Featherwork

“Na Hulu Al’i”
“Said of the adornment of a chief, or of an elderly
chief himself who is one of a few survivors of his
generation and therefore precious.”
—‘ Ōlelo No‘eau

 
A million tiny feathers. Brilliant red ones from the
‘i‘iwi bird. Pale yellow ones, sometimes plucked just six
or seven at a time from under the wings, tail or thighs
of endemic forest birds like the ‘ō‘ō and mamo. Miles of
fine olonā cordage, spun by hand and knotted a million
times into a lacy filigree. And the nimble fingers of
old Hawaiian haku hulu, deftly plying their dazzling
craft. These are the basic elements of Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū, a feather skirt of almost unbelievable luxury and
beauty, and one of the showpieces of Bishop Museum’s
outstanding new exhibit on the Hawaiian art of
featherwork.

 
The exhibit is the source of much excitement
among museum staff. Betty Lou Kam, Vice President
for Cultural Resources, breathlessly describes Nā Hulu
Ali’i as “absolutely the best exhibit at the Museum this year.” And with good reason. Although Bishop Museum has the world’s largest collection of
Hawaiian featherwork, many of the most outstanding
pieces have seldom been displayed to the public. This
will be the most extensive exhibit of featherwork ever,
with over 40 early pieces on display, including several
of spectacular beauty and historic significance.

 

Līloa’s Sash, one of the earliest pieces of
featherwork known to exist, is a pre-contact item
that is the earliest representation of the ali’i dates back as early as the 15th century. The sash has played an important role in the history of Hawai‘i. Passed down through the Kamehameha dynasty, this is
the ceremonial sash depicted on the Kamehameha
Statue. Līloa’s Sash was found at an estate sale by King
Kalākaua who assumed control of it. This amazing
10 ft. piece is extremely delicate and will only be on
display for the first 6 weeks of the exhibit.

Nahi‘ena‘ena’s Pā‘ū is the largest piece of
Hawaiian featherwork known to exist. In its original
form it measured 20 feet long by 2½ feet wide.
Featherwork was considered kapu, and normally
restricted to men. This pā‘u was one of the only large
pieces made specifically for a female. Nahi‘ena‘ena,
the daughter of Kamehameha I and Keopuolani, was
asked to wear the pā‘u for a formal reception with the
English representative who returned the bodies of her
brother, Kamehameha II, and his wife Kamāmalu from
England. Under the influence of her mother, Keōpūolani
Ka‘ahumanu, another of Kamehameha’s wives,
Nahi‘ena‘ena had converted to Christianity after the
death of Kamehameha I, and the abolishment of the old
religion. Only with great difficulty was she persuaded
to wear the ceremonial skirt. Much later, Nahi‘ena‘ena’s
Pā‘ū was cut in half and the two pieces joined to form a wide funeral pall, which was used at the funerals of both her brother,
Kamehameha III, and, much later, of King Kalākaua.

 

Two remarkable feather images thought to
represent the war god Kūkā‘ilimoku will also be on
display. One of these is said to have been passed down
from Kamehameha the Great, and represented his status
and authority during his unification of the Hawaiian
Islands. There are only 19 of these images known to exist, and this will be the first time Bishop Museum. Artistically, they epitomize the high technical achievement of Hawaiian craftsmen in both featherwork and basketry. Culturally, they are almost without parallel in representing the Kamehameha era.

 

Several traditional forms of featherwork will also be on display. Long capes and short cloaks were both called ‘ahu‘ula. Mahiole were the iconic feathered and crested helmets worn into battle by high chiefs. Sashes, sometimes of remarkable length, were called kā’ei. Lesser pieces included feather lei (lei hulu) and head lei (lei po’o.)

 

Because of the tremendous labor and resources required to produce it, featherwork was always reserved for the ali’i. Its cost made feathers a real part of the economy. Every community had its kia manu – its bird catchers – who knew intimately the habits of their prey. The dearest feathers, the pale yellow ones of the ‘ō‘ō and the mamo, were taken from birds captured live.
Such a bird may only have six or seven useful feathers.
Sometimes taxes were collected in feathers. Even as late as 1876, a kapu was placed on yellow feathers while a cloak was being made for Princess Ruth Ke‘elikōlani.

 

Featherwork sashes, cloaks and helmets have been historically been considered the sacred insignia for the highest chiefs of Hawaii. These beautiful works carry a freight artistic, cultural and historic significance. One look is enough to understand their artistic significance. Early European visitors to the Islands were astounded by the opulence of Hawaiian featherwork. Captain Cook compared the brilliant cloaks to “the thickest and richest velvet.” Remarking on the feather regalia of the Kamehameha Era, Captain James King wrote in 1779 that their “beauty and magnificence” were “equal to that of any nation.”

 

Culturally and historically, featherwork continued to serve as the badge of nobility throughout the monarchy. The exhibit will include several important kāhili, the feather standards of royalty that were borne in the processions of chiefs, such as at funerals, or set up ceremonially at royal residences. In addition, visitors can see the cloaks and lei po‘o (head lei) belonging to Kapi‘olani Nui, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop and Queen Emma.

 

When the ali’i traveled, they often bore gifts of featherwork, a tremendous show of generosity in light of their value. The exhibit will also feature some non-traditional pieces that tell of the impact of featherwork in other places. These include featherwork capes made in England after Kamehameha II and Kamāmalu traveled there in the 1820s. A number of these pieces, often
in green or blue feathers, have made their way back to Hawai‘i and into the Bishop Museum’s collections. These, along with some more contemporary works, will also be on display.

 

Feather cloaks and capes ceased being made toward the end of the 19th century, when the art of bird catching and featherworking skills largely disappeared. Featherwork might have died out completely if not for the work of kupuna such as Johanna Cluney, Marie McDonald and especially Mary Louise Kaleonahenahe (Peck) Kekuewa. Featherwork today consists mostly of lei po‘o and lei hulu, but recent visitors to Bishop Museum might remember Aunty Mary Lou’s beautiful ‘Ahu‘ula O Mailelani, which was a part of the Ku I Ka Ni’o exhibit and recalled the glorious days of old Hawai‘i.

 

The birds of featherwork —  the ‘i‘iwi, the ‘apapane, the ‘ō‘ō, and the mamo—are all either endangered or extinct. It is said that Kamehameha himself supported their conservation, saying: “The feathers belong to me, but the birds themselves belong to my heirs.” It was not to be. The heirs of Kamehameha did not get the birds. But, through the collections of Bishop Museum, at least they can still say, “The feathers belong to me.”

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