By Léo Azambuja
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.
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.
When Capt. James Cook first saw Hawai‘i, in January 1778, he went ashore in Waimea, Kaua‘i, and acquired some kapa. Cook wrote in his journal their coloring and staining displayed “a superiority of taste, by the endless variations and figures” compared to the kapa in the rest of Polynesia. He even wrote the Kaua‘i kapa resembled “the most elegant productions of China and Europe” available at cloth shops.
Other captains who visited Hawai‘i in the following year, after Cook’s death, also noted the Hawaiian kapa’s diversity of thickness, colors and patterns, and its extreme beauty and precision in printing.
In 1823, the Rev. William Ellis, from the London Missionary Society, spent time among Hawaiians, and wrote a detailed account of kapa production, from wauke cultivation to the final stages of printing.
But it wouldn’t take long until the kapa-making tradition would cease in Hawai‘i. About 200 years ago, soon after merchants started coming here regularly, the introduction of Western textiles caused kapa-making to cease completely, according to Malia ‘Alohilani Rogers, academics director at Kawaikini and mentor for the school’s kapa project.
As a side note, the late historian Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) wrote in his book Arts and Crafts of Hawai‘i that an old man named Keawe, from Laupāhoehoe, Big Island, still made kapa from wauke as late as 1923.
‘Alohilani said kapa making was revived on O‘ahu during the Hawaiian Renaissance in the 1970s. On Kaua‘i, it didn’t happen until 1990, when Hawaiian kumu Sabra Kauka wanted to make a kihei for hula, and invited a kumu from O‘ahu to teach a 12-day workshop here.
Sabra said it took a while for the tradition to be revived on Kaua‘i because “nobody was crazy enough.” Making kapa is a laborious process requiring a community effort and an enormous amount of patience and time.
Hawaiian kapa was mostly made with wauke bark, though few other trees could be used. The wauke had to be tended constantly; its branches were cut off as soon as they’d sprout. Once a tree reached one-to-two years old, the trunk, only an inch in diameter, was harvested, leaving the roots in place for another trunk to grow.
A sharp-edged shell or a wooden tool fitted with a shark tooth were used to cut the wauke’s bark down the middle. The entire bark was then pulled off at once. Opihi shells were used to scrape off the outer bark, revealing a long and narrow piece of white bark. This was rolled up and soaked in water for many days, a process unique to Hawai‘i.
After soaking, the bark was beaten with a wooden four-sided tool called ‘ie kuku or a rounded beater called hohoa over a kua, an anvil made of Hawaiian hardwood.
After several stages of beating the wauke, each with a different kind of ‘ie kuku, a two-inch-wide piece could end up two-foot-wide. The kapa pieces had to be stuck together to make a larger final product. Unlike elsewhere in Polynesia, Hawaiians did not use natural glues; rather, they would pound the pieces together, and the fibers would naturally weave and create a strong bond. The kapa was then left outside for the sun to dry and bleach it.
There were other distinctions between Hawaiian and Polynesian kapa.
Hawaiians used ‘ohe kapala, or carved bamboo stamps, to create the meticulous designs unique to the Islands. Intricate designs were printed in red, yellow, black, green, pink and blue.
Hawaiians also scented the kapa, and sometimes used oils, such as kukui nut oil, to waterproof the kapa, both processes being exclusive to Hawai‘i. Finally, Hawaiian kapa also differed from the rest of Polynesia due to fine carvings on the ‘ie kuku that created a unique watermark on the kapa. The thinnest and finest kapa looked like lace.
Today, because it is such a difficult and time-consuming process, there are only about 10 people on Kaua‘i who make kapa, according to ‘Alohilani.
But the efforts of Sabra, ‘Alohilani and a few others on Kaua‘i and in the state to keep kapa-making alive are paying off.
Kawai and Momi said they intend to keep making kapa and eventually pass their skills to their next hanauna, or generation.
Last month, a kapa-making workshop taught by Sabra at Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center in Lihu‘e attracted several families. For Desiree Adams, program manager at Keiki O Ka ʻĀina, the event’s sponsor, workshops like this “strengthen families through cultural education.”
‘Alohilani says thereʻs a lot more to kapa. It perpetuates an ancient tradition, but it also teaches lessons of patience, perseverance and observation.
Momi agrees, and said patience is something she had to learn while doing kapa.
“Now I just have to teach it to my sister, because she has no patience at all,” she said, laughing.
Preservation Workshop: On May 7, during Preserving Your ‘Ohana Treasures workshop at Queen Liliu‘okalani Children’s Center in Lihu‘e, Kaua‘i Historical Society Executive Director Helen Smith Wong, historian DeSoto Brown, of the Bernice Pauai Bishop Museum, and conservator Linda Hee will give advice on how to care for kapa, photos, documents, textiles, feather and woodwork in our environment. The event goes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunch will be provided by QLCC with support from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. A $10 archival supply fee will be charged to provide materials for your use at home. QLCC is at 4530 Kali Rd. Register at www.kauaihistoricalsociety.org.