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Niihau: the “Forbidden Island”

Across the Kaulakohi Channel off Kauai’s west coast lies a dry, barren island, 18 miles long and about six miles wide, its maximum elevation is Mt. Pānī’au (1250 ft; 381 m). The island is populated almost exclusively by Hawaiians and is kapu or off limits to even long time residents of Kauai. The “Forbidden Island”, Niihau (69.5 square miles (180 square km)) is the last hold-out of the simple Hawaiian life of long ago. In 1864, the Sinclair family bought the island from king Kamehameha V and today it remains in the hands of their descendants, Kauai’s wealthy Robinson family.

Virtually all of 250 residents work for the Robinson, running the cattle and sheep ranch, making charcoal from kiawe trees and gathering honey. The precious Niihau shells are also gathered and strung into shell leis which have long been treasured for their beauty and painstaking craftmanship.

The long process of making a necklace begins with collecting the tiny shells from ocean swept beaches and grading them according to color and size. The shells are then cleaned carefully and drilled with holes. Necklaces are strung in a variety of patterns. Different color Niihau shells are used in the necklaces: brown-spotted, off-white, pure white, blue, pink, red, green, black and yellow. An entire necklace strung of these exquisite shells is truly a collector’s item.

Life is simple on Niihau. There is only a grammar school. There are no county sewers, no garbage collection, no electricity, telephones, guns, liquor, jails or doctors. The people live in simple wooden homes and usually travel by horse. Niihau is also the only island where Hawaiian is still the principal language spoken in daily conversation. The 250 residents may soon be the only native speakers of the Hawaiian language.

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