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Vol.12, No. 5
October/November 2009


The Shell Kumu 

story by Roland Gilmore

photos by Dana Edmunds


“I look forward to the day when gasoline goes to six bucks a gallon,” says Melvin Lantaka in his slow, methodical way, drawing out the sentence for full effect. “Because it will teach people to pay attention to their surroundings.” As he talks, he deftly works a 2-inch-long needle through the heart of a crimson wiliwili haole seed; he holds the smooth, raisin-size nut between thumb and long, careful fingers and slides it slowly down a fine thread until it comes to rest against its sisters—all of them carefully selected for size, shape and color.

The steady hum of afternoon traffic on King Street drifts through his anonymous, second-storey walk-up, which is jammed floor to ceiling with books, tools and jar upon jar of seeds and shells, each in a different stage of the lei-making process. Each jar represents untold hours of work in collecting, sorting, cleaning, drilling. As he works, a round, table-mounted magnifying glass—the sort used by jewelers to analyze the facets of diamonds—hovers on a long swivel near his head, within easy reach. Slim and tan, his hair showing a hint of gray, Mel’s got the look of a man who’s spent a lifetime in the sun and salt air. Even so, he’s impossible to age: the fruits of following one’s calling. He’s also got a sly, sometimes wicked sense of humor, but in this he’s not joking: People need to pay attention.

We’ve been talking about gathering shells on Niihau; about how, without cars to travel up to nine miles between home and certain beaches, Niihauans have to be mindful of their surroundings: to know the weather’s moods and how they affect the ocean; to know geography, both coastal and offshore; to know the life cycles of the animals that produce shells; to know the environmental factors that produce color variations in shells on different beaches; to know what time of year is best for gathering which shell from which beach. This knowledge is essential to the art of making shell lei.

Mel is not from Niihau, but knows these facts because lei makers talk shop. And he is a master lei maker, as well as a kumu hula (hula teacher) who traces his artistic lineage back through the renowned kumu, Margeret Reiss, and later, Ceci Akim, Nathan Napoka, Earl Tenn and Pat Bacon. His is a line of cultural practitioners that does not enter dance competitions or perform commercially. They focus on teaching, preserving and perpetuating hula and its associated arts. And the lei—whether it is made of feather, shell, bone, seed, leaf or flower—is integral to the dance.

That Mel falls back on Niihau for his example is not surprising, because the island is renowned throughout the Pacific for its shell lei, some of which can fetch upward of $35,000. The Niihau shell lei even has a special legal status in Hawaii: Act 91, signed by Gov. Linda Lingle in 2004, prohibits any jewelry from being labeled “Niihau” if it is not strung within the state and made with at least 80 percent Niihau shells. The lei must also be labeled to show the exact percentage of Niihau shells used. But Niihau isn’t the only source of shells in Hawaii, nor is it the only place where the art of shell lei making is practiced.

“Actually a lot of other islands have excellent shells—at the right time and at the right places, Oahu has an abundance of shells,” he says. “There are families and individuals throughout the Islands that do the same thing, and they do top-quality work ... and the work is the same: The hours spent picking, the hours spent sorting, it’s all the same.”