Ni'ihau island: Hawaii's forbidden island can still offer beauty to tourists

In 1952, the Hawaiian island of Ni'ihau closed its already tentative border, locking down in quarantine to prevent a polio epidemic from reaching its pristine shores, and earning it the portentous nickname of "The Forbidden Island".

Almost 70 years later, as another virus rampages around the globe, the little-known westernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago retains its mystique, largely devoid of Western influences and embracing its native Hawaiian dialect and culture.

The story of Ni'ihau's isolation began back in 1864, when King Kamehameha V sold the desolate, arid island to New Zealander Elizabeth Sinclair for $10,000 in gold, his one request being that the family protect the island and its inhabitants from outside influences.

Today, Sinclair descendants and brothers Keith and Bruce Robinson continue to honour that promise, allowing the population of native Ni'ihauns – which, according to Charles Baker of the Ni'ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation, is currently only around 40 individuals, from a peak of 200 - to lead a simple, traditional life with very few trappings of modernity.

Tourism to the island is by Robinson family invitation only, though heli-excursions that land on a Ni'ihau beach where rare monk seals laze are available.

With few economic prospects and limited infrastructure, life on Ni'ihau is challenging: there are no paved roads, no cars, no stores, no indoor plumbing and no doctor. Many islanders have moved to neighbouring Kaua'i for medical reasons, education or employment prospects; and much of the skeleton population remaining is elderly.

But from this tough and rustic lifestyle, a beautiful art form has flourished – the creation of Ni'iahu shell leis, made from delicate, pearl-like shells found only on the shores of the Forbidden Island. While shell leis are found throughout the Hawaiian islands, the unsurpassed beauty of Ni'ihau shells and the intricacy of design have elevated Pupu 'O Ni'ihau into a collectable, insurable art form, selling for up to $US35,000 ($A54,000) with certificates of authenticity, and as prized as gemstones in museums and private collections around the world.

"There are a lot of factors that go into their value," passionate collector Charles Baker explains. "There are three basic shells that go into the Ni'ihau lei: the momi, a short shell that comes in about five different colours; the laiki (shells resembling rice); and the kahelelani, which is the most valuable of the three.

"Collecting them is very seasonal," Baker continues. "The winter surf brings up the shells and washes them into the beaches. It's very important to collect shells as soon as possible for them to retain their lustre – if they stay in sand they lose their lustre, it's a really important aspect."

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Once collected, the Ni'ihau pickers then sell or barter the shells to relatives on other Hawaiian islands, artisans who hand-drill, weave and thread them into distinctive, unique treasures that can take up to a year to create.

Born and raised in Oahu, master lei-maker Lokahi Orian of Ha`aheo Hawaiian learnt the art of shell jewellery at the age of 17 from extended family members hailing from Ni'ihau.

"My teacher was one of my uncles, Kele Kanahele, who now lives on the Big Island in Hilo and does workshops as part of the Merrie Monarch [a festival celebrating traditional Hawaiian arts and traditions]" Lokahi, who runs jewellery-making classes as part of Four Seasons Resort Oahu's #FSWayfinders program, says.

"For me personally, Ni'ihau shell lei-making is not only an art, but it's also a crucial part of our history and culture as well. This art form is not a modern phenomenon, it's been around for centuries."

While Captain James Cook may have been one of the earliest European collectors of Ni'ihau shell leis, the art form was popularised in the 19th century when the fashionable Queen Kapi'olani was photographed during Queen Victoria's Jubilee celebrations in London wearing a long strand of shells.

"There's nothing else that you can buy that is more Hawaiian than a Ni'ihau shell lei, nothing else comes close," Charles Baker says. "The Ni'ihauns are a pure Hawaiian culture - it's the only place in America where they teach a language other than English as the first language, they aren't taught English until the 7th or 8th grade."

And while the population of Ni'ihau continues to decline, it's the island's seclusion that has been the culture's saving grace.

"I do believe that being in isolation all those years has kept the art form pure," Lohaki Orian says. "So much of the history and culture of other Hawaiian islands has been changed or forgotten during Westernisation, whereas Ni'hau has it's own Hawaiian dialect as well as the shell jewellery.

"Being the Forbidden Island for all those years is why the tradition was preserved."

Trip Notes

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For more information on Ni'ihau and a list of recommended retailers of the shell jewellery, visit the Ni'ihau Cultural Heritage Foundation website, www.niihauheritage.org 

Lokahi Orian's jewellery-making workshops form part of Four Seasons Resort Oahu's #FSWayfinder program, which will continue once the hotel reopens. In the meantime, the hotel is facilitating COCONUT WIRE weekly workshops with master craftspeople, celebrating traditional Hawaiian food and culture. See fourseasons.com/oahu

​Julie Miller travelled as a guest of Hawaii Tourism.

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