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Hawaii is a long way from anywhere else, yet many words in the ancient language of the islands have meanings that reach across oceans. Discover them on a journey to both ends of the archipelago: Hawai‘i (aka the Big Island), and deep-green Kaua‘i
Photographs TEC PETAJA @tecpetaja


LIKE A PAIR OF FLUTTERING BIRDS, Maile Napoleon’s delicate, 78-year-old hands never stop moving. I’m sitting with her at a food court table in Waimea, an upland farming and ranching community on the Big Island, surrounded by green hills in paniolo (Hawaiian cowboy) country. Maile is chatting – ‘talking story’, in the patois of the islands – while her nimble ingers continually inter-weave blossoms with strands of dried rafia to create a woman’s head lei.

Although a floral garland is seen worldwide as the most typical Hawaiian lei, they can also be made with leaves, nuts, shells and feathers.

This master lei-maker is known as Aunty Maile in the Hawaiian way of addressing even your unrelated elders as aunty or uncle, and she is teaching me how to make a lei. But without realising it, she’s also schooling me in the meaning of aloha, the ubiquitous Hawaiian word of greeting and farewell that encompasses deeply felt spiritual concepts of love, harmony, peace and compassion.

‘Aunty’ Maile Napoleon threads a lei with expert care.

‘My tutu (grandmother) told me that the best way to show the aloha spirit is to make something and give it away,’ says Napoleon, who in just four weeks will leave the Big Island to live with her daughter in Colorado.

‘I hated making leis when I started aged six, but over time I grew to love it,’ she continues in her sing-song voice. ‘I put the best feelings in me into a lei, and people tell me they feel love like a kind of energy when they receive it.’ She lets out a merry laugh. ‘I don’t know how that happens, but it makes me happy.’

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