For hundreds of years, the Hawaiian Islands were populated solely by the descendants of skilled Polynesian explorers who made a home here after journeying across Oceania in seafaring canoes. Their rich culture developed in isolation of outside influence to something totally unique to this paradise in the Pacific.
Then in 1778, Captain James Cook, arrived aboard the HMS Resolution in Hawaii at Waimea on Kauai. This was the first confirmed European contact with the remote archipelago.
The following year, Captain Cook returned to Hawaii, this time making landfall in Kealakekua Bay on the Island of Hawaii. The reigning ali‘i (chief) was Kalaniopu‘u, who could trace his royal line to the great chief Liloa of Waipi‘o. In a show of goodwill for this foreigner, Kalaniopu‘u gifted Captain Cook the ‘ahu ‘ula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) he was wearing.
Next week these cultural treasures will return to Hawaii for the first time in 237 years.
Over the last 237 years, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole have found a home in England under various collectors, before being gifted to what is now the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
Discussions began in 2013 between the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), the Bishop Museum and Te Papa Tongarewa to bring these items home. A contingent of OHA officials and 6 prominent Hawaiian individuals will accompany the artifacts home. The Native Hawaiians will act as the kiaia (guard) for the items during the journey.
In Hawaiian culture, the ‘ahu ‘ula, mahiole and all other featherwork were reserved chiefly for the ali‘i, symbolizing their divinity, rank and power. This ‘ahu ‘ula is a remarkable work of craftsmanship, containing feathers from roughly 20,000 birds.
For Gordon “Umi” Kai, one of the men chosen by OHA to accompany the cloak and helmet, it means much more than simply returning two artifacts.
“In this case,” Kai said, “we’re considering both the cape and the helmet to be Kalaniopu‘u himself.”
The delegation of Native Hawaiians will conduct traditional Hawaiian rituals and chants when they bring the ali‘i home.
Kai hopes that this exchange between museums will help open the door to future cultural collaborations.
“It sets a precedence that there may be exchanges similar to this all around the world,” said Kai.
On March 17, the Bishop Museum will perform a private ceremony to receive the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole. It will be on display to the public starting March 19. The exhibit will be called “He Nae Akea: Bound Together.”
For more information on the Bishop Museum or to purchase tickets, please visit their website at www.bishopmuseum.org.