By Léo Azambuja
In old Hawai‘i, only the highest-ranking class of ali‘i wore the ‘ahu‘ula (feathered cloak) and the mahiole (feathered helmet). There are more than 160 examples of this attire that have been preserved in museums throughout the world. But none of the royal cloaks of King Kaumuali‘i, one of the most powerful ali‘i of his time, survived the times.
Lo and behold! The Kaua‘i Museum recently unveiled a permanent exhibit that pays homage to Kaua‘i’s last king and his legacy in the history of the Islands — an ‘ahu‘ula designed by a committee of experts, and a faithful replica of one of his mahiole.
“This is a gift from the people of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau to honor Kaumuali‘i,” said Chucky Boy Chock, Kaua‘i Museum director.
As the ‘ahu‘ula and the mahiole were unveiled during a private ceremony April 12 in the Ali‘i Gallery at the Kaua‘i Museum, the select crowd of 76 dignitaries was rendered speechless, according to Chock. Many of the invitees represented longstanding, traditional Hawaiian organizations such as the Royal Order of Kamehameha, Daughters of Hawai‘i, Nā Wahine Hui ʻO Kamehameha I, Hale O Nā Ali‘i O Hawai‘i and ‘Ahahui Kaʻahumau — and they all came dressed in full regalia.
The ceremony included chanting and a performance by kumu hula Leina‘ala Pavao’s halau. But there was a sweet surprise too: Big Island’s Nalani Kanaka‘ole, who Chock calls “the authority” in Hawaiian chanting, composed an oli especially for the ʻahuʻula’s unveiling ceremony.
Appropriately titled No Ha‘akulou (the cloak’s given name), Kanaka‘ole’s oli poetically and metaphorically takes us through a voyage around Kaua‘i’s Westside while using ancient names for the many sites.
“She gifted us with this, we didn’t ask her,” said Chock, adding to have an oli composed for the ʻahuʻula is one of the highest honors the museum could’ve received.
Perhaps in some of the oli’s most striking verses, Kanakaʻole describes the crimson waters of Waimea River running alongside the Russian Fort, built over the mana-rich Paʻulaʻula Heiau.
“The chiefly one, the esteemed one
The chief who sets the house post of the island
Recall the flowing red waters of Paʻulaʻula
It is sacred, it is native flowing freely over the land”
The mahiole and the ʻahuʻula were crafted by California-based Big Island artist Loea Makanaaloha San Nicolas, who has two decades of experience in making traditional Hawaiian feathered cloaks, helmets and staffs.
The ‘ahu‘ula is covered in 250,000 red, black and yellow feathers, and the mahiole has 10,000 feathers, also in red, black and yellow. In old Hawai‘i, the red feathers would have come from the endemic birds ‘
The mahiole is an exact replica of one of a handful of mahiole that are part of a collection belonging to the British Museum in London. This type of mahiole, with a broad crest and a braided strip around the edge, is associated with a style of mahiole from Kaua‘i, according to the British Museum. Chock consulted with the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, and said they believe the original mahiole at the British Museum once belonged to Kaumuali‘i. In addition, Chock said, Hawaiian artists Brook Kapukuniahi Parker and the late Herb Kane always talked about Kaua‘i’s distinct style of mahiole, with a short and wide crest.
Fashioning a historically accurate ‘ahu‘ula was a bit more complicated than the mahiole. Without a surviving full-size cloak owned by Kaumuali‘i, and no portraits of the king while he was alive, the museum put together a special committee of Hawaiian cultural practitioners to figure out how the king’s cloak would have looked like.
“There was a (small) cape, but not a cloak. So they got together and figured out a design that would be of that time,” said Chock, adding the final design was based on an owl spreading its wings, just like Kaumuali‘i would act as protector of Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau. The result was nothing short of extraordinary. The ‘ahu‘ula unveiled at the Kaua‘i Museum fits right in with the designs of dozens of surviving cloaks.
All this happened by serendipity. About six months ago, Makanaaloha called the Kaua‘i Museum to ask if they were interested in a feathered artifact workshop. Chock had been thinking about asking the Bishop Museum to send to the Kaua‘i Museum a small cape that had been gifted to Kaumuali‘i by Kamehameha I in 1810. As Chock spoke with Makanaaloha, he pondering on the possibility of rather having a full-size royal cloak built and placed on permanent exhibit at the museum. The rest is history.
By tradition, each cloak in old Hawai‘i was given a name. Another committee was set up to pick a name for the ‘ahu‘ula, but the task was a “no-brainer,” Chock said. The cloak was named “Haʻakulou,” after Kaumuali‘i’s favorite wife, Kekaihaʻakulou (also known as Deborah Kapule), and he probably would have chosen that named himself, according to Chock.
Kekaihaʻakulou became queen of Kaua‘i in 1817, when she married Kaumuali‘i. Her reign lasted until 1821, when King Kamehameha II (Liholiho, Kamehameha I’s son and successor) kidnapped Kaumuali‘i and whisked him to O‘ahu as a prisoner of the State. On O‘ahu, Queen Ka‘ahumanu married Kaumuali‘i to strengthen the House of Kamehameha’s reign over Kaua‘i. Kekaihaʻakulou then married Abner Keli‘iahonui, Kaumuali‘i’s son by another wife, Kaʻapuwai Kapuaʻamohu.
Kaumuali‘i would die May 26, 1824 on O‘ahu. Soon after, Humehume, Kaumuali‘i’s older son and Keli‘iahonui’s half-brother, led a failed rebellion on Kaua‘i. That same year, Ka‘ahumanu forced Keli‘iahonui to marry her, likely to keep Kaua‘i under control. In the following year, Kekaihaʻakulou would remarry and become a Christian. She was renamed as Deborah Kapule, as she is widely known today.
Chock said the ʻahuʻula ties with a project the Kaua‘i Museum has been working on for years. Several paintings by artist Evelyn Ritter tell Kaumuali‘i’s story. In many of those paintings, the king is wearing the ʻahuʻula.
“You look at the paintings, and it now makes sense. It’s coming full circle,” he said.
The display case enclosing the ʻahuʻula and the mahiole are strategically placed at the center of the museum’s Aliʻi Gallery. By mid-July, the wood-and-glass display will be substituted by an all-glass enclosure. The iron mannequin holding the royal attire, currently mounted on a wood plank, will be placed on top of lava rocks.
The latest addition is part of a plan to make the museum more engaging to locals and visitors. Chock said that a year ago many schoolchildren didn’t know who Kaumuali‘i was, but have since learned about him, just from visiting the museum in the recent past.
“The visuals make it really it easy for story-telling,” he said.
Besides the Hawaiian culture section, the largest one, the museum has an immigrant and a missionaries section. By this time next year, Chock said, the immigrant section, which also has a surfing portion, should be completed. Then the museum will concentrate on the second floor, building the missionaries and paniolo (cowboy) stories.
And then there is a new exhibit center planned for above the courtyard.
“We’re going to have travelling exhibits. You can’t believe how excited I am. I already made contacts for 2020,” Chock said.