Modern Hawaiian Kapa History
“All are dead who knew how to make coverings and loincloths and skirts and adornments and all that made the wearers look dignified and proud and distinguished.” - Samuel Kamakau, Hawaiian historian, 1870
Since the arrival of Capt. Cook and the missionaries, much has been written about the ancient and traditional histories of kapa in Hawaii as well as in all of Polynesia. Since there is not much point in rehashing all that information in this website, I would prefer to provide you with links to websites I think are the most helpful as well as a bibliography to books that are useful to anyone with a serious interest in bark cloth. Instead, I would like to give a brief history, as I know and researched it, about modern Hawaiian kapa making.
In other pacific islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, bark cloth culture remained intact over these last few hundred years since European contact. Although it has diminished to various degrees, a visitor to those islands can still find native women working on the tapa in the same ways as they were taught by their mothers and grandmothers. In Hawaii this was not the case. After two hundred years of upheaval of the native culture and history, and at the same time the abrupt introduction of at least ten completely different cultures all at the same time, many Hawaiian arts were lost. Even if practitioners existed, there was the loss of land and natural resources and even the craftspeople who made many of the necessary tools. When Hawaii was a US possession and then a state, the push was for native Hawaiians to integrate with the general population, which was now a virtual united-nations-of-the-pacific mixture. Generations of Hawaiians grew without knowing their own language or traditional culture. By the 1900’s your bloodline could’ve included Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipino, Puerto Rican, Portuguese and Irish! But into the 1960-70’s, native Hawaiians began to see that they could not move forward without understanding their past, and so resurgence in ancient Hawaiian culture and history came about. (Photo: Malia Solomon, courtesy of Rosalind Solomon Kaplan)
At that time, people began to feel the need to learn more about how their ancestors lived. They wanted to learn and relearn the ancient ways, from open ocean navigation with the canoe Hokule’a, to all manner of arts that required people to get in touch with the stones and trees and flowers of these islands. Amongst those who revived the lost art of Hawaiian kapa, Malia Solomon stands out as one who made it a mission in her life to discover and faithfully replicate techniques of kapa making. She was able to learn from women in the South Pacific islands and brought that knowledge back to Hawaii where she studied and experimented to discover the kapa methods of old. Bishop Museum archaeologist Kenneth Emory declared her work ‘nearly indistinguishable from the ancients'. Pua Van Dorpe felt her calling in the art of kapa and was encouraged by Herb Kane to learn tapa making from the women in Fiji during an extended visit. After learning the art of kapa in Fiji, she came back to Hawaii with the goal to learn ancient kapa making methods. Soon, her expertise was called on during a singular event. (Photo: Pua Vandorpe)
On the island of Maui in 1989, an ancient Hawaiian gravesite was disturbed during the construction of a hotel. The skeletal remains of 1018 people were found there, forcing the hotel to continue construction further away for the moment. The bones were gently removed and Pua was called upon to help repatriate them in the traditional way…by wrapping them in kapa. Since there was no Hawaiian kapa to be found, she gathered a group of ten women who consecrated themselves to this task. They learned as they went but they painstakingly completed the kapa for these precious ancestors. Pua is renowned for her single-mindedness in learning the secrets of kapa and is capable of creating museum quality work that is also, ‘indistinguishable from the ancients'.
Many of the budding kapa makers were inspired by botanists such as Beatrice Krauss and Isabella Abbot, whose exhaustive studies on how plants were used in ancient times fueled the imaginations of these young Hawaiian artists. Other native artists also became cultural sources, such as Mary Pritchard, a woman of part Samoan decent who helped create business opportunities for women in Samoa by creating a broader market for them to sell their siapo back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. She also worked to keep alive a native art that was losing practitioners. Many of the kapa makers were also artists in other disciplines such as lauhala weaving, stone carving, feather work and traditional gourd dying and design as well as ancient lei making methods and Hawaiian lomi lomi or massage. Still others of the kapa makers were people who worked in museums, botanical gardens and forest preserves and were asked by visitors about native culture. They saw the need to learn what exactly the native culture was and to be able to speak about it and demonstrate it to tourists and locals alike. Many were and are teachers, who were able to teach the children about this once lost art and let them use tools that were just like the ones their Polynesian ancestors used…wooden beaters and sharks tooth knives and bamboo stamps. (Photo: Roen Hufford, Marie MacDonald, Moana Eisele)
Over the past thirty plus years, kapa practitioners have been honored locally, nationally and internationally as cultural treasures for their work in preserving and perpetuating native arts. They have traveled to the great museums of the world such as the Smithsonian and Peabody to study and be awed by the kapa pieces that voyaged so far from home. They have gone to the sources of the art of tapa making to study and learn from those who were still taught by their mothers and grandmothers. These modern kapa makers have learned this knowledge all the way into their bent bodies and tight muscles…ears that still hear the beating long after its done…bones that take minutes to straighten after hours of sitting and beating…beating. It IS, a labor of love and devotion to our culture and heritage. It is homage to our ancestors whose help we have each silently invoked during our solitary work. It is an art and discipline that will never be ‘lost’ again.
The following list is my ‘Hall of Fame’ of modern kapa makers and artists. I’m sure there are a few I have missed. These are people who have worked in their own ways to preserve and perpetuate the Hawaiian art and discipline of kapa making. I personally know many of them and have learned so much from their stories in my research of this kapa ‘genealogy.’
Malia Solomon, Pua Van Dorpe, Marie MacDonald, Kana`e Keawe, Carla Freitas, Moana Eisele, Happy Tamanaha, Wesley Sen, Kawai Aona-Ueoka, JoniMae Makuakane-Jarrell, Maile Andrade, Pam Barton, Bernice Akamine, Roen Hufford, Ka`iulani DeSilva, Dalani Tanahy, Mililani Hanapi, Terry Riveira, Sabra Kauka, Verna Takeshima, Lisa Schattenburg-Raymond, Gail Kuba, Denby Freeland-Cole, Wendy Ann Stitt, Kaleo De Sa, Shari Malu-Lee, Vicki McCarty, Emily Kaliko Spencer, U`i Naho`olewa, Reni Bello, Ka`uhane Heloca, Pomai Bertleman, Huihui K Mossman, Pualani Lincoln, Chris Kaaikala...to be continued...
“We teach the children, ‘This knowledge is already in you…we are just helping you to remember…’”
Dalani Tanahy, 1998
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