Kapa / Tapa


Kapa / Tapa

Dennis Kana‘e Keawe

Kana‘e Keawe has spent much of his adult life retrieving the neglected skills of his ancestors and sharing that knowledge. Nonetheless, he was intrigued by an unexpected request: A German woman in the remote Cook Islands in the South Pacific wanted him to fly three thousand miles to teach the making of kapa (barkcloth) to the native women there--the mamas. The mamas did not care much about beating kapa, the woman wrote; they preferred appliqué and sewing. Perhaps Kana‘e, a fellow Polynesian, might persuade them to revive this art from their past. She, a papa‘a (foreigner), could not.
Kana‘e was unsure whether he could help. He knew that creating kapa is not easy. Hawai‘i had lost the art long before 1944, when he was born. He learned the skill only after much research and practice led him to finally and literally hit upon the technique that transformed his beating of bark into an art. And he was apprehensive about sharing his knowledge. First there is his personal Prime Directive, which prohibits Kana‘e from interfering with the normal development of any culture. And second, he had not picked up a kapa mallet in more than a year. His job with Hawaii Electric Light Company kept him busy five days a week, and there were other distractions on weekends--finishing his house, learning a new craft, visiting family, delivering lectures, participating in cultural festivals, and entertaining friends of friends of friends passing through Hilo during their travels around the Big Island.
But Kana‘e was already planning an October vacation in Tahiti, and the once-a-week flight included a stopover on Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. He wrote to the German woman and told her he could stay for six days. If she could somehow get him to her nearby island of Atiu, Kana‘e would try to help the mamas.
Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands have more in common than British explorer James Cook, who visited both island groups in the late 1700s and for whom the Cook Islands are named. Polynesians settled both island groups. Two hundred years later, Cook Islanders, called Maori, and the native people of Hawai‘i still look alike, and their languages echo each other. But major differences distinguish the two cultures. Although the Cook Islands have had an ongoing relationship with Great Britain as a protectorate of New Zealand, a member of the British Commonwealth, Cook Islanders still speak their native language, practice their traditional culture, and retain ancestral lands.
The tie with New Zealand assures the Cooks Islanders comfort and security, but in return, planeloads of Kiwis fly up to the capital island of Rarotonga each week to vacation in the motels, hotels, and hostels scattered along the coast. The sixteen-thousand-acre island is a third smaller than the Hawaiian island of Ni‘ihau, and Rarotonga’s main road is barely two lanes wide and only twenty miles long. Tourists on scooters need less than an hour to circle the island, and the road allows visitors to peer into native homes and yards along the way. This unavoidable daily parade is an intrusion for some Rarotongans, who look through visitors with a malevolence engendered by Rarotonga’s physical transformation by tourism and by the Rarotongans’ growing subservience to tourist dollars.
This was not where Andrea Eimke and her husband, Juergen Manske, wanted to remain when they first visited the Cooks in 1983. They had left their home in Germany to escape the pressure and hustle, and lived for almost a decade as expatriates in Africa. They wanted to find a new home, where people and the land had not yet succumbed to greed. While on Rarotonga, they heard about a smaller island called Atiu (ah-too), 72 miles northeast of Rarotonga. They decided to pay it a visit.
From the sky, Atiu resembles a six-thousand-acre pancake, green except for the bright white crushed coral airstrip that scars the jungle. Swamplands and a raised coral reef surround the island’s highest point, a basalt plateau 236 feet above sea level--all that remains of a submerged volcano.
A thousand people live on the island of Atiu, and they welcomed Andrea and Juergen as friends rather than foreigners. Atiu’s mayor encouraged Juergen to lease the abandoned coffee plantation and revive the export crop. Juergen was not a farmer, but the possibility intrigued him, and he sent some beans off for analysis. The coffee was rated excellent. Juergen and Andrea returned to Germany, packed all their belongings, and moved to Atiu.
On Atiu, they joined fewer than a dozen Caucasians who live among the Maori, deriving most of their income from government wages, grants, and pensions. Money and gifts from their families abroad supplement their income, along with profits generated by exporting coffee, fruits, and vegetables to New Zealand in exchange for tins of fish and meat, and other products. The imports augment their diet of taro, arrowroot, bananas, coconuts, kamara, yams, and garden vegetables. When there is not enough food for local consumption, the island council initiates compulsory planting.
The people of Atiu once lived along the lowlands near the taro swamps, but the first Christian missionary, John Williams, saw the advantage of proselytizing from a central location. In 1823, he encouraged the people to move their five villages onto the island plateau. Atiu’s isolation allowed the villages to evolve slowly through the century and two World Wars. Today, most people live in hollow-tile houses with tin roofs that are capable of withstanding the hurricane season better than the thatched huts used for storage or rest houses in the gardens. Catchment provides water; a freighter takes in most of their supplies; and telephone service, which arrived in the 1990s, connects them to Rarotonga and the rest of the world.
While Juergen resurrected the coffee plantation, Andrea, a dressmaker’s daughter, taught two sewing projects at the Atiu school. She is a slight woman with short, cropped hair and endless energy. Encouraged by her teaching success, she envisioned a plan for the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio, a private company in which members would own shares and receive dividends. She also saw the studio as a place where the island women would gather to create native works to sell to tourists on Rarotonga or the occasional visitors to Atiu. Four island matrons, including the mayor’s wife, became founding members and shareholders in the company. Andrea’s interest in papermaking then led her to examine Atiuan kapa made from banyan and breadfruit trees, and soon she began interviewing the few people on the island who still practiced the art. She wanted to ensure that their knowledge would not be lost.
“The white man came and took it all away from them, and now the white man comes and tries to give it all back to them. I don’t know what’s right or wrong,” Andrea told a visitor. “Some people blame people like Juergen and me for doing the same job as the missionary by not leaving the people in peace. On the other hand, we’ve seen many things [lost] in our country, and we’ve seen things go down the drain. Luckily, we had books so later on we could learn them again. But there are not so many books available here. Our contribution [here] is to make any recording of it--whether it’s book, video--so at least they have something to relate to and look at it and go back to their own past.”
Before Andrea moved to Atiu, the island people had already lost much of their cultural knowledge, and they were either too busy or disinclined to pass on what remained. Even today, as soon as school is out and chores are done, their daughters and sons go to the mayor’s house and pay to watch videos. The children long for the world beyond the reef. As soon as teenagers have enough money, most of them move to the nearby main island of Rarotonga. Later, if they can, they go on to the United States or Australia, but more often to New Zealand, where today more Cook Islanders live than the eighteen thousand remaining in the islands.
A similar migration takes place worldwide, with young people abandoning rural areas and crowding into the capital cities, searching for the life they see on videos or imagine from relatives’ stories. “I don’t know what to say [to the people about saving their culture],” Andrea said.
In early 1988 an Australian papermaker told Andrea about a kapa conference she had attended that year on the Big Island in Hawai‘i. Andrea wrote to the conference organizers and asked for their assistance. They passed the message on to Kana‘e, who was already planning his vacation in Tahiti. He derives great satisfaction from his trips throughout the Pacific and has made many friends across the region. He wrote to Andrea and told her he would be in the Cooks and would help however he could.
Whereas Kana‘e acquired his kapa-making skills through research and practice, the Atiu women’s knowledge came from their mamas, who had gotten it from their mamas. American scholars classify craftsmen such as Kana‘e as native revivalists--the term for those who want to prove their ancestors were capable of artistic genius. The revivalists often study original works in museums and private collections and then try to duplicate the arts at home--a much different context than on Atiu.
Kana‘e developed an interest in native crafts during his childhood in the urban Honolulu community of Kalihi. As a young boy he showed skill with his hands--he put together model planes with such precision the glue never dripped. On weekends and holidays, he went over the mountains to rural Lāi‘e, where his grandparents lived the old Hawaiian way. They spoke the native language with him, and he ran around the village with his cousins, stopping by the beach to help the church people haul in nets for the monthly hukilau. On Mondays, Kana‘e was back in Kalihi, eating breakfast, already dressed in the starched khaki uniform then required for boys at Kamehameha, the private school for Hawaiian students.
“When I was going to school, I wasn’t very involved in normal student affairs,” he recalled at his present-day home in Hilo. “I was always pursuing art courses, and I was doing things [other students] weren’t interested in. I enjoyed slack-key guitar. It wasn’t popular then. I was a surfer. A lot of [my friends] just started surfing in their junior and senior year, and I was pretty accustomed to a board at that time, and I had some great-looking boards.
“After Kamehameha, I went to a year of college in Los Angeles. It was called Woodbury College. It was geared basically to business and art courses; right on Wilshire Boulevard in the heart of Los Angeles. When I got home in the afternoon my clothes and hair just reeked of smog. So after one year of it, I said, ‘This is it. I think I am going home.’ I didn’t like California all that well. The water was freezing cold; the people were different. I didn’t feel like I belonged. It’s kind of a shock to your values and your ethnic background when you get mistaken for another race. They thought I was Mexican. They thought I was Greek. They thought I was Jewish, Lebanese. At home in Hawai‘i we know who we are and it doesn’t have to be explained.”
After four decades of crafting objects, Kana‘e has refined a balance of quiet strength, patience, and dexterity that seems remarkable in today’s clumsy, hurried world. You can see the balance in his hands, which slowly chisel a stump of kamani into a drum or carefully tie microscopic knots around bunches of feathers for a cape.
Before Kana‘e learned such skills, he attended Honolulu Community College, where he earned an architectural drafting degree; then he took a job at Hawaiian Telephone designing telephone and cable circuits. At night he partied in Honolulu clubs, until the excursions exhausted him, financially and mentally. Kana‘e decided to enroll in a Hawaiian-language course. “My grandparents had given me inspiration for understanding things Hawaiian, and the language class reinforced it. I decided, Why not learn how a lau hala mat is woven; how a feather lei is put together; how a hula instrument gets completed?”
The Queen Emma Hawaiian Civic Club offered craft classes, and Kana‘e excelled. The following year, in 1973, civic club members asked Kana‘e to teach some classes of his own. His new day job with Hawaiian Electric had him hiking the Ko‘olau ridge for the surveying department. On lunch breaks he picked leaf buds, ferns, and maile vine to weave into lei. When the company advertised a job opening at its Big Island affiliate, the Hawaii Electric Light Company (HELCO), Kana‘e decided to leave O‘ahu.
“The Big Island was wide open and had such a diverse geography, so I welcomed the change. It was a rather maturing experience being out on my own, buying a lot and designing a house, making a go of it, keeping up the mortgage, trying to get things done. . . . Nothing is dull here. You make your own fun, and for craftsmen like myself, the Big Island still has a lot of resources available. We still have the trees and woods in relative abundance. But there is a sense of conservation that we feel we have to practice.
“If it’s possible, don’t pull plants up by the roots. If you cut something, put some pulapula [seedlings] back in the ground for next year’s crop. Some of the palapalai [fern] patches in the mountains are getting trampled by the hula hālau who need it for competition, a hō‘ike, or something. A lot of people are now growing it in their own yards for their immediate use or to help out some hālau and conserve the forests. Hawaiians are going to have to start looking at this more carefully. We can’t keep plundering. We’ve always got to repay and give back.”
Kana‘e was fortunate that on the Big Island he had opportunities to deepen his Hawaiian spirit while he was still a young man. His mind and hands became wise in the ways of making kapa, drums, hōlua (sleds), and model canoes. He learned how to weave makaloa and lau hala, and he learned how to get close to--and protect--the natural source materials necessary to pursue these projects. But it is his life as an American that makes these pursuits possible.
Monday through Friday, Kana‘e serves HELCO as its commercial service representative. The job requires that he learn about customer power needs and help them understand his company’s problems generating and transporting electricity. In a sense, he is HELCO’s ambassador. He is always punctual, prepared, easy to talk to, and neatly dressed. Kana‘e lets clients call him by his English name, Dennis. But when work is over, Kana‘e leaves HELCO behind. On free weekends, he puts on boots, jeans, and a T-shirt, climbs into his pickup, and drives up the mountains looking for materials.
Lynn Martin, the Folk Arts Coordinator with the Hawai‘i State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, acknowledges that Kana‘e is “very highly respected” because of his commitment to his culture, his versatility and ability in making a range of crafts and the tools necessary to create them, and his desire to share. “He’s so good,” she said, “just a gifted individual. He can discipline himself to really concentrate on something. That’s not a common ability in any of the arts.”
“I have a rule,” Kana‘e said. “There is no way to do a job but to do it well. If you are going to do kāpulu [careless] work, it’s going to be your signature. If you want your name to be respected, you must do good work. [The crafts world] is competitive. You would like to be better than the next craftsperson. . . . Of course, we always give each other that respect and distance and admiration because these are fields that are sometimes not popular.”
In recent years, Hawai‘i delegations have invited Kana‘e to join them as they participated in festivals of Pacific Island arts in New Zealand, Tahiti, and Australia; an international paper conference in Japan; and the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Hawai‘i celebration.
As skilled as Kana‘e and a few other Hawaiians are, only two, Malia Solomon of Honolulu and Pua Van Dorpe of Lahaina, have produced kapa matching the nine-by-seven-foot sheets beaten by the ancients. In 1982, Pua began to create one of those giant sheets, but after five hundred hours of labor she asked Kana‘e to help her with the overprinting. She did not attempt that type of kapa again.
Non-Hawaiian academics point out that although revivalists’ kapa may be technically proficient and thoroughly researched, it usually lacks a cultural imperative. Malia Solomon created a huge kapa sheet for display at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Most contemporary pieces are too valuable and rare for use in ceremonies or by hālau hula, which often substitute fabrics such as pellon. But an imperative--a real, culturally authentic use--arose in 1989, when Hawaiians needed to rebury the remains of a thousand ancestors disinterred from the West Maui dunes of Honokahua by a resort developer. According to tradition, a proper reburial requires that the bones be wrapped in kapa shrouds. But in 1989, that much kapa was not available, and the Hawaiian community did not know who would make it.
Besides work by Pua Van Dorpe, Kana‘e Keawe, Kawai Aona-Ueoka, Malia Solomon, and her granddaughter, Lisa Kalahauoli Jack, there was only one Hawai‘i group in 1989 dedicated to kapa--Nā Hoa Ho‘āla Kapa (The Friends of the Reawakening of Kapa), and it had been having difficulty sustaining interest in the craft. Moana Eisele, one of the original members, first learned about the art from Kana‘e in 1978, when three Hawaiian Civic Clubs jointly sponsored a series of classes. “Out of thirty people I remember,” Moana said, “I would say about six people went from day one to the end and completed all their tools. I’m the only one who stayed actively with it.”
Moana helped form Nā Hoa with thirteen people in 1982, and of that number five remained somewhat interested in kapa. “It has a real good possibility of losing what little flicker of life the recent interest has caused,” Moana said. “I don’t see people sticking with it long enough to carry it or keep that light on. I see it completely dying out and eventually nobody knowing anything at all, because the books that have been written are so inaccurate--something that you don’t find out until you try it yourself.”
Kapa making is a difficult craft to master because tradition requires that the craftspeople make their own tools from wood. They typically make the kapa from wauke, the paper mulberry tree, which they cultivate in straight stalks so the bark will peel off easily. They roll the bark inside out and into coils, and soak it. Then they can scrape away the outer bark and soak the inner bast again in salt water or fresh water (depending on the type of kapa desired). After several days of beating and soaking, the bast ferments; its pungent odor discourages some newcomers from kapa beating, but the smell is a signal to the kapa maker that the bast may be ready for final beating. Then, the craftsperson (traditionally a woman) beats the bast with a wooden mallet against a long, rectangular wooden anvil. The kapa maker must moisten the bast as she beats it into ever thinner and wider sheets, though not so thin that they become holey. A different kind of mallet is used to mesh sheets together and to imprint watermarks, visible when the dried kapa is held up to the light. Kapa makers create dyes from many plant sources, including kukui root, mountain fern, ‘ōlena (a ginger), or red earth, which they use to color kapa and to decorate it using hala-nut brushes or stamp designs carved onto bamboo strips.
Given the labor-intensive kapa-making process, and the few people who know how to do it, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which was responsible for reburying the people of Honokahua, wondered how 1,011 sheets of black kapa, each three feet by three feet, could be made within a few weeks.
Fortunately, Pua Van Dorpe had eight hundred basts of Maui wauke, which she had stored for eight years. She got additional bundles of bast from friends in Tonga and Fiji, where the Melanesian people still make kapa for ceremonial purposes and for tourists, as they do in Samoa, where the craft was revived in the 1930s. The niece of a daughter of an aunty of Pua’s called around and located fourteen Hawaiian women willing to help. They somehow managed to learn in fourteen hours the basics of what Pua had learned in fourteen years. They agreed to beat kapa without pay, without men, without gossiping, for up to ten hours a day until they had finished the work and dyed it black in the dark mud of nearby lo‘i kalo--all in an effort to bury ancestral bones properly. Their patient and dedicated work received much publicity in Hawai‘i, and it inspired people to ask Pua and other kapa makers to help them learn the art. At last, the Hawaiians had reconnected this native craft with a culturally important application. Thousands of bones removed from other sites still await reburial.
The women of Atiu do not feel compelled to beat kapa. They make barkcloth costumes only for the coronation of a new ariki (chief) and for the annual pageant celebrating New Zealand’s 1965 decision to allow the Cooks self-government. The women beat kapa for these occasions with encouragement from Andrea, who is willing to drive around and get whatever they need. She hoped the arrival of Kana‘e might make the mamas as enthusiastic about kapa as they are about making tīvaivai, the quiltlike fabric bedspreads and pillowcases that are the primary craft activity at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio.
Tīvaivai are the jewels of Atiu’s five villages, so precious that visitors only see them during Christian holidays or when each home has to open its doors for Tutaka, the government’s quarterly health inspection. Then families empty their linen chests to drape beds and couches with the floral-patterned coverlets that glow with the women’s handiwork.
A similar but heavier quilt version of the tīvaivai evolved in Hawai‘i after missionary women introduced fabric and sewing to the chiefly wives in 1820. As more Westerners arrived in Hawai‘i, native artists and craftspeople applied other traditional skills to making Western articles (the Hawaiian word for quilt is kapa) and began to fashion objects with tools and materials their ancestors had never known.
Hawaiians used their featherwork, cordage, and kapa as tax payments until the mid-nineteenth century, when the kingdom’s economy shifted from subsistence farming and fishing to plantations and markets. Men then had to pay taxes in land or cash--usually earned by working for haole businessmen and landowners. Knowledge that had evolved over the course of a thousand years disappeared in a single generation. Skills that persist today do so because people need certain things--foods, hula drums and implements, canoes, feather and flower lei--or because the craft has adapted to meet a new necessity, such as lau hala hats instead of mats. Eventually--with mandatory public education and the growth of the Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawai‘i--a contemporary group of Hawaiian artists developed. These self-taught or university-trained potters, painters, sculptors, designers, and craftspeople create new aesthetic forms that reflect native Hawaiian cultural imperatives as often as Western and personal ones. Sean Browne, Momi Cazimero, Rocky Jensen, Deborah Kakalia, Herb Kane, Pauline Kekuewa, Marie McDonald, and Levan Keola Sequeira are among the better-known Hawaiians whose contemporary or traditional work equals or surpasses that of the state’s best non-Hawaiians.
Some Hawaiian crafts, the labor-intensive quilts and Ni‘ihau shell necklaces, for example, have been refined to the point where replacement costs prohibit regular use. Other, more traditional pieces have roles in modern Hawai‘i that are not too far removed from their past. Sculpture, for instance, was an integral part of ancient Hawaiian culture, but the native people did not carve temple images for more than a century and a half after 1819, when the kingdom’s native religion was outlawed. During the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s, woodworkers began carving images of gods for use in native rituals or to preside over restored heiau. Kana‘e Keawe made a pahu (drum) for instructors at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, who use it in teaching students how to chant.
Kana‘e knew enough about Pacific customs and languages to prepare for the Cook Islands visit. He filled his suitcase with books, pareu, aloha shirts, and macadamia nuts--thank-yous for hospitality, both planned and impromptu. For the Atiu women he made shark-tooth knives to carve bark from trees, and hand-grooved kapa beaters. For their husbands, a friend gave Kana‘e fish-hook pendants made from bone and fine cordage. Then Kana‘e went to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu to examine samples of Cook Islands kapa, which the museum stores along with two thousand specimens from Hawai‘i and a thousand more from other Pacific islands.
The kapa collection ranges from family heirlooms of bedding and sleeping kapa to skirts, loincloths, and capes collected by royalty and gifted to the museum. Wearing white cotton gloves, Kana‘e slid out the trays of bark cloth and examined the Cook Islands pieces. He took notes and photographs to supplement the twenty color slides he had ordered from the museum, slides he would show on Atiu. He wanted to demonstrate that some Cook Islands kapa is as good as any produced by the Hawaiians, who were considered the finest artists in the ancient Pacific.

The Atiuans were busy preparing a welcoming feast at the Fibre Arts Studio in honor of Kana‘e when his airplane landed at the Atiu airstrip. One of Juergen’s coffee workers met him and greeted him with a lei, and drove him in a pickup truck up the coral road onto the village plateau to the house where he would be staying. For a reasonable cost, Kana‘e got a screened bedroom, an outer house with a toilet and shower, and a cook who fried flying fish over a fire for the visitor’s breakfast.
The feast began, as most formal Cook Islands gatherings do, with a series of welcoming speeches from several Maori. “Welcome to our shores,” said Ngatamariki Manu, an Atiu schoolteacher. “On our shores, we are not as bad as you are, to be honest, in our tradition and custom. But in one or two aspects within our culture and custom, it’s more or less running down the drain. . . . For example kapa making is one good and fast example. It’s almost running off because our elderly women have just gone down and all the knowledge has gone down with them. . . . That’s one of the biggest disadvantages down here. [Our crafts have] all been done practically. It’s never been written down in black and white whereby we can refer to it at a later date. . . . This is a real failure. . . . Our people are not keen to sit down for even a bit of their time and write about it. I myself have this interest in developing our culture in school, in order to maintain it in the young generation. The upcoming generation of tomorrow are the very important people who will keep our culture and customs alive. . . . Andrea deserves a pat on the back. In the short time she has been here, she has done a lot in reviving our customs, our arts. Congratulations for the efforts you are doing as far as traditions and customs.”
After the host speeches, Kana‘e rose and spoke, thanking the Atiuans for their welcome. Then he told them that, sadly, his mother and grandmother had not known how to make kapa--his knowledge of kapa was not handed down from them. He had learned from books, which were not much help. Only after much trial-and-error practice did he master the art and become a teacher. He said he taught so that the knowledge would not be lost.
Speeches and eating and prayers of thanks continued until twilight, when the men of the Matavai Tumu Nu invited Kana‘e to join them in their thatched shack, a hundred yards from the Fibre Arts Studio. Atiu did not have a restaurant or bar at the time Kana‘e visited, but a club of young men gathered at the Tumu Nu on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights to sing songs and drink. Steinlager was expensive, so they preferred “swipe”--a homemade brew prepared from hops, malts, sugar, and yeast bought at the store and fermented inside a hollowed-out coconut trunk called a Tumu Nu. Papa Toki, an elder, presided over the young men, and a designated barman sat beside the Tumu Nu and used a coconut cup to dole out the swipe. If anyone got too drunk, he didn’t get any more brew, as villagers often hired the Tumu Nu boys for day jobs around the island. But in the dim light of the oil lamp smoking away the mosquitoes, inebriation was difficult to gauge as the men played ‘ukulele and sang through the night. Before the evening ended, the group closed with a quiet prayer and a common request of visitors: “Tell us who you are.”
When confronted with this question, Kana‘e paused. He knew what he said and how he said it would be important to the men, who would pass his words around the island. He gathered his thoughts out of the haze in his head and told the men, “I am Kana‘e Keawe of Hawai‘i. I am one of ten master craftsmen sent to Australia for the Festival of South Pacific Arts. I go to Pape‘ete Friday. I am one of five people in Hawai‘i who can still do kapa. I had to learn it. It wasn’t taught to me by my grandmother. They lost it back in their generation.”
“Even today here,” Papa Toki interjected sadly.
“Andrea asked me if I could come over and show your women our Hawaiian type. I want to learn their style, too. It is going to be a sharing, educational experience. I am happy to be here.”
“Are you married?” one of the men asked when Kana‘e finished.
“Do you have a sister?”
And so it went through the night, with long, rambling speeches in Maori and Papa Toki’s kind insistence that Kana‘e return on Wednesday when the Tumu Nu resumed.
That night Teumere, the mayor’s wife, dreamt about finding a grove of trees off a trail still ragged with the coral that had risen from the sea thousands of years before her people had sailed to Atiu. In her dream, the jungle had trapped the heat rising from the island, and the air buzzed with bugs that nipped the skin of her companions, including the stranger, a Hawaiian named Kana‘e. All Teumere knew about the man was that he had been found by Andrea, the papa‘a woman who had moved to Atiu from Germany with Juergen. Kana‘e, Teumere had been told, knew some things about making kapa. When she awoke, Teumere decided she would show this Kana‘e how to make cloth from her island’s trees.
The next day Andrea picked up Kana‘e for an island tour with Teumere, the senior agricultural officer on Atiu, and his barefoot assistant, whose soles were as tough as the shoes Kana‘e wore. They rode in a truck, first going down to the landing where islanders launch hand-hewn outrigger canoes into the night, using hoop nets on poles to catch flying fish, which they attract with lanterns.
Along the coral roadside, Kana‘e spotted plants and trees in abundance that were rarely seen in Hawai‘i. He knew their uses back home but hesitated to share that knowledge, fearing it might influence and alter Atiu’s native culture. Kana‘e had seen how the mixing of cultures at Pacific arts festivals could change traditional dances and crafts--hula took on Tahitian movements, and Polynesians appropriated Hawaiian lei-making techniques. The blurring of cultural distinctions disturbs the purist in Kana‘e. Atiu’s agricultural assistant was less concerned. With pantomime and a few English words, he explained how leaves from this tree can induce a mother’s milk, roots from that one alleviate stomach disorders, those over there cure ulcers.
The sun soon burned away the clouds, and heat withered the group. Teumere wove a wreath of leaves to shade her head. The truck stopped beside a coconut tree so everyone could have a drink. The assistant climbed the tree and cut some coconuts, which he husked on a stake chopped from the brush. He cracked the nuts open with a rock, and the group drank.
The road gave out after the coconuts, and the entourage continued on foot up the Vai Momoiri path, through the makatea--the coral that had risen from the sea to surround the island. The Atiuans showed Kana‘e a large stone formation--the testicles of the god Māui--and the cave where the sons of Chief Ruapunga once lived.

Teumere headed down the trail, swinging the machete and laughing as her green dress fluttered around her stout body. Suddenly, she stopped. There on her right were the trees in her dream--the long, straight stalks of mati, a species of fig suitable for bark cloth. She struggled to cut through the bark until Kana‘e gave her one of his shark-toothed knives; then she quickly pulled the edge down the length of the tree and with the assistant’s help pulled off the split bark. They found more stalks, stripped off the bark, and rolled them into bundles, which they secured with vines and stacked on the path.
Atiu enchanted Kana‘e. He was far from the demands of his American life--mortgage, bankers, building codes, and power grids that represent walls for so many people. On Atiu, life is still deeply rooted in the land and the old ways. Earlier, the group had passed a crew of men who laughed as they worked on the island’s coral runway with shovels. The men waved, and Kana‘e recognized several of them from the previous night at the Tumu Nu. Through the sun’s glare, he could see they were sweating, but the men seemed unconcerned. Like Teumere, several had stepped into the jungle to weave wreaths to cool their heads. The night before, Kana‘e had heard them sing with a joy that comes only from the heart, and now, as they labored, the joy was still evident.

After the group left the jungle, the truck took them down to Oravaru Beach on the other side of the island, where Captain James Cook had landed in 1777. Teumere cut a fresh palm frond and wove a basket, stripped the bark off a hau tree to secure her slippers to her ankles, and walked into the tide pools. She helped the others gather a lunch of opihi, wana, limu, and paua, which they supplemented with a tin of meat from the store.
That evening Teumere and Papa Tu, her husband the mayor, went to Andrea’s house along with Mama Tepu, Mama Ate, and Manu, the schoolteacher, for the slide show Kana‘e had planned. They presented him with a lei of bell pepper slices, basil leaves, and gardenia blossoms, and the aromas perfumed the room. When the bulb in Juergen’s carousel projector burned out, the German couple fumed and apologized for not having a spare. The Atiuans waited patiently while Manu drove to the school to borrow an old projector. Then they watched the screen uncomplainingly as one by one Kana‘e pushed the slides into the machine and removed them. Two nights later, when the island generator conked out and interrupted another slide show, they again sat peacefully, still independent of the technology that was slowly transforming their island.

Since Kana‘e could not take the Bishop Museum kapa collection to Atiu, he showed slides of Cook Islands kapa from the museum collections, including a sample of one beaten in 1930. As Juergen tried to silence his dog, which was barking at passing neighbors, Kana‘e showed images of a man’s wedding-day waistcloth, and a yellow kapa poncho. The slides showed other ponchos perforated with patterns, including one with a serrated edge around the neck opening. Most of the ponchos appeared to be lightweight and apparently designed for ceremonial use rather than labor. One was imprinted with the image of a biplane. Kana‘e explained the size, origin, and apparent use of each sample as noted by the Bishop Museum curators.
Kana‘e ended his presentation by showing the islanders the kapa-making tools he had made from kauila, a Hawaiian hardwood. And he told them of the old days in Hawai‘i, when sorcerers used a staff of kauila wood to imprison a dead person’s spirit: After the sorcerer contrived to obtain a piece of the enemy’s clothing, hair, or discarded food, he could command the spirit to leave the wood in the form of a fireball, which would attack the victim. “We still have some of them flying around our island. Not everybody can see it. It’s one of those things that is still hanging on. As long as you have a good heart and believe in God, nothing will hurt you. My grandfather was one of those kāhunas who could dissipate the bad luck that was prayed onto you. He was always getting calls at two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock. He had to go to somebody’s house to chase away the spooks. . . . If your bone was broken--your arm or your leg--he could put his hand on you and pray, and the bone would heal right then and there. It’s too bad my grandfather never left that gift to any of us. . . . I admonish you people to save whatever you have left. You still have all of the influences from your old world still around. If you lose your language, you lose your whole culture. Keep talking your language to your children. They can always pick up English in Rarotonga.”

Andrea questioned Kana‘e about sharing knowledge. She said there are people on Atiu who do not want to share. “We have lots of people in Hawai‘i who don’t want to share,” Kana‘e said. Some craft masters only pass the knowledge within their families. Others feel no one deserves it unless they practice the knowledge with respect. “I teach [my students] everything that I know. If my students become better than me, I feel I have done my job. The best teachers I’ve known are the ones who say they don’t know everything.”
Ngatamariki Manu asked Kana‘e to deliver a lecture the following morning at Atiu College, the island high school. Manu believed strongly that the college should pass Atiuan culture on to the youngsters and help them become self-sufficient in Maori ways. But throughout the Cook Islands, the standard government curriculum is imported, designed by New Zealand educators for Caucasian children heading toward college. Manu feared that without a meaningful and relevant education that incorporated their native culture, many of the Atiu children would end up like their older cousins and siblings living in Rarotonga, Auckland, or Brisbane--performing manual labor at minimum wages.
In big cities everywhere in the Pacific, the values and prejudices of the Caucasian culture surround and influence native people. These influences make it “enormously difficult” for them to maintain a healthy cultural identity, according to Dr. Kirini Moko Mead, Professor of Maori at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand. Dr. Mead delivered that message in Honolulu when he gave the keynote address at the Fourth International Symposium of the Arts of the Pacific.
“The more the world around us changes, the more important it is to maintain those parts of our culture which we value highly. . . . The spreading tentacles of commercialism . . . are creating a sort of uniform international culture of people who wear the same brand names, watch the same videos, eat the same sorts of food, drink Coca Cola, fly in the same jumbo jets, and drive the same models of automobiles. The people of the Pacific are caught in the fishnets of international trade. . . . What chance does heritage have against the strong invading cultural influences which come from Japan, the United States, Britain, and Europe? These high-status international giants are experts at political manipulation and commercial exploitation. . . . Citizens who grow up in a multicultural society often place a false value upon the right to choose a culture. There is no real choice. . . . There is one heritage above all others, which has great significance for the individual in an emotional and spiritual sense. This heritage is found when one is true to one’s self. There is no deception, no dodging or avoidance of the issue, no pretense, and no posturing for political or social purposes.”
In one of the classrooms, students had hung fabric across the windows to block out the morning light. The boys sat on the right, the girls on the left. Kana‘e sat down among the green-and-white uniforms, turned on a cassette of Hawaiian music, and began showing slides of Cook Islands kapa, which he used to illustrate his lecture on the tradition and continued value of the arts in the Cook Islands. He could have shown other slides--perhaps one of a fabulous Hawaiian cloak made with 450,000 yellow bird feathers. But Kana‘e purposefully avoided this and other images that showed the vitality of pre-Western Hawaiian life. He did not want to side-track the students with stories from a different culture; again, he did not want to influence the uniqueness of Atiu.
After the lecture, Kana‘e told the students, “What I want to leave you with is the message, Don’t ever give up your language. If you lose your language, you lose everything. Support crafts[people], go and learn from them if you can. It’s good to learn the papa‘a ways--you can get good jobs--but never lose your cultural identity. If you get to be very good at making tapa or whatever it might be, eventually at some point in the world they are going to want to take people from here . . . to show how you do your skill. Learn what you can from the grandparents, because they are the ones with the most knowledge. No matter what the skill, learn it . . . [and] do well in school. You’ll be able to do well for yourself, your parents, your country, and your island as well.”
Kana‘e had no idea whether he reached the students. Except for a recitation of thanks from one student and profuse praises from the papa‘a teacher, not one Maori teenager had said a word. Andrea drove Kana‘e back to the Fibre Arts Studio, where the mayor introduced him to Papa Rongo, a man whose strong, tattooed arms continued the old tradition of weaving vines into baskets for trapping eels and braiding hau bark into reef sandals. The mayor explained that he had once known how, but had forgotten. After beginning the session with a prayer, he narrated as Papa Rongo pulled bark off the hau with his hands and silently braided it into three-eighths-inch rope. Within fifteen minutes, he had woven it into sandals. Kana‘e watched in amazement. No one in Hawai‘i still had this skill. “I wish for our Aloha Festivals [court] they would wear these instead of slippers and shoes,” he said. The same kind of rope had once been used to tie up animals, but, the mayor said, “Now our lazy boys go to the shop and buy the rope.”
Sometimes, Andrea asked Papa Rongo to make sandals and eel traps so the studio could sell them to visitors, but she said most tourists will not spend thirty dollars for such an item, or even more for the tïvaivai. With few customers for their work, Papa Rongo and the others lose interest. “Most of the tourists are not after crafts,” Andrea told Kana‘e. “They are after souvenirs. Many of them say it’s wonderful to have a place like this [Fibre Arts Studio] where you can actually see the people make things, but when it comes to paying for them, they say, ‘Oh they’re beautiful, but you see my budget won’t allow for it.’
“This is the point where crafts get lost, because people don’t want to make it anymore. There is no real need to make it for the family, and they can’t earn a living with it as well as they can with other professions, so they drop it and it’s gone.”
Kana‘e acknowledged that the same problems exist in Hawai‘i. Ni‘ihau shell necklaces can cost up to $5,000, and most visitors pass up even the $100 versions. “Crafts” sold in Waikīkī stores are often cheap, mass-produced trinkets shipped in from other places, like the Philippines and China. Most native craftspeople in Hawai‘i are weekend hobbyists until they can retire and pursue their love full-time. Some receive help from the federal government, which funds apprenticeship programs and efforts by the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program to research and recover forgotten knowledge. One of their projects included building Hawai‘i Loa, a replica of an ancient, double-hulled voyaging canoe.
It was mid-afternoon after Papa Rongo’s demonstration, time for the three mamas of the Fibre Arts Studio to beat kapa from the bark that had been cut in the jungle the day before. Mama Tepu sliced palm fronds and wove them into mats for sitting on the ground. They carried two wooden beating anvils out of the studio. The women unwrapped the bundles of inner bark, which had been kept moist inside ti leaves, and began pounding, tentatively at first, then with confidence. They remembered remnants of a kapa-beating song sung by their mothers and grandmothers, and they sang it for the tape recorder Kana‘e had with him. The beating mallets were supposed to keep time with the song, and for a few moments the voices and mallets became one. Kana‘e listened to the rhythm and imagined the poetry that had accompanied the beating mallets of his own ancestors a century and a half before. This is why Kana‘e loved his journeys below the equator. Andrea may have thought Kana‘e had come to help the mamas, but the mamas were giving him glimpses of a Polynesian past rarely visible in Hawai‘i.
Before Kana‘e arrived on Atiu, the women had difficulty beating out pieces of kapa wider than a pants leg. Kana‘e leaned over the anvils and showed them a technique to join several pieces together, creating a sheet more than three feet wide. The mamas caught on quickly, and their sheets began to grow.
Smoke drifted over the glade where the women worked. They interrupted their pounding when they learned that a nearby rubbish fire had blown into the dry brush, threatening the island’s pineapple crop. The women felt safe, but Andrea--protective of her mamas--insisted they move to the studio’s screened-in porch. They placed the anvils on the floor and continued working, but the concrete prevented the beating from resonating through the wood to the earth. Eight ladies showed up to watch and then picked up mallets to join in the pounding. This was rare, observed Andrea--to see so many women working the old way and laughing as they did it.
Kana‘e got lost in the moment and forgot his Prime Directive. “When nobody’s watching,” he told the women, “I use a spray bottle and I get nice even coat of water. But for cultural purposes, I use a bowl. But that’s the Hawaiian style--I don’t want to change your culture.”
That night the Tumu Nu greeted Kana‘e with a five-minute song. They sang it from their hearts, men who know they are “Toke-enua no Enuamanu” (worms-of-the-land-called-Enuamanu), the ancient name for Atiu. Conviction reverberated in their voices. They wanted Kana‘e to feel the island where they had been born and would be buried.
After singing the Lord’s Prayer in Maori, Papa Toki said to Kana‘e, “We are very pleased to have you with us tonight. Although there are many differences, we are here, and I don’t think these differences would have kept you from sitting with us. We are almost the same. These customs we are very proud of, and at the same time you ought to be proud of too. The similarities in our customs and languages prove, I am sure, as was said before, that we all came from Avaiki. Maybe in Avaiki that we came through and through and through, we stood together.”
Kana‘e responded in Hawaiian, the drinking resumed, and for the first time the swipe relaxed the control Kana‘e usually maintains over himself. He borrowed an ‘ukulele to sing for the men, who responded with more Maori songs until it was time to close and slosh through a number that everyone knew--“My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”
The following day and night would be the last for Kana‘e on Atiu. The mayor, Papa Tu, wanted to offer him a formal good-bye dinner, even if Kana‘e would only be able to stay briefly before moving on to the next house and another farewell. Teumere heaped her husband’s tables with eel, bread, coconut, pig intestines and feet, and three different types of banana. A young girl stood alongside to fan away the bugs. When Kana‘e arrived, Papa Tu talked proudly of the coming year, when his island would have twenty-four hours of electricity and a satellite dish for phone calls. His people would no longer have to wait three hours for an operator to transmit or receive calls by radio.
The evening continued at Andrea’s home, which was filled with Maori, new friends for Kana‘e. The women already had hidden away their gifts--the kapa beaters and shark-toothed knives. The men came with their shirts open so everyone could see their fishhook pendants. After Kana‘e showed them his slides of Hawaiian artifacts, he thanked the group for all they had shared with him and for their many gifts (a pair of reef sandals, an eel basket, among others). “I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all these sharings and friendship. . . . Now I don’t want you folks to go take your cultural skills and [start using] the Hawaiian tapa beaters. Leave those alone. May your tapa making go on and improve. Get the younger ones interested so [your culture] can be preserved. . . . You are the only ones who know how to do it. You are the remaining master crafts[people]. You are cultural repositories.”
It was getting late; the Maori had to be at church by 5:30 a.m., so Papa Tu summed up for Kana‘e what the women would feel the next day after the service, when they would place lei upon lei around his neck, until he would barely be able to see the twin-propped Excalibur that would take him back to Rarotonga. “Although you are leaving tomorrow,” Papa Tu said, “you are remaining over here through all these craftswork that you have given. The ways of tapa making are now improving. Before, they couldn’t make anything wider than these pants. They could only make a foot and not more than a foot. We thank you very much on this because certain ways of tapa making, improvement, and widening-up got lost. They got it through the way you were dealing with them. So this is very much appreciated. We hope we can pass it on to the young ones, if the young ones are interested to come. Again we thank you very much. You are leaving tomorrow; our hearts will be with you and our prayers. God will take care of you until the end.”

Dennis Kana`e Keawe: Kapa / Tapa