All Dressed in Kapa

ACTA - Posted on 31 May 2011

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By Wendeanne Ke'aka Stitt

Hi'ilani in Mau a Mau.Editor's Note:  Wendeanne Ke'aka Stitt, a former Traditional Arts Development Program participant and featured master artist in Halau o Kawainuhi's Living Cultures Grants Program project, had the honor of being included in a gathering of Hawaii’s finest and most traditional kapa, or bark cloth, makers for a historic public display in Hilo, Hawaii, a few months ago.  In the following article she discusses her experience.

In February of 2010, I was invited by my kumu kapa, Dalani Tanahy of Makaha, Hawai'i, to join 22 kapa makers in Hawai'i to participate in An Artistic Collaboration with the renown Halau 'O Kekuhi of Hilo, Hawai'i.  Our goal was to create traditional hula garments that the halau would wear in performance on the opening night of the 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival.  This would be the first time that an entire hula halau in Hawai'i would be outfitted in traditional kapa garments in over 200 years.

I was very excited and honored to be invited to participate in this collaboration.  As a kapa maker living in California, I have often felt isolated from the current wave of dedicated kapa makers in Hawai'i who are part of the lineage of the Cultural Revivalists who started the task of researching and learning how to make Hawaiian kapa in the 1970’s.  Their work was difficult.  By the 1850’s, kapa making was no longer a vital part of the Hawaiian culture.  The missionaries brought cloth to Hawai'i, making the work of the women who had made kapa cloth for over 1,000 years obsolete.  By the 1880’s, the kapa makers were gone, many from disease, and when they died they took their vast knowledge of the process of kapa making with them.  We were left with inaccurate and incomplete writings about  kapa making.  But thanks to the Revivalists, who studied the kapa cloths and tools at the Bishop Museum and museums across America, who researched mele (song) and ancient chants and through painstaking hands-on trial and error, we now have a very good basis on which to draw the knowledge of the Ancients and produce the cloth today.  The idea that I would have the opportunity to meet the current group of modern kapa makers -- to share knowledge, to speak of our dedication, to support each other in this most arduous and self-questioning task -- was a moment I had longed for.

The timing could not have been more perfect.  Three months prior, I had just completed an ACTA Living Cultures Grants Program project with my good friend Kumu Hula Kau'i Peralto of Halau 'O Kawainuhi (Antioch, CA).  For our grant project, I pounded a traditional Hawaiian kapa cloth pa'ū hula (hula skirt).  The skirt consisted of an underskirt of plain white kapa, the pa'ūpa'ū, that measured 30" x 89".  The kilo hana, or outer skirt, was almost 12' long and carried the design we named Mau a Mau, Forever and Ever.  Since completion of our project, Kau'i's daughter, Hi'ilani, has danced several times throughout the Bay Area in the pa'ū.

Kau'i tipped me to the fact that Halau 'O Kekuhi would be dancing to a mele about Princess Nahi'ena'ena, the sacred daughter of Kamehameha I.  Translated, Nahi'ena'ena means raging fires: nāhi, the fires; 'ena'ena, raging, glowing.  In her short life, Nahi'ena'ena witnessed the struggle of her people to maintain their ethnic identity, their dignity, and their genius while at the same time desiring the skills of the European and American men who set their influence on Hawai'i.  I decided to honor Nahi'ena'ena in the design of the pa'ū I would create for this collaboration.

I finished pounding out the pa'ū well before the March 2011 shipping deadline, but the process was not without its concerns.  I had only 10 trees from which to extract the bark and process into workable material.  I did not know if it would be enough for the final required measurements of 30” x 84”.  The weather here in Santa Cruz had been uncharacteristically cool and the bark needed warmer temperatures to ferment.  Had I set the bar too high for myself in dedicating my pa'ū to Princess Nahi'ena'ena?  Who was I, a non-Hawaiian AND a Californian, to think I could come close to making something good enough to honor her?  It was not an easy 12 months working on this project.  My thoughts of doubt were on equal par with the physical challenges I was facing in preparation of the wauke (paper mulberry) bark.  One high point in the process was being able to borrow an 'ie kuku (wooden pounder) from the California Academy of Sciences' collection of kapa making tools.  It was an extraordinary experience to pound with a tool that was made over 150 years ago and that had never been used.  As I pounded the fermented bark tiny splinters of wood, left from the original carving of the tool, loosened themselves from between the tiny parallel grooves and lodged in the kapa.  Normally, with tweezers, I would pick out anything foreign that happened to fall onto my kapa, but these tiny pieces from a long-lost time I left in.  It was a once-in-lifetime experience to work with this intricately carved tool.  Very few modern wood workers have been able to duplicate the parallel lines in such detail and number.  Using this tool, I was able to pound out the kapa thinner and farther and in the end I had just enough to complete the pa'ū.  Inspired by this experience, I am now in the process of remaking all of my tools and have been fortunate to find a wood carver who can come very close to duplicating the delicate lines of the original Hawaiian 'ie kuku.

Pa'ū in progress and the 'ie kuku being used to pound it.

Nahi'ena'ena's pa'ū hula, completed.

A few weeks after all of our kapa arrived at Halau 'O Kekuhi in Hilo, a dress rehearsal was run with the dancers wearing our kapa.  Halau 'O Kekuhi is known for their robust hula and some of the pa'ū ripped.  Fortunately, they were able to be repaired.  The softening of the finished kapa is a very important step in the entire kapa making process.  It can be a tedious and boring task, but in the end it is a key step in maintaining the flexibility and durability of the cloth.  At this time, Kumu Nalani put out a call to all of the kapa makers to send any extra kapa pieces they might have.  After speaking with Kau'i and getting her approval, I sent Mau a Mau, our ACTA grant piece.  To be able to see it danced in ho'ike (exhibition) on the opening night of Merrie Monarch along with the pa'ū I made for the Artistic Collaboration created amazing anticipation in me.

Wende Ke'aka Stitt, Roen Hufford, and Marie McDonald.The Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium, named after Kumu Hula Nalani Kanaka'ole’s mother, is the home to the Merrie Monarch Festival.  It is an annual hula competition with the first night of the festival presenting ho'ike.  This night is free to all and people line up as early as 6 a.m. for a place in line.  Kumu Nalani had reserved front row seating for the 23 members of The Artistic Collaboration.  We all wore kapa -- some had shawls, sashes, even handbags made of kapa.  I wore the ACTA pa'ūpa'ū (underskirt) as a kihei, a traditional Hawaiian garment, that I folded in half and tied at my shoulder.  By the time our group arrived at the stadium, most of the other kapa makers were seated in the front row.  I followed the others down the line and greeted each kapa maker not knowing who they were.  Halfway down the line, as I stood in front of Marie McDonald, a Hawaiian Living Treasure, author and expert in Hawaiian Lei making, an NEA National Heritage Fellow, and the only kapa maker to ever have a solo show at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, I burst into tears.  "I am so sorry!", I cried.  "It is just such an honor to meet you."  As I introduced myself she said to me, "After this evening your life will be changed."  I hugged her and her daughter Roen Hufford, an organic farmer and kapa maker, who sat at her side.

The stage in the stadium is huge.  It is an open format with seating on all four sides.  The back side of the stadium is open and you can see the sky with its ever-changing clouds rolling by.  When Kumu Nalani walked onto the stage and started to chant the cheers from the audience overwhelmed her voice.  When the halau, dressed in our kapa, walked up the steps to the stage, the ovation by the thousands of people in attendance was thunderous.  As they filed in forming rows across the stage five dancers deep, I think it is fair to say that all of us sitting in the front row were astounded.  The patterned, richly-colored kapa -- each piece an artistic expression of its maker -- moved and swayed with each dancer’s movements.  The men, wearing nothing but the traditional kapa malo (loincloth), that six of the kapa makers had chosen to make, stood boldly in the front row.  The kane (men), wahine (women) and keiki (children) energetically danced for 45 minutes straight.  They stood, they kneeled, they rolled.  They gave the kapa a vigorous workout.  Near the end of the performance, each dancer picked up a kua la'au (wooden anvil for pounding kapa) and an 'ie kuku (beater) that had been placed at the back edge of the stage, in a long row, in view of the audience.  Coming to the front of the stage they sat and placed the kua before them, straightening and arranging their pounding material and tools.  Then they proceeded to perform, in honor of the 23 kapa makers that sat before them, a hula noho (seated hula) inspired by a mele about Nahi'ena'ena.  I can only imagine our expressions as the dancers looked at our faces from the stage.  Never before had any of us seen so many kua la'au in one place at one time.  The dancers pounded their tools on the kua, not in a loud, wanton way, but with a knowing finesse respectful of how kapa was and is made.  Their timing was confident and their performance exuberantly joyous.  They received a standing ovation, with all of us in the front row on our feet wildly applauding and cheering our appreciation of how Halau 'O Kekuhi, with artistry, passion, and a deep respect and gratitude reflecting all of our work, kept up their end of The Artistic Collaboration, magnificently.

"Sometimes, we who are not Hawaiian by birth, are excluded from the inner circles... which either makes some quit, feel hurt, get angry, and-on-and-on, and then like seeds or trees or daikons that hit obstacles, we persevere, against all obstacles, find alternative means, learn by doing and doing, and in the process we, our work, those around us are transformed, and our lives are forever changed and deepened, and we live many lifetimes in one lifetime."

Big Island Hawaiian-at-heart dancer

Halau 'O Kekuhi, the first hula halau to be outfitted in traditional kapa garments in over 200 years, performing at the 2011 Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawai'i.


Leipupu Stone wearing Nahi'ena'ena's pa'ū hula.

Hula in the Creative Life of the Kanaka'ole Zane 'Ohana:

 Watch the performance here:

A Video by Alan Palumbo from a different view:

Photos by Big Island Designs/Adam Palumbo:

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