story by Keya Keita
photos by Chris McDonough
So the story goes: A young woman was fishing on the western shore of Kaua‘i. The sea had been generous, too generous, and she caught more fish than her family could possibly eat in one day. Distressed at the prospect of wasting the sea’s gifts, the woman began to weep. The fire goddess Pele heard her cries and took pity. She told the young woman to follow a rainbow from the mountain to the sea, where she would find shallow pools filled with glistening white crystals. If she rubbed the crystals on the fish, Pele said, her catch would be preserved. This is how Pele taught the ancient Hawaiians to use sea salt, or pa‘akailiterally, “to solidify the sea.”
Today, west of the town of Hanapepe, Kaua‘i, the twelve families of Hui Hana Pa‘akai still harvest sea salt from the same shallow pools once used by Hawaiian royalty. The families are descendants of salt makers stretching far into Kaua‘i’s past; they have passed down from generation to generation not only the techniques of salt-making, but its spirit of sharing the salt, a gift from the ‘aina.
The farms near Hanapepe are one of only two remaining areas in the Islands where natural sea salt is still harvested; the other spot is on the Big Island at Pu‘uhonua o Honaunau. But the unique red salt, called ‘alaea salt, is produced only on Kaua‘i. When harvested, sea salt is quartz-white. During the drying process, however, red volcanic soil may be added, which is said to imbue it with stronger medicinal properties and mana, or spiritual power. Only a small amount of the harvest becomes ‘alaea salt, which has been considered sacred by generations of Hawaiians.
When Captain James Cook observed ‘alaea salt in 1778, he misunderstood its significance and called it “dirty salt.” Yet salt, both red and white, later proved to be one of his most valuable discoveries in the Islands. It was a crucial commodity for Hawai‘i’s early post-contact economy; visiting ships, especially those from the whale fishery, needed the salt for food preservation. Hawaiians exchanged salt for salmon with ships arriving from the Pacific Northwest, which led to the creation of a beloved Hawaiian dish, lomi salmon; lomi means “massage,” and refers to the act of rubbing the salmon with salt.
Though the economics of salt have changed, the families of Hui Hana Pa‘akai still maintain the ancient salt beds, not for the money, but to keep a centuries-old tradition alive. “Ownership was a foreign concept for Native Hawaiians; no one can really lay claim to the land or a salt pond,” says Celine Pi‘ilani Nelsen, whose family has been farming salt here for at least five generations. “The Hanapepe fields operate under that concept of communal stewardship: The salt may be given or traded, but not sold. Ever.” The so-called “Hawaiian salt” available in stores, she says, is manufactured; it is not genuine earth-milled pa‘akai. Celine’s family shares the harvest with friends, neighbors and kahuna who use it as medicine and in rituals.
The harvest season begins “when the sea sleeps,” says Celine. On the west side of Kaua‘i this means the height of summer, when the waves are calm and rain scarce. Under the narrow band of red soil separating the beach from nearby pastureland lies a unique system of salt water aquifers that feed wells called punawai; each family takes care of and harvests from one punawai. “Every spring we look into our well; if there are a lot of baby shrimp in the water, we know the season will be a good one,” says Dwight Akita, one of the salt harvesters of Hui Hana Pa‘akai. Dwight is teaching his granddaughter, Yukie, the intricate process of making salt from his family’s punawai, one that has been passed down “for many, many generations,” he says. “We don’t really know how far back it goes; no one can pinpoint a date.”
First, Dwight shows her how to prepare each salt pond, or lo‘i, to hold water by scraping its muddy bottom. This can take up to a week, and it must be done on hands and knees, using a stone to massage the mud until a glassy, waterproof layer forms. The punawai is then cleaned of leaves and debris, so that only the purest sea water enters the rectangular holding tanks called wai ku, literally “water standing.” The brine is left in the wai ku to evaporate, which can take up to ten days depending on the afternoon rains. When the water in the wai ku turns frothy white and crystals form on its surface, the harvester gently pours it into the lo‘i. For several weeks, a rotation of new water, sunshine and evaporation continues until a slushy layer of snow-white salt forms. The harvester then rakes the fresh crystals into a bucket to be rinsed with salty water from the wai ku, drained and left to dry in the sun for four to six weeks. Depending on conditions, a family may complete three harvests in a season, yielding as much as 200 pounds of salt.
For the families of Hui Hana Pa‘akai, the process is valued as much as the product. “It is the how, not just the what,” Celine says. The labor-intensive art of making salt requires humility, hard work and perseverance. “I complained to my tutu every spring when I was young: ‘Why do I have to do this? It’s so hotI want to go swimming!’ But now, I see how the process strengthened my spirit, taught me never to take shortcuts, to follow through. There’s no way you can learn those things theoretically; you’ve got to get down on your knees and do it.”
Like vinegar and wine, time is generous to salt; it mellows and gains character as it ages. “Fresh salt has a strong bite, older salt is smoother; it’s a real delicacy. My family has salt that is thirty years old,” says Celine. But for Hawaiians, salt is prized not only as a food flavoring or preservative. It’s also used for healing remedies that call for purification of a place or a person. “Salt is cleansing, not only for cuts and wounds but for the spirit,” says Dwight. Hawaiian healers use ‘alaea salt in poultices and infusions for the ill. “Sometimes old Hawaiians call me up; they use it to heal sickness. I give them a big bag of ‘alaea,” says Dwight. Real ‘alaea soil does not come from the red dirt surrounding the salt beds, he says, which isn’t potent enough for healing. Instead, the soil comes from a specific, secret spot deep in a valley. “My grandfather showed me where it is, and we had to go by horseback to get it.” While he hasn’t been to the remote bank of soil in over twenty-five years, he still has some from his last visit. “You don’t need much. It’s very powerful.” There are different kinds of ‘alaea as well. “A kane type and wahine typethe man soil is brighter, the woman soil is darker,” he says. The practical differences between the two are something of a mystery, Dwight says. There is no difference in taste, only in color and mineral content. “The healers know, but my job is just to make it and give itthat’s what my grandfather said.”
Salt farming, like much of Hawai‘i’s cultural heritage, has been endangered by modernization and development. While the state owns the land and allows the families to farm it, there is as yet no formal designation for historic preservation. “There isn’t even a sign describing the place or the process,” Celine laments.
The unmarked, unfenced land attracts the curious. “People end up walking through, touching the beds. One year, we came in the spring and someone had driven over everything. All the lo‘i were smashed,” Dwight recalls. “I would like to see some level of formal preservation,” says Celine, “so people feel it’s their kuleana (responsibility) to teach and share this knowledge.”
From legends of Pele teaching a young girl, to generations of Kaua‘i families practicing what they were taught by their kupuna (elders), to grandchildren smoothing lo‘i by hand, the tradition continues. “Every year, our family gathers on Kaua‘i to work the harvest,” says Celine. “We all take pride in the tradition and in passing it along to the keiki (children). Our tutu is the eldest; she taught my generation, and we will teach the next.” HH