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A Gift of Love

Tani Waipa Teaches the Aloha Spirit Through Lei-Making

Tani Waipa

So many of Hawai`i’s cultural practices and traditions revolve around the same intention: act with grace and aloha, cherish and preserve the land and sea, take only what you need. Whether it’s hula, mele, canoe-building, or lei-making, the process is as important as the product.

“Everything is meaningful,” says Tani Waipa, who both performs as a musician and teaches as a cultural practitioner at Kings’ Shops at Waikoloa Beach Resort. “In my lei-making classes, I share how to be mindful of every step, from what materials we use in the lei, to how to pick a flower with sensitivity, to keeping in mind that a lei is a gift of love, whether it’s for someone else or for yourself.”


Waipa learned the art of lei-making from her grandmother in Hilo as she was growing up. “My grandmother went to the harbor for ‘boat day,’” Waipa recalls of an earlier era. “She would sell her beautiful lei to the passengers as they disembarked the ship. I remember her using bright red and yellow awapuhi (ginger) flowers as those colors represent the ali`i (royalty) of the island.”

Upon departure from the islands, visitors would throw their lei into the sea. It was thought that if their lei drifted back to shore, they too would return to the islands again someday.

Nowadays, Waipa imparts the knowledge she gleaned from her grandmother to visitors at Kings’ Shops.

Lei-making classes at Kings’ Shops

“The first thing I do is take guests across the street where there’s a lovely stand of plumeria trees,” she says. “I share how to pick the flowers with care, gently, being mindful of not breaking a branch or over-picking a tree. You see every act has an impact on everything else in nature.”

Not only is the tree adversely affected, according to Waipa’s way of teaching, but so is everything else that depends on that tree, including birds, insects and, of course, the next person who comes along looking for flowers. It is like over-fishing in the ocean. The entire cycle of life is affected.

Next, Waipa shares the art of actually making the lei. “There are many styles and methods of lei-making throughout Polynesia,” she says. “My preferred method with plumeria is called ku`i, which means ‘to pierce.’”

Other methods include hili (braiding a single material), often used when making ti leaf lei; haku (braiding multiple materials), a favored method for flower head lei; and hipu`u (knoting), seen frequently in kukui leaf lei.

“Depending on where you are and what materials you have at hand, lei can be made of bark, leaves, shells, nuts, seeds … almost anything,” Waipa says. “It’s an art form that’s about making a thing of beauty out of something that might be overlooked or not so beautiful by itself. It’s about what you have around you to make a gift. Here at Waikoloa Beach Resort, we have these magnificent plumeria trees, so that’s what we use.”


Lei-making is one of the oldest traditions of the Polynesian people, having come to Hawai`i along with the seafaring people who also brought canoe plants, tool-making knowledge, and other deep-rooted cultural practices from other parts of the Pacific.

Throughout Hawaiian history, lei were worn by ali`i as well as commoners, and used for purposes as diverse as ritualistically cementing a peace accord between warring factions of islanders, to colorfully celebrating island or community pride. Even paniolo were known to adorn the brim of their cow- boy hats with lei.

Still today, pa`ū riders, women in flowing skirts and adorned with lei made from materials typical of their islands and regions, can be seen in Aloha Month parades throughout the state.

In today’s world, lei can be seen piled high on the shoulders and around the necks of high school and college graduates, donned at ceremonial events such as the opening day of the Hawai`i State Legislature or the opening of a business, gifted at birthday parties and holidays, and many other places.

“One of the things visitors enjoy most about the lei-making classes is it makes them slow down, be more meditative, act with intent,” Waipa says. “Instead of running around the island seeing the sights, they are able to slow down and be part of a true Hawaiian tradition. Those are the kinds of experiences that often make the best memories.”

Caption: Pa`u riders in Aloha Month parades throughout the state wear lei representing their islands and home regions. At left, representing the island of Ni`ihau

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