By Léo Azambuja

Kawaikini Public Charter School senior Jaclyn Ku‘uleimomionalani Ka‘ahanui, left, and sister Jaylyn Kawaiopua-Ululani Ka‘ahanui, a junior at the school, are seen here holding kapa and kapa making tools at the hut built by students in the school’s Hawaiian garden.

Kawaikini Public Charter School senior Jaclyn Ku‘uleimomionalani Ka‘ahanui, left, and sister Jaylyn Kawaiopua-Ululani Ka‘ahanui, a junior at the school, are seen here holding kapa and kapa making tools at the hut built by students in the school’s Hawaiian garden.

It was an ordinary early morning. People all around Kaua‘i were just arriving at work. But in Puhi, three Hawaiian schoolchildren were chanting at the edge of a forest, asking for permission to enter. Nature allows them by telling the birds to chirp and the wind to blow softly. If the skies turned dark and it rained, the children would’ve turned around and tried it another day.

The children were looking for wauke, or paper mulberry, the prima matter for kapa, a cloth made of tree bark. Pre-contact Hawaiians used kapa for many things such as clothing, bedding and religious practices. But a few years after Westerners first arrived on the Islands, kapa making ceased completely in Hawai‘i.

“I do kapa so I can help keep the culture alive in my ‘ohana,” said Jaylyn Kawaiopua-Ululani Ka‘ahanui, who goes by Kawai. The 16-year-old junior at Kawaikini School in Puhi added her Hawaiian ancestors made kapa on a regular basis, and nowadays it’s a rare and even unknown tradition.

Hawaiian kumu Sabra Kauka

Hawaiian kumu Sabra Kauka

Kawai’s sister, Jaclyn Ku‘uleimomionalani “Momi” Ka‘ahanui, is a senior at the same public charter school, which focuses on Hawaiian language and culture. At her graduation ceremony, Momi will be wearing a kapa kihei, or shawl, that she made. She saw past seniors’ make kapa for their graduation, so she wanted to do the same thing.

“I can show my family and my friends what I did for my senior year,” said Momi, adding her school is not just about academics; it’s also about Hawaiian culture.

Kamalei Gabriel is only 7, so she is not in the schoolʻs kapa program yet. But she knows a Hawaiian mo‘olelo, or tale, of a chief named Maui who climbed Haleakalā, lassoed the sun and made it stay longer so the kapa Maui’s mother made could dry.

Momi, Kawai and Kamalei are part of a small, yet growing number of people reviving this ancient Hawaiian tradition that was nearly lost forever.