237 years later, the return of a Hawaiian chief’s treasured feather cape and helmet to Hawaii

chief kalaniopuu hawaii cape bishop museum

It’s cloudy and very windy outside the six-story Te Papa Tongarewa museum in Wellington, New Zealand.

A delegation from Hawaii flew from Oahu to Aotearoa a few days before and are walking in a tight procession, following the deep, trumpet sounds of the taonga puoro (traditional Maori musical instruments), up an outdoor staircase. These men and women from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), Bishop Museum and Hawaiian Airlines are on their way to an important and historic event—one that’s been a long time coming. Some are dressed in suits and ties, others in elaborate dresses with distinct Hawaiian designs, and still others, like the lua (hand-to-hand fighting) practitioners who make up the kiai (guards), are dressed in traditional Hawaiian wears of malo (loincloths) and kihei (rectangular tapa garments worn over one shoulder and tied in a knot). At the top is Te Ara a Hine, Te Papa’s entrance to its marae (a communal meeting space), and it’s here where the group stops. Standing together and forming a line, they face the Aotearoa delegation and Hawaiian High Chief Kalaniopuu’s ahu ula (feather cloak) 
and mahiole (feather helmet) which they are there to receive.

In 1779, British explorer Captain Cook visited the Hawaiian Islands and was generously welcomed by Kalaniopuu in Hawaii Island’s Kealakekua Bay. Feather-work cloaks were regarded to be extremely valuable to Native Hawaiians and they were only worn by chiefs. “Kalaniopuu takes off his cloak and helmet and places it on Captain Cook, as well as presents him with several other feather cloaks at his feet,” says Marques Marzan, Bishop Museum’s cultural resource specialist. “Those other cloaks would have been spoils of war.” 

The Hawaii delegation arrive at the Te Papa marae, with Kamanopono Crabbe and Marques Marzan among those in front.
Photo: The Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Traditionally, a chief would have only one cloak—an identifier visually symbolizing himself in a battle—and the length and size of the cloak, and the kinds of feathers used, indicated status. Because of the incredible responsibility and level of trust involved, Marzan says a special class of people, laborers and craftspeople, would have been used to make these royal garments. First, cordage was prepared from the olona (a native shrub), then taken to create the net backing of the cloak. The kia manu (birdcatchers) had the time-consuming task of gathering the feathers, after which another crafter would bind the feathers to the netting and, by doing so, would create a unique design for the chief. Similarly, the helmet required the collection of an ieie vine to create the wicker work that made its foundation. Kalaniopuu’s ahu ula, estimated to have feathers from 20,000 birds, shows the great amount of labor and craftsmanship needed to create these pieces. “To offer his own personal cloak, being the paramount chief of that particular area of Hawaii Island, made a big statement,” says Marzan, who believes it was done in recognition of Cook’s status. 

All of the items left Hawaii on board Cook’s ship, following a battle that ended Cook’s life, and they ended up in England where they eventually were bought at an auction by the family of Lord St. Oswald, before he gifted the collection to New Zealand’s Dominion Museum (the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa) in 1912. Nobody knows why New Zealand was chosen by Oswald, but the museum staff have cherished and taken care of it just as much as they would their own Maori taonga (treasures). 

The Hawaii and Aotearoa groups enter the marae to take their seats, after a ceremonial warrior challenge, a karanga (a Maori welcoming call) and haka powhiri (Maori chant and dance) are complete. OHA’s CEO, Kamanaopono Crabbe, then stands to deliver his speech in olelo Hawaii (Hawaiian language), drawing connections between the Maori and Hawaiian cultures, bonded together through stories of their pasts and ancestries. He uses gestures to show how Maui fished the Islands out of the sea—a similar story of both cultures—all while an artistic depiction of the demigod lassoing the sun stares down on him from the top of the marae.

Many members of OHA, including Crabbe, have deep ties to the ahu ula and mahiole and have hoped for its return for many years. In 1998, when Te Papa opened, Crabbe was part of the ceremony and performed a chant for the ahu ula when it was redisplayed. OHA chairperson Robert Lindsey Jr., and other members of its staff, Mehana Hind and Keola Lindsey, are also lineal descendants of Kalaniopuu, making this journey a very personal one for them. Since 2013, OHA and the Bishop Museum had been discussing the return of the priceless artifacts to the Islands, and Te Papa believed now was the time to do it, granting a long-term loan of 10 years with a high probability of an extension. “Te Papa had a desire to return it back to Hawaii, but they wanted to make sure that it was maintained properly,” says Marzan. “They wanted it to be housed at the Bishop Museum, and the Bishop Museum worked closely with OHA to make that happen.”

A member of the kiai.
Photo: The Office of Hawaiian Affairs

The feelings of heavy emotion, positive energy and gratefulness to Te Papa for its willingness to send these meaningful treasures back to Hawaii is reflected by the songs, dances and chants performed by the Hawaii group in attendance, and by the gifts they give in return to the Te Papa museum, tokens of their gratitude—Hawaiian spears, lei hulu (feather lei), lei poo (lei worn on head), a chiefly fan made by Marzan, and a large wooden bowl, among other things.

“As the few who were able to travel here and represent all of our people back home and around the world, I’m in awe of [our men] and what they were able to accomplish here, telling the different parts of Kalaniopuu’s life, and drawing connections between us and the Maoris,” says Hind, following the ceremony. “It happened at the right time, the right place, and I can’t wait to take it home,” she adds, referring to the openness Te Papa had in making this happen. “Some [people back home] will have spiritual connections, some will have family connections, and that’s exciting.”

The ahu ula and mahiole are clearly significant for their provenance and history, but it also has lasting effects that relate them to the present-day. With this loan, the Bishop Museum, which only has three feathered helmets, and Hawaiian artisans will be able to learn even more about the skill and craftsmanship needed to create them. “I had never seen the three rows of oo (a black honey-eater bird) feathers on the crest before,” says Sam Ohu Gon, senior cultural advisor for The Nature Conservancy, about the mahiole. The ahu ula is also special because it’s one of the few cloaks that has evidence of being a shorter cape at one time, then being extended to a longer cloak later. For many others, it inspires cultural pride and provides a connection to the chief. Traditionally, Native Hawaiians believed their kings held mana (supernatural power) that was like that of a god, so some believe these royal pieces, which were very carefully created for and worn by Kalaniopuu, continue to hold the chief’s mana and should be equally revered. 

The Hawaii delegation, including Kamanaopono Crabbe in red, stand around the crates before they are driven to 
Auckland, New Zealand for their flight home.
Photo: The Office of Hawaiian Affairs

The ahu ula and mahiole are carefully packed inside a large crate and sent on a 10-hour road trip across the north island of New Zealand, from Wellington to Auckland—the kiai never leaving its side—and then on a nine-hour flight back to Honolulu. 

Once we arrive at the Honolulu International Airport, I disembark from the plane and watch through the glass windows of the arrival gate as the Hawaiian Airlines’ baggage handlers begin to unload its cargo hold. Soon, the crate carrying these extremely significant and powerful pieces representing Kalaniopuu will be unloaded onto the tarmac, where the delegation is standing and waiting to welcome them home. 

Kalaniopuu’s ahu ula and mahiole are currently on display at the Bishop Museum in its exhibit, “He Nae Akea: Bound Together.” 1525 Bernice St., Honolulu, Oahu, (808) 847-3511, bishopmuseum.org/kalaniopuu/.

Categories: Culture, Oʻahu