NiihauThe Forbidden Isle

Ni‘ihau

The Forbidden Isle

Overview of Ni‘ihau

Land Area: 69.5 square miles (180 sq. km).

Size Comparison: 7th largest Hawaiian Island.

Island Emblem: Pūpū Ni‘ihau —Ni‘ihau Shell

Kahelelani (Leptothyra verruca); Momi (Euplica varians); Laiki (Mitrella margarita).

Highest Elevation: 1,281 feet (390 m), at summit of Pānī‘au.

Official Nickname: The Forbidden Isle.

Also called: Island of Yesteryear (Yesterday).

[Illustration: Map—Ni‘ihau]

A single volcano formed Ni‘ihau about 4.9 million years ago. Today the island of Ni‘ihau is about 6 miles (9.7 km) wide and 18 miles (29 km) long, making it the smallest inhabited Hawaiian Island.

Ni‘ihau is just over 17 miles (27 km) from the west side of Kaua‘i, across the ocean channel called Kaulakahi, which means “The single flame (streak of color.”[i] Ni‘ihau is relatively dry because it is in Kaua‘i’s rain shadow.

The main town on Ni‘ihau is Pu‘uwai (“Heart”[ii]). Ni‘ihau’s 860-acre (348-ha) Hālali‘i Lake is the largest lake in all of the Hawaiian Islands. In pre-contact times, Ni‘ihau was known for the mats made there from the native makaloa (Cyperus laevigatus). These mats were considered the finest sleeping mats in all of ancient Polynesia.

Ni‘ihau was also famous in ancient days for the fine quality of the uhi (Dioscorea alata, yams) that grew there. These yams were grated and used for medicinal preparations, and also were considered “slippery and tenacious,” as noted in the ancient proverb, “Ni‘ihau i ka uhi pahe‘e,” (“Ni‘ihau of the slippery yam.”)[iii]

The island of Ni‘ihau has been owned by the Robinson family since 1864, and is not open to tourism. The Robinsons are descendants of Eliza (McHutcheson) Sinclair, who purchased the island of Ni‘ihau from King Kamehameha V (Lot Kapuāiwa Kamehameha) in 1864. The price paid to King Kamehameha V for the island of Ni‘ihau was $10,000 worth of gold.

Largely isolated from the rest of the Hawaiian Islands, Ni‘ihau is considered by some to be the last bastion of pure Hawaiians speaking the Hawaiian language. Ni‘ihau has no airport, nor does it have an Island-wide electricity or phone system.

Ni‘ihau Shell Lei

Ni‘ihau is also known for the beautiful, tiny seashells that are found on the island’s shores. The shells are found on other islands as well, but nowhere with the luster possessed by the prized Ni‘ihau shells, which are known as pūpū Ni‘ihau (pūpū means “shell”).

Ni‘ihau shells are traditionally strung into spiral strands with intricate patterns. The finest of these beautiful shell lei may sell for more than $10,000 dollars.

[Photograph: Ni‘ihau shell lei]

The three primary types of shells used for the traditional Ni‘ihau shell lei are kahelelani (Leptothyra verruca); momi (Euplica varians); and laiki (Mitrella margarita), and the colors of the shells range from deep brown to pearly white.

Pūpū Ni‘ihau (Ni‘ihau shells) show many variations that are caused by waves and sunlight as well as genetic differences. At least 30 different Hawaiian names describe particular colors and patterns. (See Ni‘ihau Shell Lei section and Island Emblems section, Chapter 3.)



[i] Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[ii] Pukui, Mary Kawena, Elbert, Samuel H., and Mookini, Esther T. Mookini. Place Names of Hawaii: Revised & Expanded Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1974.

[iii] p. 252, Pukui, Mary Kawena. ‘Ōlelo No‘eau: Hawaiian Proverbs & Poetical Sayings. Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1983. Proverb 2313.