Story by Kyle Galdeira
originally published in Hawaii Stories
In the native Hawaiian culture, the ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak), mahiole (feathered helmet) and all other featherwork were reserved exclusively for the use of their ali‘i (royalty) as symbols of exclusive divinity, rank, and power.
The pieces, which boasted bold red, yellow and black color schemes to signify royalty, embodied the life essence of a thriving, abundant environment and surrounding ecosystem – signs of effective leadership from the ali‘i, as it takes a thriving forest to produce enough bird feathers and cordage needed to construct these ornate pieces.
In 1779, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, the chief of Hawai‘i Island (the Big island), greeted an English captain named James Cook after his ship made port in Kealakekua Bay, which is recognized by native Hawaiians as the sacred harbor of Lono, the fertility god. As a demonstration of his goodwill, Kalani‘ōpu‘u gifted the ‘ahu ʻula and mahiole he was wearing to the captain. Cook, who was initially believed to be a god himself, and his crew exploited the Hawaiians’ hospitality before the skipper was killed on Feb. 14, 1779 after the native people saw one of their own chiefs killed and realized that Cook was not a deity.
For the first time in 237 years since Cook was killed, the storied ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole have returned together to Hawai`i, after they were taken on one of the captain’s ships. In a partnership between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole of Kalani‘ōpu‘u will made their historic journey back to the islands in March 2016, and are displayed in the Bishop Museum.
“We are very proud to be working together to make the return of the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole possible. This historic collaboration is celebrated among each of our organizations as we transfer, receive, and care for these pieces, and continue in a tradition of mutual respect among the cultures of the Pacific,” said representatives from OHA, Te Papa Tongarewa, and Bishop Museum in a joint statement.
“The ʻahu ʻula and mahiole left their homeland at the end of the season of Lono in 1779 and the memory they hold in their very fiber is that of a healthy, abundant, sovereign society,” said Mehanaokalā Hind, director of community engagement with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, and a lineal descendant of Kalani‘ōpu‘u. “They will be returning home to the Hawaiian archipelago in that same season of the year 237 years later, at a time when native Hawaiians are making strides in the health and well-being of our people. They will serve as a physical reminder to help guide Native Hawaiians in their pursuit of a thriving society.”
The feathered cloak and helmet are not only extremely rare and valuable, but perhaps more importantly, they possess great cultural and spiritual significance for native Hawaiians and those who appreciate the nuances of ancient life in Hawai‘i. From a historical perspective, the artifacts represent a period in Hawai‘i’s history when there was a balance between the cultural, political and spiritual aspects of native Hawaiian life and the environment.
“We are thrilled and honored to be able to return these treasures home to Hawai‘i, and into the care of the Bishop Museum,” said Rick Ellis, chief executive of Te Papa Tongarewa. “When they are shared with the people of Hawai‘i, I am sure they will inspire some wonderful conversations and insights, as they did when displayed here in Aotearoa, New Zealand.”
The construction of featherwork in ancient Hawai‘i required an incredible amount of labor and craftsmanship. This ‘ahu ‘ula in particular has feathers from about 20,000 birds, and larger capes such as the one work by King Kamehameha consisted of approximately 450,000 individual feathers. Endemic birds provided the feathers, including Hawaiian Honeycreeper varieties. The ‘i‘iwi and ‘apapane yielded the vast majority of red feathers, while the rare ‘ō‘ō and mamo produced the yellow varieties.
Skilled trappers caught the birds by snaring their prey midair with nets, or using decoy birds to lure them onto branches coated with a sticky substance. They often harvested only a few feathers from each bird before releasing them back into the wild so they could produce more feathers. This maintained the balance within the forest ecosystem. Skilled workers belonging to the aliʻi class crafted the olonā cordage backing – a netting used as the foundation for the cloak – onto which the bundles of feathers were attached, creating bold designs.
After the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole left on Cook’s ship more than two centuries ago, the cherished items were taken to England and passed between various museum owners and collectors. They eventually came under the care of Lord St. Oswald, who unexpectedly presented his entire collection in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa. The cloak and helmet have been in the national collection ever since. In 2013, discussions began among officials from Bishop Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa and OHA to bring these treasures back to Hawai‘i, culminating in the highly-anticipated homecoming.
“I’m grateful to witness the return of these cultural heirlooms, and how it is being made possible by the kōkua (help and cooperation) of many in both New Zealand and Hawaiʻi,” said Kamana‘opono Crabbe, Ka Pouhana of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. “The return of the ʻahu ʻula and mahiole to Hawaiʻi is a cause for celebration and it will be a source of inspiration, reflection and discussion amongst Native Hawaiians, Hawaiʻi residents and visitors alike.”
“Bishop Museum is honored to be the institution charged with the care of these cultural treasures and to be the recipient of these mea makamae (treasures) from Te Papa Tongarewa,” said Blair D. Collis, president & CEO of Bishop Museum. “The exhibit space at Bishop Museum will be called ‘He Nae Ākea: Bound Together.’ This reflects the connection of Kalaniʻōpuʻu to his land and people, the connection between the peoples, nations, and cultures throughout the centuries who have cared for these treasures, as well as the connection between the three institutions directly involved in this loan. It is only as a result of all of these ties that we have arrived where we are today.”