Art of the Warrior

story by Dennis Hollier

photos by Chris McDonough


Manny Matos presses his forehead against the gray trunk of an old kauila tree. He closes his eyes and mutters a little prayer under his breath. His right hand is wrapped around the slender trunk, as if around the neck of an old friend. In the bright sunlight, they seem to touch noses—to honi—in the old Hawaiian greeting.

But the meeting is bittersweet. The old kauild in a recent wildfire. Its bark has burned away. Only a few crisp leaves still cling to its craggy limbs. Manny will be its undertaker. He already has a permit from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to harvest windfalls and deadwood here in the Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a District Management Area. Today, he’s come up the mountain to get permission from the trees themselves—and to see if he can help save what’s left of the last kauila forest.a die

Manny makes traditional Hawaiian weapons, the wooden spears, daggers and clubs of ancient warriors. Four years ago, when he retired from the Honolulu Police Department and moved to the Big Island, he started making weapons from koa and selling them to tourists and collectors. But the traditional material for these weapons wasn’t the relatively soft wood of koa; it was the endemic hardwoods of Hawai‘i’s scrublands: kauila, which rings like steel when it’s dropped; uhiuhi, so dense it sinks in water; and gnarly maua. Now all these trees are endangered. It’s illegal to sell their wood. The grove in Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a supports the last wild populations of maua and Big Island kauila. There are less than fifty uhiuhi left in the wild. Other hardwoods, like alahe‘e and olopua, may be rarer still. Manny wants to save them all.

Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is a rough landscape. The name means “deeply rutted hill.” The forest is mostly a chaparral of weeds—of lantana, fountain grass, apple-of-sodom and tobacco plant. The trees are spread thinly over gullies and chunky lava flows. Much of the mountainside is leased out as ranchland. The combination of undergrowth and cattle has been deadly to the rare trees there. Cattle compact the soil and their sharp hooves gouge the trees’ roots. They graze on the keiki—the seedlings—so you never see young kauila. But the fountain grass is even deadlier than the cattle: It serves as tinder for wildfires that scorch the trees. A few months ago, one of the last uhiuhi was killed by fire. The DLNR believes that, without intervention, the rest of the kauila forest of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a is doomed.

It was the weapons that drew Manny to the forest. Like many of the men who make traditional Hawaiian weapons, Manny has become obsessed with authenticity. He carefully studies old books and museum catalogs for information about Hawaiian weapons. Although he still sells his koa renditions, he prefers to make replicas of museum pieces—but it’s hard to find the kauila and uhiuhi wood that authenticity demands. Sometimes, someone will give him an old kauila fence post. Once, a friend brought him the snag of an uhiuhi that he had dug from an old mud pit under a lava flow. Manny is having it carbon-dated. “It could be from thousands of years before the Hawaiians arrived,” he says.

It’s mostly from this kind of old salvaged wood that Manny carves his replicas. He has dozens of them: several types of lei o mano, a short, flat club with jagged shark’s teeth lashed to the edge; of ihe, a short throwing spear; of pololu, a pike that sometimes reached lengths of more than twenty feet; of pahi kaua, a dagger carved from the bill of a marlin or swordfish; and of newa, the stout club preferred by the ali‘i. The ancient Hawaiians had the most diverse selection of weapons in Polynesia. “I want to make a copy of every one in a museum,” Manny says. “I’m about half-way.” Because of the restrictions on the wood, these traditional pieces can’t be sold. Instead he uses this private collection for educational purposes, taking it to schools and cultural organizations to demonstrate the old Hawaiian craft. To help preserve the old traditions.

Manny’s wife comes from a distinguished Hawaiian family. Manny, though, is Portuguese and a natural-born talker. Recently, a Hawaiian friend jokingly told him, “Hey Manny, your name too Portagee. You need to get one Hawaiian name.”

Manny joked back, “Eh, no worry. Let me go talk to my wife, see what I can do. Maybe I go borrow her name: From now on, I goin’ be Manny Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Matos.” Manny laughs, but he understands the point. Some Hawaiians wonder about a Portuguese man learning an ancient Hawaiian craft. But he says, “I grew up as a child among Hawaiians, so Hawaiian culture is all I know.” He was particularly close to his wife’s grandmother, Cecilia Keolanui Kanaka‘ole Bradley. “I would sit and listen to her talk in the old Hawaiian language and it would mesmerize me. It flowed so smoothly, just like velvet. It was good to the ear. I couldn’t understand it, but I guess it laid the foundation.”

Once, when he was a policeman in Wai‘anae, he was working special duty, directing traffic by a roadside where a construction crew was digging a feeder line. “I was standing there looking into the ditch,” he says, “And I saw this dark thing in the side. ‘Try wait. Try wait,’ I tell them. I was wearing my uniform, but I jump right into the hole and pull this Hawaiian adze out of the wall.” He still has the adze. It’s a long, chiseled piece of basalt, about half- finished. “It was the most important tool to the ancient Polynesians,” he says. “Here, I was given the tool before I knew what to do with it.”

For Manny, the lei o mano and the newa, the ihe and the pololu, they’ve all come to symbolize the vanishing native forests of Hawai‘i. He wants to create a cultural reserve in the forests of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a to integrate this resource back into Hawaiian culture. “I want to re-educate the Hawaiian community about the importance of these woods,” Manny says. “I want to take back the forest. The ancient Hawaiians went into the forest for everything they needed. It wasn’t just weapons for war; it was a social order.”

To emphasize the cultural significance of the hardwoods, Manny tells a story from the time of Kamehameha the Great, about an uhiuhi log that washed up on a Maui beach. “The law said that all valuables thrown upon the beach belonged to the ali‘i. When the people saw this log, they saved it to give to Kamehameha. That’s how valuable it was to them. When Kamehameha got that uhiuhi, he had it cut into pieces to give to special people. When he said, ‘I like give you this piece of uhiuhi,’ it meant, ‘You’re important to me.’”

Back in his workshop, Manny hefts a kauila pahoa, a dagger copied from one in Bishop Museum. The simplicity of Hawaiian weaponry gives it a kind of elegance. The pahoa has red feathers tied to the lashings of four shark’s teeth. The teeth gleam, white and ceremonial, against the dark kauila. The wood is deeply burnished, finely grained. The effect is that of a work of art. It’s easy to forget that these gorgeously crafted pieces are more than simple cultural artifacts; they’re weapons—na mea kaua. And war was certainly a part of Hawaiian culture.

For La‘akea Suganuma, a latter-day Hawaiian warrior, the path to na mea kaua has been a direct one. Like Manny, La‘akea makes traditional Hawaiian weapons. But he is also an ‘olohe, a master in the ancient Hawaiian martial art of lua. For those who practice lua, the pahoa and the lei o mano, the ihe and the pololu are practical tools of the trade. “The average warrior,” says La‘akea, “went about with a dagger and a spear.” This is the Hawaiian culture that La‘akea hopes to preserve: fierce, strong, self-possessed, and confident. He believes that self-confidence also lies behind the essential charity of Hawaiian culture. As La‘akea puts it, “Anything without a foundation of aloha is not going to work.”

La’akea Suganuma certainly has the bona fides to be a cultural steward. He is the president of the Royal Hawaiian Academy of Cultural Arts. His godmother, Aunty Pat Bacon, is still, in many ways, the arbiter of Hawaiian culture at Bishop Museum. The staff there often turns to her to make sure they’re following correct cultural practices. And her predecessor, Mary Kawena Pukui, was La‘akea’s grandmother. Through her writing and research, Kawena Pukui arguably did more than any other individual to preserve Hawaiian language, music and dance. La‘akea spent much of his childhood with Aunty Pat and Kawena Pukui. In a sense, he was a child of Bishop Museum. “I was raised in that place,” he says. “Hawaiian Hall was my playground.”

The living room of La‘akea’s ‘aina Haina home is nearly a museum itself, a trove of family mementos and treasures. His bookshelves are lined with the standards of Hawaiiana and the works of his grandmother—the Hawaiian Dictionary and The Polynesian Family System in Ka‘u, Hawai‘i, among others. Another shelf is crowded with historic family poi pounders and ipu—traditional Hawaiian gourds. One of his proudest possessions is the gold-headed walking stick of King Kalakaua.

For La‘akea, the weapons he makes are inextricably linked to lua. When he picks up a weapon, his hands perform a silent pantomime of its use. He grasps a lei o mano and, as he wields it back and forth, it’s clear this isn’t a bludgeon; its sharks’ teeth edge is used to slash and cut. The newa, in his hand, isn’t simply a cudgel; it’s nimble as a nightstick. In his back yard, the trunk of an old banana tree has been riddled by ihe—spears thrown in practice. And when he wraps the strap of a pahoa around his hand, he does it thumb first, so he can drop it easily when it’s time to go hand-to-hand.

Some Hawaiian weapons are unique. Almost every traditional culture produced a sling, which the Hawaiians called ma‘a. (“Imagine,” says La‘akea, “landing a canoe while hundreds of men rained stones down on you at 160 miles per hour.”) But no other warriors brandished the ka‘ane, a strangle-cord favored by the ‘olohe and worn around the waist of the mu, the official court executioner. No others wielded what we now call the maka lua, an eye gouge whose true Hawaiian name has been lost. La‘akea points out several small, delicate items in his weapons collection—a long-ended awl of kauila and a small comb of tiny sharks’ teeth. “These are women’s weapons,” he says. “They would carry them in their skirts.” He adds, “You know how puppy’s teeth are so sharp. Same with baby sharks.”

La‘akea hefts a distinctive dagger from his collection, its point curving upwards jauntily from a stylish haft. “Some designs were only found on Kaua‘i,” he says. “Weapons are only limited by man’s imagination. And what exists today is only a tiny, minute fraction of what existed at one time.” He looks across his collection. “That cane back there,” he says, “what they called the ko‘oko‘o—after the wars were all done, you couldn’t walk around carrying a spear, so they carried this little cane. There’s some old sayings about ‘See that little old man sitting in the corner with his cane. Leave him alone, because he’ll tie you up in knots and twist you and kill you with it.’”

The history of Hawai‘i makes these simple old weapons manifestly political. “I’d like to put a weapon in everybody’s home,” La‘akea says. “Some people ask me why I work with weapons, since they connote war and bloodshed. The way I look at it, they symbolize peace. They symbolize our legacy. They symbolize strength versus weakness. The ability to protect oneself and one’s family. They’re the symbol of a free people,” he says. “That’s a different kind of strength.”

Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalahaua Kai—Umi Kai to his friends—has probably been making traditional Hawaiian weapons longer than any craftsman alive today. Although Umi was a part of the same group of early lua practitioners as La‘akea, in the Pa Ku‘i a Lua, his first full step into na mea kaua and Hawaiian culture began much earlier … and much further a-field.

“My interest was piqued when I went to Alaska,” says Umi. “I was speaking with Native Americans there and was bothered because I couldn’t answer their questions about Island culture.” Now Umi’s knowledge and interest range over the breadth of the ancient Hawaiian arts.

Like many weapons makers, Umi began with the archetypical lei o mano. “The first one,” Umi says, “was made from the wood of a mango tree I cut down in the back yard.” There were negotiations with his mother regarding the tree. “I also made a coffee table and a TV table from that mango tree. Then I made the lei o mano.” Umi already dabbled in woodwork, but when it came to Hawaiian weapons, he says, “I had to teach myself. I saw an old lei o mano that my uncle, John Cummings, had.” Interestingly, Umi points out, “These lei o mano were relatively rare: In a battle, out of 5,000 warriors, maybe ten or eleven had them.” Most went into battle with spears and daggers. The ali‘i preferred the newa because it was the simplest weapon to wield in combat.

For Umi, the educational aspect of culture is paramount. He likes to start at the beginning. Most weapons makers work with modern power tools. With band saws, drill presses and grinders. It’s a practical matter; the hard wood of kauila can seize up a chainsaw. But Umi thinks it’s important to understand the culture as it was. Now and then, he makes a weapon in the old way: Chipping it out with an adze; grinding it down with rasps and coral stones; boring holes with a huli, the ancient Hawaiian version of a bow-drill. The traditional tools may seem tedious, but Umi says, “They just take a little longer, a little more patience. But you develop that patience.” And that patience was also a part of the culture.

Umi is also an ‘olohe—a teacher of lua. He tries to impart that same patience to his students. Although he makes some weapons to sell, he doesn’t sell them to his students. “For educational reasons,” he says, “I make them learn how to make their own.”

As an executive in the rental-car industry, Umi Kai lives a full life in the modern world. But he takes any opportunity to educate people about traditional Hawaiian culture. He occasionally teaches classes at the University of Hawai‘i. He gives presentations on traditional weapons at community colleges. At the Outrigger Hotel, he gives lectures on ancient crafts to employees and tourists. When enough people express an interest, he teaches a course in traditional hau cordage. “I teach them how to select, prepare, strip, clean and braid with it,” he says. As he speaks, his right hand automatically begins to hilo down his thigh—to spin a baste of imaginary hau into twine. Most of his weapons are tethered with cordage made either by Umi or his wife.

Sometimes, lua gives him unusual opportunities to teach. Recently, a martial arts friend asked him to give a presentation at his dojo. In the gymnasium of Nu‘uanu Elementary School, while the karate students go through their training, Umi spreads his collection of mea kaua upon a broad lau hala mat. As people meander by, he answers questions about the weapons. Someone asks about a smooth, two-edged piece of basalt. “This is a hand-axe,” he says, palming the broad, flat stone and wielding it back and forth. “No one knows the old Hawaiian name for it.” A young Hawaiian man asks about a newa, studded with human molars. Umi explains that traditionally, a warrior would have taken these teeth from a victim—to get some of his mana. “But these were volunteers,” he says with a smile.

Umi demonstrates the huli for some children, smartly drilling a hole in a scrap of lumber. The bit of the drill is a flattened nail. When someone asks what the traditional bit would have been, Umi roots about in his gear and pulls out a long, square-headed bit carved from the middle of a cone shell. “It’s the hardest part of the shell,” he says. “Sometimes they made the bit out of rat’s teeth. Or a piece of obsidian.”

Umi’s collection ranges beyond weapons because, for him, mea kaua are woven into a larger fabric. “I don’t separate the culture,” he says. Beside his lau hala mat lies the jaw of a tiger shark, rife with teeth. Although the teeth were fundamental to Hawaiian weapons, “We would have used the skin, too,” he says. “For drums and sandpaper.” Now, of course, sharks’ teeth and sharkskins are hard to find. Umi ticks off the list of vanishing cultural resources: whale bone, whale teeth, turtle shells, human bones. And the essential native hardwoods. “There should be a whole valley set aside to propagate native woods,” says Umi. “They do that in the Marquesas. There, traditional craftsmen hold a kind of lottery to determine who gets the wood.” He pauses for a moment and adds, “And they should quit castrating our coconut trees.” Like Manny Matos, Umi sees the whole culture embodied in the forest.

Up on the slopes of Pu‘uwa‘awa‘a, Manny has arranged a small ceremony. After a friend delivers a short pule—a prayer to both the Christian and Hawaiian gods—Manny talks briefly about the forest and about his hopes for a cultural preserve there. Then his attention turns to the old dead kauila. In its burnt and tortured outlines, he envisions lei o mano, pololu and ihe. “To me,” he says, “this is as close as I can get to a living tree to harvest. Three or four months ago, this tree was still struggling to survive. I think the life-force is still there.” Manny’s voice cracks a little as he talks about the tree. Solemnly, he leans in to pay his last respects. Then he steps back and the craftsman in him takes over. “All right. We can take ’em down now,” he says.


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