In ancient Hawai‘i, “ali’i,” or royalty, wore feather lei as a sign of “mana,” or spirit and grandeur.
In contemporary society, there are endless varieties of lei and meanings. The sentiment of mana, however, still echoes during times like graduation — even in ice-ridden Alaska.
The word “lei,” or garland, is specific to the Hawaiian language, called ‘?lelo Hawai‘i. The plural form of lei is simply “lei.” Attaching an “s” is similar to saying “mooses.”
Hawai‘i falls under the umbrella of the Polynesian islands, which includes among others, Tahiti, Samoa and Tonga. Each island has a rendition of the lei with its own name, history and meanings. For example, in Samoa the lei is called “ula.”
For this article, local Hawaiian leaders have introduced some cultural aspects of the lei.
Kawehi Mahi, president of Alaska’s Na Keiki O Hawai‘i Hawaiian Civic Club, touched on historical context of the lei in Hawai‘i.
Mahi said in ancient Hawai‘i, lei were made of flowers, leaves, shells, seeds, nuts, feathers and even bone and teeth of various animals. Lei were worn both aesthetically and for social distinction. Sacred lei were also offered to royalty and gods.
“The maile lei was perhaps the most significant. Among other sacred uses, it was used to signify a peace agreement between opposing chiefs,” Mahi said.
She said in a “heiau,” or temple, chiefs would symbolically intertwine a green vine lei of maile leaves, and its completion officially established peace.
This maile lei is seen today during graduation time. Its bold green color and double-twisted vine is distinct, like its richly rooted history.
Lei were so integral to Hawai‘i history that there are royal lei made of special materials on display in museums.
Thais Rector is among several lei vendors spotted around Anchorage during graduation time. Her lei are not made of teeth, bone or feathers. Rather, they are made of materials like candies and flowers — fitting for contemporary occasions like graduation.
“The lei represents honor, achievement, our culture and our love for the one receiving the lei,” Rector said.
Rector said that with the high demand of lei in Anchorage today, she often refers customers to fellow vendors after running out — and those demands are climbing rapidly.
According to the U.S. Census bureau, the Asian and Pacific Islander population is the fastest-growing demographic in Alaska. Polynesians fall under that category with sub-populations such as Samoan and Hawaiian soaring through the charts. With this, the culture of lei-giving has crossed into mainstream celebrations.
“It’s about friendship and welcoming people to our island culture,” Rector said of non-Polynesians participating in the cultural tradition. She said she understands the common thread is celebration of mana during graduations.
Sammi Pedro, instructor of Hula Hui Na Haumana ‘O Alaka, touched on how the importance of lei extends beyond lei-giving and is still a major aspect of Hawai‘i’s culture today.
“One of the main events held in Hawai‘i is May Day, or Lei Day. On May 1, we celebrate in schools across the island chain,” Pedro said.
Pedro said each of the eight Hawaiian islands are represented by a specific lei and color of flower. For example, Maui is represented by the pink roselani lei, while the yellow ilima lei represents O’ahu. She said there are songs, dances and regalia that coincide with this.
Mahi said Lei Day was conceived in 1927 by poet Don Blanding, an employee at the Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper. She recalled a Lei Day in 2008 when the city of Honolulu set the record for the world’s longest lei, measuring in at a whopping 5,336 feet long.
This importance and value of the lei beckons the understanding of a few unspoken rules of lei etiquette Mahi shared.
Mahi said a lei should be a welcomed celebration of one person’s affection to another, therefore never refuse one. If a person cannot wear a lei due to allergies or other reasons, it is displayed in a place of honor. The proper way to wear a lei is draped over the shoulders, hanging down both in front and in back. In modern times, a lei is usually given with a kiss — a custom which began in World War II. Traditionalists, however, give a lei by bowing slightly and raising it above the heart, allowing the recipient to take it. Raising the hands above another’s head, or touching the face or head, is considered disrespectful. Simply knowing can insure that all who embrace the culture of lei-giving can enjoy the experience.
“Mana is a divine energy given to us. It’s the divine right and access for people to use this synergy to do good. Mana is in us all,” Mahi said.
Hawaiian ali’i of old are gone from the earth. Still the value of mana and greatness linger, even through forms like mountains of lei at a UAA graduation in Alaska.