Culture: Leis and Lei Making
On two Saturdays in June 2017, haumana from both the Wednesday and Saturday classes converged at lei-making workshops from 12.30pm to 3pm. The making and gifting of leis is one of the most well-known and celebrated ways in which Hawaiians express love, respect or honour, and as leis are also important adornments in hula, it is important that we learn to make them ourselves.
Types of Lei
Ai’i — worn around the neck, lies across the chest
Kupe’e — worn around the wrists and/or ankles
Lauoho — hair piece
Po’o — worn atop the head
Haku — braiding selected plant matter onto a pliable three-strand plaited backing (usually made with fern, lau kī/ti leaf, hau fibre, etc.)
Hili — braiding/plaiting strands of a single plant material together
Humupapa — sewing selected plant matter onto a foundation length of dried banana fibre, lauhala, lau kī or other suitable material
Kui — piercing selected plant matter through the centre or side and stringing them up together into one long length
Kipu’u — knotting the stems of leaves together to form a chain
Wili — placing selected plant matter onto a pliable backing (usually made with dried banana fibre, lauhala, lau kī/ti leaf, hau fibre, etc.) and securing it in place by winding or twisting fibre or thread around both the decorative matter and the backing
One can haku a lei using any combination of the above methods, and there are a myriad choices of plants and plant parts (leaves, flowers and even fruit and seeds) that can be used. In hula, the reasons behind the choices one makes are much more important than when one is simply making lei as gifts or for fun.
On Thursday, 4 May 2017, Alaka’i Namiko visited the Waipā Foundation in Hanalei, Kaua’i, to learn more about poi and participate in their weekly Poi Day. If you’ve been a part of Ka Pā Hula Ka Lei Maile Hi’ilani for some time, chances are you’ve had a chance to sample poi, as now and then we have portions of it brought back from Hawaii. That’s always a good time to refresh everyone’s memory of what’s currently our only hula about poi and how to make it.
Poi, a smooth, thick, slightly sticky off-white-to-pale-purple starchy paste, is a uniquely Hawaiian dish, a traditional staple that is made from the fleshy, bulbous corm of the kalo (taro) plant. The plant, which is also known as the dasheen or cocoyam, is grown and eaten all around the Pacific (the leaves are edible too!) but only in the Hawaiian islands is it made into poi.
Poi-making generally involves a lot of scrubbing (the kalo corms grow in muddy wetland and their roots like to interlock), peeling, cooking (boiling or steaming; the traditional method utilises an imu), mashing, and pounding — after which you get a paste called pa’i’ai. It’s when water is added (read: vigorously stirred in) to the pa’i’ai that you get poi.
Poi is traditionally eaten with one’s fingers, and the amount of water added affects the mixture’s consistency and texture; Hawaiians refer to one-finger, two-finger and three-finger poi in reference to how many digits are required to bring a morsel to one’s mouth.
Eaten fresh, poi has a light, faintly sweet taste; Hawaiians tend to prefer it fermented and on the sour side — the flavour increases with the number of days it’s kept (traditionally, wrapped in ti leaf bundles and set aside). We don’t know how long you can keep it for before it becomes inedible, though it’s said that poi (stored as pa’i’ai) was what sustained the ancient Polynesians on their long exploratory sea journeys — presumably quite a long time.
The Waipā Foundation website has lots of educational resources and is a good place to start for anyone who is interested in learning more about traditional Hawai’i. You can also click here to view Alaka’i Namiko’s Facebook post (with videos) about her visit. Those fascinated with poi might find this article interesting, as well (note that we do not have any affiliation with this site, nor do we stand by any of the claims it makes unless specifically mentioned).