Pa’u Riders and the Haku Lei

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Marcus Garvey

Celebrations and parades paying tribute to Kamehameha the Great act to protect, preserve and perpetuate the Hawaiian culture. Kamehameha Day was first established in 1871 as a national holiday of the Kingdom of Hawai’i. The holiday honors the memory of Kamehameha who united the Hawaiian Islands as one nation.

013For over 100 years pa’u riders have brought Hawaiian grace and beauty to Kamehameha Day parades. The pa‘u rider is something unique to Hawaii. The pa‘u (a very long skirt of fabric) was originally used in the 1800s as a protective covering for women as they rode from one social event to another along dusty or muddy trails. Keeping the tradition alive and remembering just what a pa‘u rider should be is very important in Hawaiian culture.

069She’s the most elegant royalty on horseback, the most beautiful individual in a saddle, has a respect and true appreciation of the ranching lifestyle and works at preserving paniolo history and culture. The first island princesses began riding in a floral parade in Honolulu in the early 1900s.

096A week prior to parade day, the Pa’u riders practice with their horses, prepare costumes, gather flowers in the fields and forest, and spend hours creating elaborate neck lei for each horse in their equestrian unit. Behind each component of the wardrobe and accessories of the rider there is a story. Everything they have chosen — the colors, the foliage, the prints of the pa‘u — is symbolic of where they come from.

105 In the floral parade for Kamehameha Day there are eight pa’u riding units dressed in bright colors and fresh lei representing each of Hawaii’s eight major islands.

  • The island of Oahu has an Ilima flower and their color is yellow.
  • Hawaii Island has the Ohi’a Lehua and their color is red.
  • Maui’s flower is the Lokelani and their color is pink.
  • Lanai is the Kaunaona and color orange.
  • Kauai is the Mokihana and color purple.
  • The island of Molokai has Kukuis and their color is green.
  • The island of Niihau has Niihau Shells and the color white.
  • And Kahoolawe has Ahinahina and their color is grey.

Everything has a meaning or a story behind its use.

050We have heard that Elders are the experts when it comes to preserving the heritage of their communities. They are often the only source of traditional knowledge about how and why objects were made. In ancient Hawai’i people had a lifestyle that fused ritual and nature with every aspect of daily life. Lei were an ever-present ornament worn during any type of work activity, celebration or rite, by maka`ainana (commoners) as well as ali`i (chiefs). The tradition of wearing and giving lei continues today.

166A lei is a garland necklace created by an individual and given to another with the intent to decorate that person for an emotional reason—usually as a sign of affection. Common reasons include greeting, farewell, affection or love, friendship, appreciation, congratulation, recognition, or to otherwise draw attention to the recipient. The giving of a lei is a gift of aloha.

061In modern times, a lei is usually given with a kiss – a custom which actually 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, as raising the hands above another’s head, or touching the face or head, could be considered disrespectful.

053 The beautiful art form of lei making involves the talent of  many hands to prepare the  arrangements worn by horses and riders during floral parades. A distinctly special form of lei is the Haku Lei. The Haku Lei has a base material, such as softened tree bark or long leaves, and uses a method of braiding while adding decorative plant material into each wrap of the braid.

114Traditional leis are fashioned of natural material endemic to Hawaii and require foraging in the native forests, collecting seeds, pods, vines and flowers. Through the life stories we learned that when the pa’u riders gather their plants they go into the mountains. They chant to the gods to ask permission and give thanks for the beauty of the Earth. They take  only a portion from each plant so that it can still grow and be healthy.128Foraging requires a knowledge of the habitat and  life cycle of plants and a keen appreciation for nature. The  lei maker who is perpetuating the continuation of a culture and a lost art, must keep in mind the interruption of the natural cycle of these plants, the damage of over harvesting and practice a conservancy. Many of the plants and flowers in Hawai’i are found no place else in the world and some are unique to a particular island.

123The Elders mentioned to us that “saving” does not necessarily mean “not using”.  There are things that were created to be used, until such time as the object that comes from the land, returns to the land. Lei should never be thrown away casually, or tossed into the trash. Traditionally they should be returned to the place they were gathered, or if that is not possible, they should be returned to the earth by hanging in a tree, burying, or burning. A lei represents love, and to throw one away represents throwing away the love of the giver.

136 It takes about 200 hundred bundles of flowers to make a haku lei for a lio (horse), the lei being 50 to 60 inches long. Thousands of flowers are needed as each equestrian unit consists of  a Queen, Princesses, attendants, Page, and the horses, all of which wear lei.  To see the lei-draped pa’u riders smile and wave as they ride by at an easy pace is the epitome of equestrian beauty, honoring the traditional  connection with human and horse, horse and land, land and spirit.

068Pa’u riders and the Haku Lei are a sight to see on Kamehameha Day, emotions run high and the Aloha Spirit fills the air. When we honor our ancestors and participate in traditions we feel rooted. If we find ways to cherish the gifts of nature we become whole and at one with the Earth.


click on any of the above images to enlarge

Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina i ka pono

“The life of the land is preserved in righteousness (harmony/balance)”

Aloha, Dohn

About earthstonestation

promoting environmental education, protecting all species and preserving the wild places with art, music and storytelling.
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13 Responses to Pa’u Riders and the Haku Lei

  1. Aloha e Dohn,
    As a Pa‘u rider, it’s so nice to come across a blog like yours. Mahalo for telling our story. Beautiful pictures too!
    Me ka ʻoiaʻiʻo ,
    M. Kaleohano, Waimānalo, O‘ahu

  2. What beautiful horses and flowers…makes me want to go back to Hawaii! Thanks for visiting my blog!

  3. Pit says:

    Thanks, Dohn, for that very informative posting. I’ve saved it to my computer’s HD so that I can read it again any time. Btw, maybe I’ll have the opportunity to go to Hawaii this summer for a week. I’d really like to. And should this come true, any information like yours here will help me.
    Best regards from southern Texas,

  4. That was so beautiful. The horses, the flowers, just gorgeous. The history…everything. Wonderful post. Thank you for teaching me so much.

  5. What an exquisite post Dohn… the story of the traditions and the making of lei is such a sweet and soothing custom, so full of reverence and respect…
    The horses are utterly beautiful, they make my heart melt with their innocence, gentleness and dignity, thank you for such an unexpected and beguiling story

  6. fozziemum says:

    What beautiful images that display proudly your heritage,it is so important to pay homage to our past indeed it can be easy to forget the things that make us who we are and the importance of tradition,living in such a young country we have not got a great long lineage of traditions but I still seek to learn more about who we are.In fact today was spent for me at a little rural celebration for 85 years of the Country Womens Association..celebrating our pioneering women who took the reigns of farms while men went to 52 I am too young to have been around but feel it is important to understand.Thankyou for this information and stunning pictures,made a very cold overcast day a lot brighter . 🙂

    • Mahalo for your thoughts. I’m fascinated with country woman and have read a number of diaries from Appalachia and pioneer woman of the west. I currently live in Hawaii but was raised in New England. Hawaiian culture has much we all can adopt to live in harmony. Peace, Dohn

      • fozziemum says:

        I is very important,people animals nature it is the best way to live a good life I think.i could never live in a city again, so many people and yet no one has time for anyone else.
        Have a fantastic day, Bev

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