this highly sought after bird, but they all grew only six yellow feathers each.
The red came from the I’wi which was red almost all over, but only had a handful of feathers removed before being released for another round of growth.
Not surprisingly it takes quite a while to create anything at this rate.
King Kamehamea I’s feather cape took over two generations to make from these small red and gold feathers. It took so long to make that the people who started it had no idea who would get it or why they should be making it.
The Leis Today
Aunty Mary Lou’s Na Lima Mili is really the only shop who does any featherwork in Hawaii now–but even she doesn’t really do it. Her shop on Kapahulu Blvd. in Honolulu sells some of her students’ work but her main focus is teaching the art to the next generation. It is in her genes, I guess, as there are four generations of her family in the shop. One of them presides over the room from the painting on the wall while the living ones teach. A little gruff at first, Mary Lou’s daughter, Aunty Paulette, and her own daughters teach the art at workshops, festivals and other venues all over Hawaii.
More concerned with teaching than selling, Paulette just laughed when I asked her if she would consider making a cape for me. Which was a fair reaction, really, as the last one her mother made (which is in the shop and is exquisite) took 13 years to make.
If you want to learn this beautiful royal art form, Aunty Paulette is the one to go to, and part of this rich Hawaiian culture will become a part of you too. And these leis won’t wilt like the flower ones do.
Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau, 762 Kapahulu Ave, Honolulu HI; +1 808 732-0865.
Photos: Taylor Kennedy