On March 20, 2011, Ariipaea Salmon died at his home on Santo Island in the Republic of Vanuatu. Known to his friends and associates as Paea (Pie-uh), he died of heart failure after suffering from cardiovascular disease for several years. He was 57 years of age.
Ariipaea was a prince in the Tahitian royal family—the greatgrandson of Pomare V, the last King of Tahiti, and his wife Joanna Salmon—and spent his childhood and teen years in that country. At age 5, Paea suffered a debilitating disease of unknown origin, from which he nearly died. He attributed his recovery to a regimen of herbal remedies administered by his grandmother. This experience profoundly influenced Paea, causing him to delve into the world of medicinal plants. At age 13, he underwent ritual circumcision, and a few years later began the process of receiving traditional Polynesian tattoos that eventually covered most of his lower body. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Paea embraced traditional modes of dress and living. Wrapped in a pareu (a traditional wraparound skirt-like garment) and sporting long, flowing hair, he looked like a chief from ancient times.
Paea was a key figure in bringing the drinking of kava (Piper methysticum, Piperaceae) back to Tahitian culture after it had been banned by missionaries. He traversed the South Pacific in his early adult years, living in Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, and on other islands, eventually settling in Vanuatu. The father of 11 children, Ariipaea lived with his wife, Nicole, and their 5 children: Ariitaimai, Heiariki, Puaita, Queenie, and Meera.
In 1995, I set off to Vanuatu to explore kava. I was directed to the remote island of Pentecost, and told to seek out a warriorlooking man with tattooed legs. Upon my arrival at the grassy Lonorore air strip on the western Pentecost coast, I saw that man, and our travels—which spanned a period of 10 years—began. In Paea’s company, I gained extensive knowledge of the medicinal plants of the islands, and about cultural customs and ceremonies. Paea and I worked together in the kava trade, and subsequently with tamanu oil (Calophyllum inophyllum, Guttiferae). Paea lived larger than life, had an infectious smile, and seemed to be an endless fountain of giant schemes and dreams. Paea was also thoroughly irascible, an inveterate cadger, loud, bombastic, very generous, and terrible at managing money. As a friend he was loving, confidential, and fiercely loyal. And the man could party like the devil himself.
Paea was a true island man. He embraced traditional Polynesian wisdom, and knew hundreds of plants and their uses for medicines, building, cordage, and decoration. He expressed a keen desire to establish enterprises that would lift island people from poverty, and focused his energies on the medicinal plant trade. He became involved in the South Pacific sandalwood trade in his early 20s, and subsequently traded in kava, noni, vanilla, and tamanu oil. Paea spoke French, English, Tahitian, and Bislama (a pidgin language widely spoken in Vanuatu), and was most in his element when directing large projects. He inspired hundreds of farmers in Vanuatu to establish noni plantations, and was responsible for the revival of dozens of Vanuatu vanilla plantations.
In 1994 and 1995, Paea conducted a survey of cultivated kava on several islands in Vanuatu, and concluded that the tiny island nation possessed a huge amount of kava ready for trade. For several years after, Paea was a leader in the Vanuatu kava trade, and traveled to the US several times to attend natural products expositions.
In the late 1990s, Ariipaea brought traditional firewalking from Tahiti to Vanuatu, and, over the course of several years, conducted a series of massive, elaborate firewalks according to the methods he was taught in his training as a Tahua—a keeper of the fire. I had the opportunity to participate in, and help to lead, six of those firewalks, and they were splendid events. At the largest of them all, we brought together more than 1,000 as a fundraiser for south Pentecost Island’s tsunami-devastated Baie Martelli, which was something of a “home village” to both Paea and myself. At the firewalks, Paea demonstrated awesome skill, as he marched solo out into gigantic, roaring furnaces of red-hot stones with fire holes all around. At one firewalk, he even coaxed the Prime Minister of Vanuatu to shed his shoes and stride across the fire pit, to great applause.
Ariipaea made a big impression wherever he went. At trade shows he was a one-man event, attracting hundreds to his company. As a father and family man he was kind, loving, and deeply devoted. He attracted children like the Pied Piper. As a friend, he was affectionate and delightful. And in tribal scenes, when Paea walked into a village, onto a beach, or into a ceremony, everybody knew he was there. Even in death, Paea has all of us who knew him talking and sharing stories. I have no doubt that long after Paea’s body has been burned outdoors, on a pyre on Santo Island, we will continue to share tales about him for years to come. I, for one, will miss him dearly. Blessings to you, Paea.
Founder, Medicine Hunter Inc.