Lee Cataluna: Hanapepe salt makers defend their patch of earth
The salt makers of Hanapepe, Kauai, are again having to defend their salt beds — the earthen pans where they continue the ancient Hawaiian method of making salt from the ocean in a precise, multi-step process that requires expert-level knowledge.
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Kuulei Santos has been fighting the same battle for 30 years.
“It’s been so long. It’s the same stuff. I say the same s—- over and over again,” she said.
The salt makers of Hanapepe, Kauai, are again having to defend their salt beds — the earthen pans where they continue the ancient Hawaiian method of making salt from the ocean in a precise, multi-step process that requires expert-level knowledge. In a state where a lot of lip service is paid to preserving culture and respecting traditions, this surviving tradition, as pure and unmodernized as any left from ancient times, is under constant threat. The salt makers find themselves fighting with the state and the county to keep homeless camps and cat colonies, sewage run-off and off-road drivers from damaging the salt patch.
This time, it’s a helicopter company that takes off and lands its “see Kauai” flights for tourists right next to the ancient salt-making area. It’s a new company, but really, it’s a mainland company that took over for the former helicopter company that had been a source of stress for the salt makers for decades. The salt makers have complained for years about noise and the smell of exhaust and fuel, traffic and debris blown in by the helicopter rotors. Maverick Helicopters, a company that runs tours in Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon, is going before the Kauai Planning Commission this week seeking permits for buildings on the tiny Burns field airstrip near the Hanapepe salt patch. Santos says some are after-the-fact permits for things that have already been built.
“They’ve never come to the table. They’ve never talked to us,” she said.
The salt patch in Hanapepe is a living, working, direct connection to ancient Hawaii. It is a tradition that has never been broken.
The summer work days, when the salt is made at the salt beds, are almost sacred times. There are no cellphones or radios while the salt makers work, and no food is allowed in the salt patch. The families start early in the morning and stop when the day’s work is done, which varies depending on the weather and the different steps in the process. The beds are cleaned and lined with a special clay that is found right there on the shore, and filled with water from underground wells. Salt crystals form in the sun and are then harvested in layers.
Though other commercial products are sold as “Hawaiian salt,” none of that comes from here. Paakai, the salt made at Hanapepe, is true Hawaiian salt, made in the same way, in the same place by descendants of the same salt makers and it is never sold, only given as a gift from the hardworking hands of people who made it.
Twenty years ago, it was mostly the kupuna who would come to make the salt. Now, Santos, 44, says it’s younger people learning each step of the process, little children off to the side playing in the mud, multiple generations of families working together where their ancestors made salt in the days when the only things that flew over their heads were native birds.
“To be there on a Saturday or Sunday and look up and see so many families working, that’s a good feeling,” she said. “I’m standing in the exact same spot where my grandmother stood, doing the exact same thing that she did. I love my culture, my traditions, my family.”
Though the salt makers are fighting the same fight, this time feels a little different. Santos started an online petition called Save Paakai Farming in Hanapepe that has been signed by thousands of people on Change.org. More people are becoming aware of what’s at stake and how special this salt is in all the world.
“To be gaining traction is amazing. This is the most traction we’ve ever gotten,”Santos said.
Santos is asking supporters to attend the Kauai Planning Department meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. She wants people to wear aloha attire and to stand with the salt makers.
“I look at what’s happening at Mauna Kea. We’re fighting the same battle, but we’ve been doing it alone,” she said.