Hawaiian (The) Kapa

Camille Naluai
Kawai Aona-Ueoka at her home in Ka‘a‘awa where she checks out some wauke.
Kapa beaters
Kapa beaters with a combination of patterns. On the left, Pū‘ili hālu‘a and ko‘eau patterns. On the right, lauma‘u and pū‘ili patterns carved horizontitally on the face.


Tap, tap, tap goes the i‘e kuku as the loea carefully beats out the fine kapa cloth. Tap, tap, tap replies another kapa maker as she puts the first in several water marks into the fine wauke.

In ancient times kapa makers had a language all their own. The men, it seems, were oblivious to the Hawaiian style Morse Code going on around them and the women were able to speak freely by tapping out messages to one another using their kapa tools. According to Resources in Hawaiian Culture by Donald D. Kilolani Mitchell, once cloth became available the laborious task of making kapa was no longer required and the discipline became obsolete.

“This kapa talk not shared with the men has been lost with much of the rest of the art of kapa making,” Mitchell writes.

Kapa maker Kawai Aona-Ueoka knows all too well how laborious making a piece of kapa can be. The Nānākuli native has been beating bark into beautiful pieces of art for several years.

”It's so much hard work,” she says.

In ancient times planting, gathering, striping, beating, and dying kapa took several people and several days of work. Often, the men would plant the wauke in neat rows about two feet apart. The plants were allowed to grow for two years before they were harvested for their bark.

Wauke or the paper mulberry tree was the most preferred material, or bark, for making kapa. The tree was capable of becoming very soft and, when pounded became, an almost pure white in color, allowing the kapa maker's characteristic water marks to be seen at its best.

Māmaki was also used for making kapa. The large shrub grew wild in the forests of Hawaii and yielded a sturdier more heavy cloth.

Aona-Ueoka plants wauke at her Kaaawa home. The once multi-person task of creating a piece of kapa has become a one-man job at her home. Tiring from the monumental task, Aona-Ueoka created Kapa Aloha Perpetuation Association, Inc. KAPA, a Native Hawaiian non-profit organization for the advancement of Native Hawaiian traditional and contemporary arts.

“I had decided earlier that the focus would be Hawaiians and I would go into Hawaiian communities and find Hawaiians to do kapa before I teach any haole. But you know, there are good haole and good kepane and if they come with the right heart I teach,” she said.

Aona-Ueoka became interested in making kapa as she prepared to ūniki for her ilima class with Maiki Aiu.

”Towards our ūniki time we had gotten together and decided that we wanted to give anuty this Hawaiian tapa to honor her. So each of us had decided, okay we're going to make kapa. Alright good idea, yeah right,” she shares.

What the group found out was that finding the materials needed to make Hawaiian kapa and finding a person to teach them how to make it were scarce. The class reluctantly settled for tongan tapa.

“We couldn't find Hawaiian tapa for the life of us so we had to settle for this tongan tapa, ugly tapa.”

Although most Pacific islanders used or at least new of bark-cloth, ethnologists consider Hawaiian kapa unique because of the immense improvements and innovations ancient Hawaiians made in the art of kapa making.

”It is the finest in the Pacific and probably in the world when judged for the variety and quality of its workmanship,” Mitchell writes.

It took centuries for ancient Hawaiians to perfect this craft, but in only a few generations the craft nearly vanished off the face of the earth.

Aona-Ueoka isn't the first person in the 20th century to take an interest in kapa making but, she credits Puanani Van Dorpe with the resurgence of the craft.

Van Dorpe is credited by many as reviving kapa. It happened in the 1970s when more Hawaiians became interested in their collective history. Kapa was among those things that interested artisan Van Dorpe who was self-taught on the art because kūpuna knowledgeable on such things had past away.

Aona-Ueoka took a similar route after her encounter with the Tongan tapa. It irritated her to no end, but time moves on, and life has a way of letting you know when you're ready rather then the other way around.

She graduated and became a kumu hula for young, “challenged” boys in Kahuku.

”That was fun,” she laughs.

Eventually she got married and it was here that life reminded her of her desire to make kapa.

”My uncle Po, who was a blind master crafts man in lau niu and upena had these haole friends from California, the Lovelends. He used to always bring them to my stuff and I used to wonder, why is my uncle bringing these haole people to my stuff. But apparently they appreciated it and they really liked Hawaiian things. I never really thought anything about it. That's my uncle's friends. I talked to them one time and I said, “You know one day I want to make kapa.”

On her wedding day Aona-Ueoka unwrapped dozens of presents, most of them kitchen appliances.

”I hate being in the kitchen. It's nice stuff. It's just that I'm not the kind of person that's a home body.”

Then she came across the present from the haole couple.

”I open this present from this haole couple and it's this ie kuku, my first Hawaiian tool. Her husband, apparently, had gone to the mainland and they had acquired some Hawaiian tools.”

In ancient times the ie kuku was used to make the final water marks on the cloth. It was the last step in the beating process. Once completed, the kapa would be dried in the sun where the water marks could be more readily visible.

Aona-Ueoka moved several times before she finally put that ie kuku to use. She enrolled at workshops and even got a wauke tree. She says it took a long time for that tree to grow, but once it took “it just went for broke.”

Through workshops and research Aona-Ueoka has been able to honor our Hawaiian ancestors by perpetuating a craft that they took much pride in.

Today, Aona-Ueoka is a well known kumu hula and kapa maker. Her work has been on display in museums and galleries around the world. Some of her work can be found at Kawaiahao plaza in Honolulu.