Childhood ailment remembered through Tahitian necklaces

Childhood ailment remembered through Tahitian necklaces

Objects associated with interesting stories, often find their way to the museum, here is a recent example. In May 2009, 13 Tahitian shell hei (necklaces) were gifted to Te Papa’s Pacific Cultures collection by Anton Coppens. These are rare and important examples of hei made in Tahiti during the mid-twentieth century. Necklaces are an essential part of many Pacific cultures; they are often worn as part of dance costumes, given as gifts, or adorned for special occasions.



Hei (shell necklace); Te Papa; Gift of Anton Coppens, 2009


These hei were gifted to Mary Coppens and her son Anton, who had an unplanned stay in Tahiti en route to Europe in early 1966. Nine-year-old Anton underwent an operation for peritonitis at the Clinique Cardella in Papeete. An English-speaking Tahitian who was in the original film Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) – along with her friends and the nursing staff at the Clinique – presented the shell hei to Mary and Anton when, after a fortnight’s stay, they departed for New Zealand.

Hei (shell necklace); Te Papa; Gift of Anton Coppens, 2009

The hei are exquisitely arranged, and made from various types of shells. With help from Bruce Marshall (Collection Manager Mollusca), some of the shells were idenitified as Pacific strawberry cockle shells (Fragum fragum), yellow melampus shells (Melampus luteus), cyclomorpha flava shells, and a variety of periwinkle shells (Littorina species).

This new acquisition, to be displayed as part of a refreshment in the Tangata o le Moana exhibition, provides a memorable story of Tahitian kindness and hospitality.


  1. September 8, 2010

    Hi, here’s my South Pacific shell leis story only because last night; I gave one of the tiny shell necklaces to a friend as a birthday gift and she asked me if I ever wondered how rare these shell pieces were/are…to me it doesn’t matter but here’s my story…

    I received an absolutely gorgeous head lei and so many shell leis that I can’t even remember the number I was given. I was in Tahiti while competing in a regatta in the ‘70’s. At the time, I was part of a large group of teens from Hawai’i and got tired of the ‘girl teen drama’; so I left the Paul Gauguin dormitory and found a group of children and put together a little ‘recreation center’ where I ‘coached’ the kids in soccer after our crew finished training; hence; I was able to escape the ‘girl teen drama’ and played with the locals.

    Before leaving Kailua, Hawai’i, we were briefed on the generosity of the Tahitian and asked to try and remember not to say; “oh, I love your…blah blah” because the Tahitians would literally give it to us! Having gone to a local Hawaiian high school and graduating from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, I had some knowledge of South Pacific hospitality but what I experienced was simply unbelievable. While kicking the soccer ball and running around with the children, I was basically helping putting together a semi-sports program and unknowingly was giving the parents well deserved break from not only training for the regatta and then having to watch the kids; I just naturally would show up every afternoon at the same time; after practice to organize a game or some kind of activity. The parents and families were from a neighboring island Bora Bora or Moorea but I knew they were also part of the regatta for the Bastille Day festival on July 14, 197v9and they were located in another dormitory down the street from the dormitory we were in.

    Unbeknownst to me, on the last day I was in Papeete, I was asked to sit down in a chair in the middle of the basketball court or the field we played soccer in. So I sat down and thought; how sweet they’re going to take a picture of me with the kids BUT one by one the parents, kids and teens from the village came and placed the MOST unique and absolutely beautiful shell leis on me…of course I got the two cheek kiss. Then, the eldest woman or man; I can’t remember because by then I was crying and it takes A LOT to make me cry came and placed the last piece they made on my head; to this day; I have NEVER seen anything so pretty.

    Honestly, towards the end of my stay, the women started sewing the leis, they would sit and talk in Tahitian and sew while I ran around organizing the kids; I just thought they were making the shell necklaces for the competing crew members! The head lei and some of the necklaces are in our living room and some of the shell leis hang on my paddle! Little did I realize that I was being honored by the Tahitians people…they were thanking me in a way that to this day still gives me goose bumps! I had so many shell leis on AND this insane head dress that I could barely walk; I’m 5’4” and weight 110 lbs…unbelievable; if you’re interested I’ll send pictures. I have had many people ask me why I haven’t put this story in writing…I write stories for middle school kids and teach; so maybe I will this was a nice way for me to remember the shell lei story!

    Warm regards,

    Mary Ellen Aylward Wolf, M.Ed.
    Co-founder & Summer Director
    Po’no Ragazzi International Academy 501(c)(3)
    IB of the Americas mentor & consultant
    6404 Buffalo Speedway
    Houston, Texas 77005
    713.493.6346 office 281.300.7602 phone

    1. Dear Mary,

      Thank you for visiting our Pacific blog, and for sharing your wonderful story.

      Warmest regards Safua

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