Finding Your Kahua
Talking Story with Kunāne Wooton
|Photo: Melehina Groves
Native Hawaiian artist and cultural practitioner Kunāne Wooton.
|A niho palaoa, or whale tooth, signified royalty.|
|This is a contemporary sculpture; its form is based off of the ‘ahu‘ula.|
|Pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai were used for pounding poi.|
|Pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai puka, or pōhaku puka, a type of poi pounder known for its use on Kaua‘i.|
|Photos: Courtesy of Kunāne Wooton
Ki‘i wana. This sea urchin spine is based off of ki‘i that were found on Kaho‘olawe.
Kunāne Wooton is a Native Hawaiian artist and cultural practitioner. He recently started his own business, Kanulu o Kālai; he is a member of Pā Ku‘i a Lua; he is a student of Hawaiian language; and he will soon be a father. The path he has followed in order to reconnect with his ancestors and rediscover a firm foundation upon which to stand has taught him many valuable lessons, including the imporance of mentors, ‘ohana, and vision.
Several of his pieces are featured in the right-hand column of the interview. For information on how to contact Kunāne, please see the end of the interview.
MG: Could you introduce yourself and tell us where you and your family are from?
KW: Sure. ‘O Kunāne Robert Alan Wooton ko‘u inoa piha. I was actually born in Wahiawā on O‘ahu, but I grew up in Hānālei on Kaua‘i. All my relatives come from the Kekaha side of Kaua‘i, Kaua‘i and Ni‘ihau, so when people ask me where I come from I always align to Kaua‘i. Even though I wasn’t actually born there, I grew up there and that’s where all of my roots trace back to.
MG: Your family ties you to Kaua‘i.
KW: Yeah, to that area, the Westside mainly. I lived in Hānālei and I think the reason why we ended up moving there was that my dad was in construction so he was doing a lot of the work when Princeville was being built. I think that’s why we ended up moving to that side of the island and not the Westside. When I was a little kid growing up I was like, "Oh, we gotta go Kekaha? It’s so hot!" and everything else; Hānālei, you know it’s all nice and green and raining all the time. So when I think of where my family comes from I always align to Westside Kaua‘i.
Hānālei is absolutely beautiful, as a matter of fact, my mom is buried there in Hānālei Valley. That one picture that you always see of Hānālei with all the taro patches, she’s right behind there; there’s a little graveyard up in the back of the valley.
I live in Nu‘uanu area on O‘ahu now, near Queen Emma Gardens. That was by default because when I got married that was my wife’s place so I ended up moving there. It’s a little bit difficult for me -- it’s convenient in the sense that it’s right downtown, but it’s difficult because it’s a condo. I’m the kind of person who needs a yard and space. I end up bringing a lot of my plants home and do a lot of my work away from there.
MG: How long have you been carving?
KW: I’ve been carving for about ten years now. It’s just something that I’ve been doing on my own and I haven’t tried to get my artwork out at all. Most of the things that I’ve made, I make for people and I give ‘em.
MG: What is the name of your business?
KW: Kanulu o Kālai. The reason for the name...when I started I called the business "In the Round." That’s a term used in sculpture when you’re carving in three-dimension. I’m a big "three-dimentionalist," I align myself that way. I’ve drawn my whole life. Since I was a kid as far back as I can remember, I’ve just ventured in two-dimensional pencil drawing. I used to draw superheroes when I was little, you know.
MG: In class?
KW: Yeah! Draw waves, even though I wasn’t a surfer at the time. [laughing] The thing that really impresses me is that you can have this vision of something in your head and through the action of your hands, this object is created. At first it was this idea that was in your po‘o, or when I carve cultural things it’s in my na‘au, and it...leaves there, in a sense, and now it stands before you being born and other people can see an image of that which was within yourself.
But over time I realized the name of my business, "In the Round," wasn’t me. I’d had a few friends of mine tell me, too, "What? That’s not you, Kunāne!" There were all these little signs coming up. So one day before my Hawaiian language class, I was sitting there kinda just flipping through the dictionary and I flipped like this and saw "kanulu." In the definition it said that it’s this rumbling sound -- like a storm off in the distance, how you can hear the thunder rumbling around. Immediately in my na‘au I was like, "That’s what it is." That’s what I’m doing; it’s that...that’s the path I need to go. Carving and that action and that sound -- in a literal sense -- it’s when that ko‘i or chisel or hammer strikes the lā‘au or pōhaku, whatever media you’re working in, and creates that sound. People can hear that.
For me, the kaona of the name all goes back to that sound. It goes back to that action of carving and creating these items of our kūpuna. The kaona of kanulu is spiritual. As more Hawaiians are doing more things that are Hawaiian -- even if it’s in a contemporary sense -- that sound is coming and it’s getting louder. It’s a sound that permeates throughout the community. As everyone is making their own sound, people from outside will hear that and for me that’s where our identity needs to be going.
Seeing people who aren’t from here marketing our culture...there is an aspect to our society that needs to happen. But I feel real kaumaha when I look out there and people are seeing things that are really not the true representations of what our kūpuna created. It’s not about what we’ve created, it’s what our kūpuna have created. They did that for thousands and thousands of years and when you look out in society and you’re seeing a take on that in more of a...maybe "kitschy" way, then that misrepresents who we truly are as a people.
It tends to separate the imagery of our culture and the essence of our culture, the substance and the essence. The substance and the essence are being stripped. For me that kanulu -- that sound -- is very, very important.
MG: How has the transition to being a "business" worked for you?
KW: The retail and business aspect of my work has been a very difficult thing for me to get into. I started my business when I got a job with Dr. Sinoto. He was selected as the curator for a certain section of this museum in Tokyo -- the National Science Museum of Japan, I think that’s its formal name. He was tasked to have many Polynesian reproductions -- not just Hawaiian but Polynesian -- reproductions made of artifacts. He went across the community and he came up with one artist in Tahiti, on e in Rapa Nui, and three Hawaiian artists. So he asked me to be one of the artists and I was supposed to make about five things. I ended up making about 35 different implements. ‘Umi Kai was another, he’s actually a mentor of mine, and Ray Nakama was the third. When this came up it was such a big deal and it was interesting in one sense. Before that I was kind of making things to, you know, give ‘em to my friends. Make a niho palaoa and give it to a certain person. Then because this was such a huge job, it became kind of a business thing.
The job forced me to look at my work as a business venture. At the time it was kind of difficult for me to think of it in that way. My carving is something very special in the sense that if I don’t feel in my na‘au...if I don’t feel pono today, if I had an altercation with someone -- which I very rarely do -- then I won’t touch the material or I won’t use my energy to strike that material. The way I look at it is as I strike the material, it’s being infused with all my energy and I don’t want anything bad to go into it.
When the museum job came up I had a month and a half and to get everything done and it was frantic. It was a double-edged sword in the way that it paid very well but I felt like I had to ‘oki myself from those items, which really hurt because they were things that I had made. But the energy that I had...I was rushing and cutting and shaping things, lashing them up, and sending them off.
Everything turned out great; it turned out wonderful and to this day I thank Dr. Sinoto -- he’s someone I look to as this...pillar of knowledge, but it hurt to feel like I had to separate myself from the pieces. With things that I’ve made...when I give them to people and see people wearing them, I always go up and you know, "say hi." I always make that connection again to that piece -- it’s its own little entity, essentially. In a philosophical sense it’s like hānau, yeah, it’s born from that action of carving. That job was different and kind of a difficult thing. I still haven’t gotten fully comfortable with it yet.
MG: Besides implements, you also make jewelry and other types of things?
KW: Yeah, the jewelry thing kind of started with my wife. She’s trained as an attorney. She worked for Senator Inouye for a while on the Indian Affairs Committee and also worked with CNHA. She’s very deliberate in her process so she plans everything and me, I’m all over the place! It’s kinda like opening up your hand: her, she’s able to keep her hand together and everything fits in there. Me, my hand is like this, I’m trying to reach for so many things and a lot of stuff kinda falls through -- I catch ‘em with the other hand, eventually! [laughing]
Because she’s a very deliberate person, it’s a very nice match for me. If I spent a lot of money on jewelry I would get scoldings. I figured -- as I started making these things and had extra material -- that I’d make jewelry for her. Just prior to the conference I made a piece of jewelry for a friend of mine. She wanted a ring so I made one for her out of ivory. That was the first "commercial" venture that I took in reference to my jewelry making. Otherwise I’ve just been making necklaces, and I’ve made a kūpe‘e for my wife. Just recently I’ve started making a little bit more.
MG: What are some of the media you work in?
KW: I pretty much work with everything. I’ve worked with ivory, I’ve done wood...I look at myself as being more of a stone carver, so I do mostly stone implements. That’s more of my specialty but I kind of cross all over. Part of that sprouted from the fact that the lives of our kūpuna and the things they made -- a lot of the time they were bartering, "I’ll make this for you and I’ll get some cordage" -- reflected the ahupua‘a system. We don’t really have that kind of system set up, even though bartering goes on between individuals. The one thing I’ve found is that you have to be pretty competent in a bunch of things. I prefer to stay towards the carving, because if it’s a material that I can carve then it’s a language that I’m already speaking.
I’ve done some weaving. I went to the lauhala weaving conference on the Big Island and made a turtle. I actually made two turtles and gave one of them to a friend of mine. So that was my first venture into weaving, but it’s definitely not my specialty. I figure you gotta be able to work a little bit in everything nowadays and when you find someone doing something like Marques -- Hānālei [Marzan]...man! He’s such a fascinating guy. His hands move like someone very ancient. So if it comes to weaving or something like that and I need something pretty important to be woven, then I’ll have to ask him.
MG: Right, and you can’t be a master at everything. You have your kuleana and others have theirs.
KW: Yeah. I work in some fibers so I do all my cordage. I was using hemp, initially, to lash all my stuff together and as my work has been evolving, in my na‘au I’ve been feeling that I need to go in a different direction. So gradually I’ve been taking the hemp off and I’ve been twisting my own hau and using that to lash all my stuff. If I can get clearance, I would like to eventually propagate olonā.
As my path went along -- I was doing sheet-metal work, volunteering in the Emergency Room at Saint Francis West, and going to school full-time in the evening -- it kind of led me to getting hired in the Emergency Room as an ER technician. Then that job led me to volunteering at the [Bishop] Museum. It was almost like a little flow chart that you’re creating for yourself -- my kūpuna were up there telling me, "OK, this is where you need to go."
One thing influenced the other and eventually I ended up working at the Museum which led me to getting involved with Pā Ku‘i a Lua. Working at the Museum and being involved with the Pā really made it evident to me how cultural I was and how little I actually knew prior to that. There was a spark there and it made me just want to seek it, to seek where that spark was coming from.
MG: How exactly did your involvement with Pā Ku‘i a Lua begin?
KW: I ended up getting involved with Pā Ku‘i a Lua through a workshop. They conducted a "mea kaua" workshop -- we made a small leiomano and a niho ‘oki. They came in and I never knew about lua prior to that, I never knew about any of this stuff. I took the class because part of my job at the museum is to make replicas, or reproductions, and I figured, "Well, I can learn something if I go."
I went up there and just being in the class...the guys that were there -- ‘Umi Kai was one of them -- I could sense this certain kind of...it’s hard to put a term on it but there was something there. I could feel it. But you know...I didn’t ask, "Hey, what’s up with da kine..." and things like that
MG: Be nīele?
KW: Yeah, so I just kind of did my stuff, asked questions about the items, like that. About two or three days later I was down in Salt Lake and I ran into ‘Ōlohe ‘Umi. He was like, "Eh, Wooton, you took the mea kaua workshop?" So we started talking for a little while and I asked him, "You guys...are you some kind of group or something like that?" I didn’t know! He looked at me and went, Yeah, I guess you could call us that. Why, you interested?" I said, "Yeah, I think I am interested in what you guys are about." Everything just kinda happened that way and was put into place. He went ahead and sent me an application and I put my application in -- so he was my sponsor into the Pā.
MG: You have to be sponsored in order to join?
KW: Yeah. Then just before our training classes started my mom passed away. I was just blown away by that because when I was young, you know, you’re too cool to hang around with mom. You like go hele all over the place, you’re too cool for that kind of stuff. After I went into the military, you know, I hardly ever wrote but she would always write me. When I came back and started working at the hospital and at the Museum and started to get more exposed to the culture, that’s when it really became evident how important the ‘ohana is. Keeping those connections...that’s who you are, the people who come before you.
My mom was taking hula from Aunty Maiki’s daughter on Kaua‘i. They would come over here for that celebration they usually have at Mānoa. She would say, "Oh, we have to draw a picture of this area," and things like that and I was kind of getting interested in that. It was interesting that she was doing all this stuff. She ‘ūniki’d back in the ‘70s, long, long time ago. But she was the kind of lady that you would never...she was the example of true strength in humility. She took Aikido for years and she was right below a black belt but you would always see her with her white belt, the others just stayed inside the drawer. She was never that kind of person. She was a really, really great person.
When she died, I almost said "I cannot." I wasn’t going to go to the training classes, the initial 40 hours that you have to train.
MG: 40 hours straight?
KW: It’s three weekends in a row. But then I just said, "Well, I’ll just go ahead and do it." Something was telling me that that’s what I needed to do. Going through that whole process and doing the pani ceremony at the end when we graduated, it really hit me that it was the right thing to do. That was the path I needed to go. Ever since then, it’s been this mass of information coming my way and that has strongly influenced the direction that I started going in. Changing the name of my business to "Kanulu o Kālai," changing the way I think, and everything else. That’s why when I spoke at the conference I was saying it feels like I’m on a strong foundation now and that is what’s sitting under me. The knowledge from our kūpuna, mana‘o from our ‘ōlohe, the inspiration from the mentors in my life -- they all add to that, my cultural and non-cultural mentors. They all add to that foundation. The catalyst for that is the culture.
My philosophy when it comes to the things that I do, even when I do contemporary things, is not to venture too far from traditional form. They’re a little more contemporary, a little more modern looking, but the overall form is true to the shape of something that I’ve seen with my eyes. I do a lot of research. I’ve been to museums on the east coast and I was hoping to go look at some of the collections in England, but I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do that.
MG: Especially with a baby coming!
KW: [laughing] Yeah! That strong foundation really gives me a firm place to jump from. When I launch into something I know what I have under me and it’s a strong anchor no matter what direction I go, whether it’s in cultural arts like lua or carving something cultural or totally new.
That leads me into another issue that’s pretty important to me. I feel real kaumaha because in order to perpetuate our culture the way our kūpuna did...I understand when people say we can use any kine wood to carve, they’re talking about the substance of the piece. The substance is not as important; the essence is the most important and I understand that. But we should not be made to feel like criminals when we try and perpetuate our culture in the way our kūpuna did. It seems like every time we turn around that’s what happens. Like it’s some evil thing.
MG: You mean taking kumu lā‘au from the forest?
KW: In collecting materials...if it’s an endangered plant, I can see that. I don’t cut anything down if it’s living. But we go and try to find wood. If there’s a dead branch and it’s fallen we cut around the rot because we need to try and conserve our resources. In ancient times when our kūpuna kahiko were living, they grew items. They grew what they needed and they used what they grew to make things that they would use again to harvest the material that they had. Whether it’s a niho ‘oki or some type of i‘e kuku or ‘ie hohoa, it was this constant circle. The perpetuation of culture cannot be done separately from the conservation of our environment, the forest.
Nāinoa Thompson is such a wonderful guy and he illustrated so perfectly how the lack of conservation efforts affects what happens when it comes to perpetuating the culture. The example he used is when they tried to build Hawai‘i Loa they couldn’t find a koa tree big enough. In most cases I’ve run into people who are very supportive, whether it be in DLNR or wherever, but I’ve run into a few who are pretty unsupportive.
MG: This is when you’re trying to harvest things from the forest?
KW: Trying to harvest or trying to get materials, like kauila trees to plant somewhere. It’s not for me. A kauila tree you won’t be able to use until 100 years from now, but it’s something we all need to consider, we all need to think about it. We can’t expect just one group of people to do the conservation and think artisans don’t have to worry about it. For the Pā, we go and we plant plants, trees, we clean the heiau at Hālawa...it’s this continuous cycle. I was saying it makes me feel kaumaha that when that 11-foot tiger shark washed up in Maui -- I don’t know what organization it was that came in, some federal or state entity I’m sure -- they came in, scooped the shark up, took it off somewhere, and buried it. Hid it from everybody. The skin for pahu, the teeth...
If somebody went and killed something endangered, like a whale or something, then that puts you in a whole different category. But if something dies, like the whale that washed up by Mokuli‘i -- they drug it out, the thing came back, they drug it out, the thing kept coming back.
MG: It was meant to be used.
KW: Exactly. Those are materials that we can use. If it’s been proven that it hasn’t been poached, why not take something like that and let people like carvers use it to perpetuate our culture so the image of our culture will remain intact?
MG: You find obstacles even in that kind of situation?
KW: Oh, yeah! The whale gets taken or the thing gets hidden. Another issue why I’m kind of dwelling on this a little bit is that my wife is pregnant. We spoke to our doctor about getting the piko and the ēwe and she told us that the Department of Health in July, just this past July, started enforcing this rule saying you cannot take them anymore. I understand that the Department of Health would be concerned if there was something in it that’s bad, hepatitis or whatever, maybe it’s gonna get in the ground. I’m not sure what their reasoning is and those parts are very vascular so they have a lot of blood in them.
But it goes back to that idea that we’re being made to feel like criminals in practicing our culture. If she’s gone through a bunch of blood tests and they show that she doesn’t have anything, then why can I not take it? That’s our kuleana according to our culture. I’m not saying that I’m a purist, you know, I don’t live in a hale pili or anything like that, but I feel in my na‘au that this is something I would like to do. People that I consider to be mentors of mine, ‘Umi Kai and Richard Paglinawan -- ‘Ōlohe Likeke -- these are the people that I go to and I ask them, "What’s your mana‘o on this? What do I need to do with this when I get it?" But the doctor said that we can’t take it now and it really makes me feel like a thief if I was to go ahead and take it. To have something like that in your na‘au, that you’re trying to perpetuate your culture but in the same sense you’re feeling like a bad person...we shouldn’t be made to feel that way.
If somebody’s out there and really not practicing mālama for the trees or the mea kanu or whatever, stick it to ‘em! Because our ancestors, they would mālama everything! They took care of the land, they brought in what they needed, they stripped certain areas but it was to grow the things that they could use to live on a day to day basis and to make the items they needed. It was this continuous process. Now, if somebody’s going out there and just cutting down all kinds of stuff and not taking care...to cut it down is one thing, but...
There’s kind of a philosophy or idea that I have, because sometimes malihini find out that I’m a stone carver and they ask me, "You’re not afraid of getting the stones and carving them? Because people take the stones from the volcano and end up mailing them back because all this back luck and bad things happen to them!" I told them that I’m not taking as a possession. Whenever I go into the forest I oli, I ask permission, and I ask if I can remove this from this area to use it to make something. In my na‘au is where I listen for the response. If it feels funny, that I’m not supposed to be messing with it, then I don’t mess with it. My answer comes not in my ears but in my na‘au.
I told them that when people, visitors, come and take they’re thinking in a Western sense that "Now this becomes mine. I’m taking this for me." That’s not asking permission to borrow! Even if they ask out loud, inside, the way they’re thinking about it is that now it’s a possession.
MG: They’ve already made their decision to take it.
KW: They made that choice. That, to me, is different. It’s a big difference. Part of it is dealing with these kinds of issues, like whether or not somebody’s cutting all this stuff down just so they can make all kine money. That to me is not pono. But if they’re cutting stuff down and using it to help perpetuate the culture and doing things for the community, then I think it’s pono to do that. Even though the people that I hang out with don’t go out and cut down live stuff -- we only cut dead trees because the trees are just way too valuable.
MG: And it depends on what type of tree they’re cutting down. There are some types of native trees that it would be OK to go out and cut one down but for something like uhiuhi where there’s five left on O‘ahu, no, it’s not OK. But Hawaiians have been made to feel like "criminals" throughout our experiences of colonization and assimilation. That’s why a lot of practices went so underground, like lua.
KW: Exactly. In a way it’s still kinda permeating its way through different government entities, if you will. That kind of mentality is still there. Not in an overt or evil way but instead of trying to create a dialogue and say, "OK, let’s try find a middle ground," -- in a way doing ho‘oponopono -- trying to reach out to the community and find out what’s up, they just say, "No!" Because that really makes you feel like wow, me perpetuating my culture is like an evil thing. It shouldn’t be that way at all.
Culturally, all of this is kind of tied to the reason why I’m carving. It was born from my working at the Emergency Room when I saw a lot of young Hawaiians and Polynesians, Samoans, Tongans, come into the ER -- it was all knifings, shootings, domestic violence, on a couple occasions child abuse with babies. Really, it hit me and made me think, "There’s something wrong here." Why are we acting this way? That’s not the normal way that we as a people were. You had people like that but they were dealt with in ancient days. When I saw all that, it hit me and I started thinking, "What do we have to do to change this direction?" That’s why I started volunteering at the Museum.
I had a friend of mine who, at the time, was volunteering at the Museum so I started helping out. That’s when it became evident that it’s the culture, that’s what’s important. It’s like when people say there’s this ancestral knowledge that gets passed down. In my carving, I don’t know if I come from a history of carvers, but I know I have ancestors who were fishermen and navigators because that’s the information I get from my family. These things that I make just "happen." When I first started out I tried measuring, doing all that stuff and they just came out looking funny. I stopped doing all that -- now I just draw it out, cut it out, shape it out, and it just happens.
When I was working there in the ER I was thinking about ways we can go about changing this direction and that’s when I sort of came up with this philosophy... in a way it’s like the sovereignty movement, but there’s a difference. When all of these sovereignty issues are coming up I just kind of sit back and listen to what’s going on. I don’t know a whole lot about it because I’m just a carver, I just make things. For me culture is the seed that you have to plant inside yourself and as you nourish that with your practices and more things that you’re doing, whether it’s carving, weaving, hula, ‘ōlelo...as you nourish that seed, it’s going to grow. And pretty soon that seed will be beyond the bounds of your body.
There are many people in our Hawaiian society today who have done that. Nāinoa Thompson is a great example of that. Richard Paglinawan, ‘Umi, all these guys...when I look at them I see huge trees. When you look in our cities all the vegetation is gone. You have buildings but all the forests are gone. Carving, hula, language, protocol, Hui Mālama and that part of it, helping to re-inter iwi kūpuna, they all play a very important part. As we’re doing more of these things and these trees grow beyond our boundaries, wherever we’re living the forests are there spiritually. You have these guys who are huge trees now and when you’re in the presence of a tree you can just feel it. These people, when you stand next to them you can feel that mana that flows inside of them. It’s so important.
In that way, sovereignty will grow. As you now become this thing that is much greater than what you alone are doing, the identity will establish itself through your actions, through what we’re doing. We show our culture, this is the image of our culture, not what you guys out there think. You guys have these lū‘au little get-togethers and the ABC stores with the little tikis with the gemstones in the eyes and those kind of things. When I think about that, it’s their vision.
MG: When talking earlier, you kind of touched on the fact that, for the first time, you feel like you have a kahua -- a strong foundation -- off of which you can spring-board into other things.
KW: Oh yeah, definitely. Although I’ve been doing more cultural items and not so many contemporary ones, a very good friend of mine, Noelle Kahanu, did a proposal for us to have a show at Art in Mark’s Garage and it got approved. So it’s supposed to be in March and the title of it is "Na‘au or Newa," kind of that play on "Now or Never," you know, "na‘au" and "newa" is the club. I’ll be making some contemporary pieces for that that are based on the na‘au. For me, the na‘au is an ‘ūmeke. That ‘ūmeke shape that things are put into.
When you look at the things that I make there’s basically two aspects to my business. The contemporary aspect was strongly influenced by Sean Browne. He was a really, really strong influence for me when I got out of the military and started taking art classes. I took Art 101 "Art Appreciation" kinda thing with Kit Cameron. Until I took that class all I’d ever done was draw. That was the first time I was really exposed to three-dimensional art. She would show slides of all this different art from different eras.
The style that really hit me was Sean Browne’s work. I didn’t know who he was at the time but when I saw it, it was like, "Wow!" and I just felt drawn to it.
MG: What kind of work does he do?
KW: He takes forms, these ancient forms like the mahi‘ole and pe‘ahi, things like that, and creates them in a contemporary form. At the Kona airport, on the side as you come in this way, there’s this big mahi‘ole made out of granite. That’s one of his. And at Kaka‘ako Waterfront Park, there’s these three hook-forms coming out of the ground? Yeah. So I was just really attached to that and then I found out that he’s a Hawaiian artist here and that he’s actually alive! A lot of the stuff you see, you know, is of Michaelangelo and from that time, and it’s like, "Oh that guy’s dead long time."
Eventually that led me to transfer to Kapi‘olani CC because she [Cameron] told me that Sean Browne was teaching there. So I started taking classes from him and then he offered that I start working with him. He had pieces that were made in China and when they came back I helped polish a few of them, things like that. The biggest influence that he had on me was that he’s a Hawaiian taking these images from our past and creating them in a contemporary sense -- and that you can do that. It can exist in that form in this modern era in these different kinds of materials. That had kind of started me off working with motifs found in our kūpuna’s things, like when I was working at the Museum seeing all of the artifacts and looking at the forms. It’s way different seeing an item "in person" than seeing a picture, because there’s so many subtle features that are going on in the design of it, it just blows me away. Every time I look at our kūpuna, the mea that they’ve created...
MG: It’s like with ‘ōlelo and all the little nuances...their ‘ike was just amazing.
KW: Yeah! And I get to mālama so many of their things through my work.
MG: What exactly do you do that the Museum?
KW: I work in the exhibits department. I’m the Exhibit Preparator. I design and fabricate the mounts for the artifacts and I do replicas. I’m the guy who makes all the mounts, and then Kamalu and Hānālei bring all the artifacts down, then I put them in the cases and secure them. In that way I get to mālama our ancestors’ things by creating these exhibits and installing them based on items that our kūpuna have created. It’s really neat.
Over the past year or so I’ve been getting into the exhibit design aspect of it because my boss who normally handles it is tied up with that new Science Adventure Center. My boss has been really tied up with that, so I’ve been handling the exhibits in the vestibule gallery as the lead designer and Noelle has been project manager. I did the last two Lono exhibits that we had, the last two Kū exhibits, and Nā Akua Wāhine.
When I’m saying I "did" the design, my part is actually a very small part of it. Gary Nomura who’s our senior graphic designer is outstanding -- designing the panels, laying them out, he’s great. The thing I like about doing the design aspect of it is evident in the Nā Akua Wāhine exhibit. When we did the Kū exhibit back before I started designing, we’d had the different colors representing the different zones. The colors were kind of representative of the areas, like if we’re talking about Kū of war we’d use red, where we talked about Kū of the forest it was kind of a greenish color and Kū of dry-land planting was kind of a brownish color.
For Nā Akua Wāhine the case colors -- and these are the kinds of things that people won’t really see or realize when they come through the exhibit, they’ll just go and read the panels -- are things that I incorporate subtly, almost as in ‘ōlelo. There’s the substance and the essence of it, the kaona. The color that I picked was an ‘alaea color and I also used black on the tops. So when you look at the cases and the platforms they have that ‘alaea on the side and the black on the tops, whether it’s a fabric or a little platform painted black.
The point I was trying to get at is that the female gods of Hawai‘i, Nā Akua Wāhine, gave birth to the islands. Part of it was a visual representation -- that red dirt color and then the black on top of it which would be like an ‘ahu. All of the cases had flat boards except the two with the artifacts in them, the ki‘i. There were two female ki‘i and another ki‘i, with the kālaipāhoa on the back and the mo‘o on the face. The platforms holding those ki‘i were raised and I covered them with black material. That kind of represented the heiau or the ‘ahu beneath the ki‘i. When you look at the case, visually, they look better but there was a specific reason why I wanted those two cases to have raised platforms.
The raised platform represented the concept of "foundation" in a modern sense. When people come through they won’t know that, but there’s a reason why I wanted to have that raised platform. I kind of wanted to start doing this on more and more things to represent that foundation. Visually it looks good, but there’s a specific reason behind it.
I like the design aspect because I get to play around with different ideas. Even if these ideas are clear to me, they’re things that are so subtle that not everybody needs to notice them. It’s like the kaona of ‘ōlelo. If somebody’s not from a certain area or island and they hear something, some phrase, they’re going to take it at face value and think it means something entirely different than what it actually means. For the Lono exhibit it was the same way. When we had the Akua Loa in the front and we draped this cloth with cloud patterns from the ceiling. They were all kind of lined up, the Akua Loa here, Akua Pā‘ani in the back. It looked nice, visually, but it was supposed to represent the procession as the Akua Loa is moving forward. Those graphic panels that were on the cloth banners were basically to represent the kānaka standing in between.
The next exhibit we have coming up is Ho‘ohuli. It’s in the season of Lono so it’s a new year and is making a statement about...Noelle would actually be much better to explain this! It’s "to turn," so it’s like to change -- the way we’re thinking, our philosophies, it’s making a statement about that. It kind of goes along a little bit with what I’ve been touching on today. It’s time. Enough of this florescent representation of our culture! It’s not even necessarily the florescent, "kitschy" part that bothers me but more the marketing of these things as the true image of our culture. They’re not! That’s the problem that I have; it’s not about people out there marketing these kinds of things, it’s that they’re passing them off as true representations.
When I make something in a more contemporary sense, I make that known very specifically. I’ll say, "This has a lot more contemporary lines on it, but the overall shape is true." It’s a little bit more modern; maybe I’ll put a few more facets or make the tip a little more pointy.
MG: People use that as a selling technique, too, because visitors or consumers want to think they’re buying something "real" or "authentic."
KW: Oh definitely. It’s interesting because up in Canada -- my boss went on a vacation up there -- in the museums up there, if there’s something made by a native person it has to be labeled. There has to be a label that says something along the lines of, "This is made by a native of Canada" and if someone is not native, they cannot put that statement on there. Collectors go and look for those labels that say "this is by a native," because people will do something that looks just like it and pass it off, but they’re not of the native people from that area.
My own personal mana‘o is that we just need to start reining in, pulling the reins in. Everybody’s had too much rope for too long. The quality of what you see out there...I don’t want to say anything bad about it but some of the things I see are made in a way that I would not make them. It’s not to say that it’s right or wrong but in my na‘au, when I look at some of those things, I feel it’s not right.
I feel a little bad sometimes when I hear a lot of different groups arguing and I think a lot of things are coming up because of a kind of Westernized way of thinking about our culture. That’s not to make a blanket statement and it’s kind of funny because I sort of think of the phrase, "Can’t we all just get along?" [laughing] I’m more of an optimist and that gets me in trouble sometimes. When I look at our culture -- and there’s an ‘ōlelo no‘eau that talks about not all knowledge being learned in the same place...
MG: "‘A‘ole pau ka ‘ike i ka hālau ho‘okahi."
KW: Yeah. When I look at the artifacts that were made in different areas and I hear the mo‘olelo, how everybody had their own thing...I take a little bit of pride in the fact that they say "Kaua‘i, they do their own thing."
MG: That’s right, Kaua‘i never gave up!
KW: Yeah, and so the people from Kaua‘i have this kind of pride -- "We do things our way." When I hear that some of these things are going on it makes me feel bad in a sense and -- here’s the optimism coming through -- I think that it doesn’t need to happen. The image that I create in my mind is when you’re out hiking and you get into an area of the forest that’s truly a native forest, there’s diversity of plants! They’re so different from each other and yet they’re all living there without taking one another over. They’re just living in this equilibrium although they’re different.
When I see the culture -- because we all compare, you know, "Oh, you make mea kaua?" lemme see how you do that -- I look at other people’s things and I appreciate them, "Wow, that’s cool!" We can do that. If we think about it a little bit more -- think about a native forest and how everything is so diverse and different. Literally, it’s that everybody has their own way of doing things and that’s fine. There wasn’t one way of doing things all the way across the board in ancient times. Never! Everybody had their own way of doing things. I think as a whole we need to appreciate that and just realize that diversity is probably one of the most important characteristics of our culture that we need to embrace. That diversity -- that’s going to build strength, make us stronger.
MG: It’s a Western idea that’s been put on us: we all have to be the same and if we’re different, it’s a bad thing. It’s easier for people outside to categorize us and deal with us if we all fit neatly into one little group: "Hawaiian."
KW: When I think about what I’m doing, it’s just a small part of a bigger thing. When I sat back and thought, "How can I contribute?" it wasn’t just for myself but for our culture, period. The carving aspect came easy to me and then there’s all these sources that I can draw on, ‘Umi, Richard Paglinawan, Nāinoa Thompson, Bruce Blankenfeld, they’re all just great people, Rocky Jenson, Sean Browne...all these Hawaiians that are out there who are sources of inspiration and knowledge that we can use. I’m just a very small part of that.
MG: You’re also taking ‘ōlelo Hawai‘i, right?
KW: I’m in my second semester, 102, and I really wanted to start taking Hawaiian as I got involved with lua. I chant and sometimes I haku oli -- not to say that I’m doing it ‘right’ -- but I just go from my na‘au and I just write. It seemed to me more than just filling a requirement. I’m going to continue with it because I want to take it to that next level. Doing all these things, carving, lua, hiking, growing native plants -- which I’m trying to find more homes for -- trying to get more endangered plants planted on the grounds of the Museum, ‘ōlelo seems like a natural part of the progression. The language is what I need to do now.
One of the inspirations for it was Keone Nunes, another person who I really look up to. I went down there to get my ala niho and my nihoniho. When I was sitting there they were all just talking Hawaiian! They were speaking Hawaiian, just rapping and laughing and joking; you see the look on their faces and it’s the same expression you see when someone speaks English but it was Hawaiian coming out of their mouths. That just blew me away! I was sitting there just smiling inside. I thought, "That’s what I need to do, I need to be able to speak that way." Part of my spreading my hands too wide and everything falling through is that I never actually got my degree so I said, "Well, I need to get back and finish up," so I took Hawaiian. Still now I’m kinda shame to speak but in my mind, you know as I’m walking around, I try saying things to myself. I’m doing well on all my exams, but sitting there and writing it out, and thinking your way through it that way is way different than sitting there and ha‘i ‘ōlelo. Different ball game. But that’s where I want to take it, to be able to just speak Hawaiian.
When I was reading the interview with Kahikina de Silva I just thought that was so cool that she could have a radio show and just be speaking Hawaiian. That’s so cool! [laughing]
MG: Yeah, and that radio program is actually still going through December. You should call the show sometime!
KW: [laughing] I just thought that was so cool. Part of that, too, is that I want to start reading. There’s a lot of information in the old newspapers that is essentially "locked up" for most of us who can’t speak Hawaiian or even read Hawaiian. Reading how they spoke back then is gonna be different, so that’ll be another level of difficulty, but if I can get to the level where I can actually read and just understand more, then I can read through something and at least get the gist of what they’re talking about. I want to get to that next level. It’s kind of a natural evolutionary process I’m going through.
I came up with this idea that my friends, Kalani, Mahi, and Mahauwela -- they’re like brothers to me -- are crazy enough to hop on and help me with. They took me out for a bachelor party, so we were hanging out at Mai Tai Bar. We were just sitting there drinking beer and I turned to Mahi and I told him, "You know, I want to build a canoe -- traditionally. From the manufacture of the tools to the carving of the tree and I want to use all natural material. It won’t be a big canoe but eventually I want to make it a double-hull." He was like, "OK!" and I though, "Oh...OK." What did I get myself into, you know? But it’s something I still want to do. I don’t mention anything to my wife about it because she’s like, "Focus! Focus!" But this is something that I want to do.
Part of it is making a statement. When I was younger and even now, when I look at the Hōkūle‘a, Makali‘i, Hawai‘iloa, Hōkū Alaka‘i, I look at all of these canoes and it’s so fascinating! All those people, especially Nāinoa, Bruce and his wife Lita, they’re just such welcoming people! They’re so welcoming. I still feel like...I’m looking "up" at the canoes and I want to try and make this canoe and film the whole process. Eventually I wanted to put a little movie together and try to get it into a film festival or something. Part of it is to kind of walk a path that our kūpuna have the way they did. Taking our slippers off and walking the way they did. It’s not to make a point about anything, but it’s a path of learning that we will walk.
I’m not just going to go up and ask but, in different ways, it would be easy to find different resources out there, like ‘Anakala Eddie. These kūpuna who are so wonderful and are massive springs of information...they’re so giving and welcoming. But this path that we walk, to try and do it...in older times getting the canoe and going somewhere wasn’t a big deal. Voyaging and Hōkūle‘a was a different ball game, that’s a different type of canoe. The kind of canoe I’m talking about is not a racing canoe, but...
MG: Used to go from one part of the island to another.
KW: Yeah, it’s an everyday thing. It’s not something that you feel so removed from, like seeing a movie star or something. That’s kind of why I thought about this project and trying to do it. I’m not a canoe carver but I know we can do it. I know. I wanted to make the tools traditionally and try. Look at the different shapes of ko‘i, make pieces that look just like them, and try. There are people who have used stone ko‘i before but I haven’t met anyone who has made all these different, varying shapes that you find in the collection or seen how they’re used in different situations.
A lot of archaeologists have their theories about how things were used but you really don’t know until that stone hits that wood at this angle or that angle, if it’s a small one or a big one, all of that. It’s all a process. That’s important for me and doing the research is important too, because that chain of knowledge was from the kupuna to the mo‘opuna, like from kumu to haumana. That was broken. I think the biggest damage to our culture wasn’t what was intentionally done but really has to do with foreigners arriving. When they got here, we got sick. In any society, who’s going to die? The older people who have the lower resistance and the young ones. And that was the connection to retain the information! I think that was the biggest damage that was done to us.
When I look at artifacts and do research, in a sense, it’s asking a kupuna to show me, show me how I need to make this. Not necessarily asking because basically you just supposed to nānā and you get your ‘ike that way. But these artifacts are the only source that we have now, besides those other wonderful people who we have in our society. When I had a table at the conference, ‘Anakala Eddie stopped by to talk with me. Talking with him was unreal. He told me that they used to patch the canoes with ‘ulu sap and then put in the coconut fibers, embed them in there, but now they use all kinds of different stuff like Rotar and everything else.
I always defer to my kūpuna kahiko, nā ‘aumaka, ke Akua because all these things just happen when they need to happen. With the canoe, all these people are asking me, "When do you want to be done?" and I don’t want to put a timeline on it because I don’t want the process to seem flawed. "If we don’t make this date, oh we’re behind!" I want to keep all of that out there.
MG: Do you have a start date?
KW: No. [laughing]
MG: So then how could you know when you’ll be done? [laughing]
KW: My friend Mahi is like, "Eh! I got some stones!" He works for John Morgan at Hakipu‘u and John Morgan offered us a place to work on it and keep it, which was good because I wasn’t even sure where we were gonna put it. He gave clearance for Mahi to collect bamboo and different kine stuff from that area. He’s really nice...from Kualoa.
Part of why I really want to do this is because I saw Whale Rider and it was such a wonderful movie. They can tell that story in a modern sense using modern tools and film...to get a point across that is much deeper than just a film -- it’s a cultural point that is buried deep in their culture.
I look at that and I think that’d be great to have Hawaiians making that level of film to tell what we’re about. Like The Land Has Eyes. There are enough movies with Hollywood involved. If Hollywood’s involved, no matter who they’re consulting they’re not gonna understand our core cultural foundation. They’re just not gonna get it. I think we have young Hawaiians coming up who are willing to grab that torch and roll with it to make something, a documentary or a movie.
I think that we need to tell our stories from our native voice so people can hear it. We have fascinating stories in our history and there’s a lot to be said. So that’s part of it, not only the canoe project but that film is something I’d really like to do. But chances are I won’t get it done in my lifetime.
MG: The canoe?
MG: Well, we’ll be optimistic that you’ll start working on it.
KW: Yeah, and with all my friends, too, they’re crazy enough to try it with me. They keep calling me, "When we gon start?" I mentioned something about it to my wife and she just kind of sat there and shook her head. After that, I was like, "OK, nevermind." [laughing]