Guest Post: Feathers and Fibers Fit for a King

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Guest contributor Vanessa Lee-Miller is a freelance journalist specializing in Hawaiian arts and culture. While in Europe, she spends her time scouring museum collections for “lost or hidden Hawaiʻi”.
In the Hawaiian language, the proverb “ka wela o ka ua”” describes the intimidating yet striking vision of an assembly of brawny, chanting warriors, long spear in hand and bedecked in feathered cloaks and helmets, preparing for battle or a formal ceremony before the aliʻi nui, the highest-ranking chief in the land.
After 237 years, the feathered cape, ʻahuʻula, and feathered helmet, mahiole –  made of the feathers of over 20,000 rain forest birds, painstakingly bundled and sewn onto an intricately woven olonā  fiber net base – returns to Hawai’i via the national museum Te Papa Tongarewa in Aotearoa, New Zealand. A generous ten-year loan from Te Papa Tongarewa will help create our 21st century version of an assembly of feathered warriors in Honolulu’s Bishop Museum.
What’s so special about this mahiole and ʻahuʻula ? Sufficient documentation due to legal and institutional ownership of these artifacts traces it back to its original owner, the aliʻi nui Kalaniʻōpuʻu , a legendary and greatly feared ruler of Hawaiʻi Island. Upon the arrival of Captain James Cook to Hawaiʻi Island in 1779, during his third and final Pacific voyage, he was perceived by many, but not all high-ranking chiefs and priests as Lono, the Hawaiian deity of agriculture. The most prized offerings then had to be made to the personified “Lono”, as Cook’s timely arrival coincided with the “Makahiki”, an annual period of feasting and abundance.
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Full-length ʻahuʻula made of olonā fiber netting, ʻōʻō (yellow) and ʻiʻiwi (red) feathers. From the permanent collection in the Queen Emma Summer Palace, Nuʻuanu, Honolulu, Hawaiʻi.

These feathered treasures from a rather fascinating albeit checkered past, remain safely kept under glass in a koa wood-paneled gallery. The bold language of color, the fiery red feathers of the ʻiʻiwi bird and luminous golden feathers of the ʻōʻō bird, would surely intimidate a humble subject frozen in a prostrate pose as he stole a forbidden glimpse of the brilliantly bordered hemline of the aliʻi nui’s cape.  An enlarged image of a sketch by John Webber, the artist on Cook’s crew, depicts Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s twin-hulled royal canoe with an ʻahuʻula draped over its prow. A magnified image of this print is mounted on the wall just above the actual ʻahuʻula and mahiole, chronologically pinpointing the late 18th century context  in which these feathered offerings were made to Captain Cook.
Hawaiian feather works, nā hulu makamae, as an adornment, never really fell out of fashion. It remains as one of the few surviving crafts like the ubiquitous flower lei making. I still remember seeing locals of my grandparent’s generation wearing hats with brilliant feathered hatbands on special occasions. So from ancient times, the art of feather works has adapted to fashion trends of our era.
One very significant cultural note, the bird hunters, the plant fiber gatherers, weavers, priests and all others involved in the crafting of these treasures firmly believed in what is called “mana”. Mana is a kind of spiritual energy, whereby a very specific protocol of chanting, unique to each individual’s task , was essential to the creation of the object. The feathered work was then instilled with its own mana and once placed on its rightful owner, his inalienable mana would then be imbued into the feathers and fibers of this creation.
Just fifteen minutes away, up mauka, mountainside, in leafy Nuʻuanu Valley, a summer retreat,once frequented by Hawaiian monarchs and now fully restored, provides an intimate setting for a concurrent exhibition called Nā Hulu Makamae o Hawaiʻi , the treasured feather works of Hawaiʻi. This exhibition includes contemporary feather works complementing it’s significant permanent collection of ʻahuʻula and kāhili,  royal  feather standards, bequeathed to the Daughters of Hawaiʻi, the official keepers of the Queen Emma Summer Palace , by Liliʻuokalani, Hawaiʻi’s last reigning monarch.  The extremely warm and welcoming staff will actually walk you through the rooms of the palace and fill you in on tidbits of history yet unknown to the guide books.
As I walk down the steps of the Summer Palace, still musing over feathers and fibers fit for a king, my gaze is immediately drawn towards the shimmering Pacific Ocean. I’m suddenly reminded of the ever-broadening concrete cape of urban development, overcrowded freeways and lumbering big-box American “grab and buy”  stores, which continue to leave a crushing, indelible footprint on the islands. They are indeed still paving paradise…
(A final note, if you can’t make it to Hawaiʻi for the exhibitions and your summer travels take you to Europe, you still have a great opportunity to see ʻahuʻula on permanent display at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford as well as the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. Also, coming from a bit further west in Polynesia, but not unlike the ʻahuʻula, is an intricately woven Māori feather cloak, kahu huruhuru featured in the British Museum in London.)

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  • Emily Brayshaw April 14, 2016 06.51 pm

    Love this post. My area of scholarship considers how these types of important indigenous cultural artefacts inspired Western theatrical costume design. It was a real treat to read about the technical and spiritual side of traditional Hawaiian ceremonial feather work. Thanks again.

  • Amanda Kuuipo Stevens April 19, 2016 06.06 pm

    What a fresh and comprehensive snapshot into a very important, yet sometimes overlooked part of our Hawaiian culture


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