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  • He Nae Ākea: Bound Together
  • Shelby Pykare
He Nae Ākea: Bound Together. The Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

On 19 March 2016, as part of the He Nae Ākea: Bound Together exhibit, the ‘ahu‘ula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) of Hawai‘i Island chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u returned to [End Page 212] Hawai‘i for the first time since they were gifted to Captain James Cook at Kealakekua Bay in 1779. These garments, reserved for Hawaiian ali‘i (chiefs), are similar to many other feathered pieces from Hawai‘i, including a number of other ‘ahu‘ula that were presented to Cook and his men at that time, but Kalani‘ōpu‘u was wearing these two specific pieces right before he presented them to Cook. As items that were worn by the great chief—who was an acclaimed warrior in his own right but also held the distinction of being the uncle of Kamehameha I—the ‘ahu‘ula and mahiole are imbued with his powerful mana (power/prestige).

These two Hawaiian mea makamae (treasures) arrived at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu as a result of a partnership with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. These treasures have been housed at Te Papa, formerly the Dominion Museum, since 1912 when they were gifted as part of the collection of Rowland Winn, the Second Baron St Oswald.

On entering the recently renovated Hawaiian Hall, one finds the He Nae Ākea exhibit against the back wall. The ‘ahu‘ula is spread flat on a raised platform in front of an image depicting a number of Hawaiian canoes at Kealakekua Bay. Said to contain feathers from 20,000 birds, the ‘ahu‘ula is stunningly beautiful, with its yellow border and yellow triangles on a background of red. To the left of the ‘ahu‘ula, at most viewers’ eye level, sits the mahiole, turned in profile. The red feathers of the mahiole cover the entire helmet except for a strip of yellow feathers that runs down the center from front to back.

The bright red and yellow feathers of these two pieces contrast starkly with the dark background colors of the exhibit case and a bed of grey river stones on the floor. Printed on the glass to the right of the ‘ahu‘ula are the words to the Hula Manō No Kalani‘ōpu‘u (Shark Hula for Kalani‘ōpu‘u) in Hawaiian with an English translation provided beneath each line. At the bottom corner of the case, in black lettering on a white background, the genealogy of Kalani‘ōpu‘u is also listed as well.

While the exhibit traveled from New Zealand to Hawai‘i, delegates from both Te Papa and the Bishop Museum accompanied the ‘ahu‘ula and mahiole. Discussions about this exhibit began in 2013, and these treasures will remain at Bishop Museum for at least the next ten years. However, they have not been officially repatriated; Te Papa retains legal ownership of the pieces. But the long-term loan is a gesture of goodwill between the two institutions and the communities they represent.

The day the exhibit opened, there was a line of people that stretched all the way through and outside of Hawaiian Hall, all waiting to see the treasures of Kalani‘ōpu‘u and pay their respects. Gifts were accepted by museum staff standing near the exhibit case, hulas danced, and tears were shed by visitors before the ‘ahu‘ula and mahiole. The following day, the museum held an event titled “Fated Feathers, Unfurling Futures: Contemplation of Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s Return,” which was organized by Noelle Kahanu, a former director of [End Page 213] community affairs at Bishop Museum. The event was attended by Bishop Museum members, representatives of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and of Te Papa, and a handful of others including Adrienne Kaeppler, one of the coeditors of the book Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Ali‘i (2015). Over cups of kava, the attendees discussed their joy at having Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s treasures back in Hawai‘i and what their return at this specific time meant for Bishop Museum...


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pp. 212-214
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