Tanahy, Dalani

Kristy Perez-Kaiwi

Courtesy of Dalani Tanahy

Hawaiian Kapa Making with Dalani Tanahy

“The most important part about what I do is to educate  people about Hawaiian kapa,” says Dalani Tanahy, as she and I sit in her Mākaha home talking story about her experiences as a kapa practitioner. “That way,” she says, “when the kids and grownups we teach go to Bishop Museum, Mission House Museum or Queen Emma Summer Palace, they can look at every tool and know its uses, and look at kapa and know how it’s made, or where it’s from, and we can have a new generation of kapa intelligent people who will recognize the barkcloth of their ancestors from that of everyone else.”

This San Diego born, long time Mākaha resident has dedicated 15 years to traditional Hawaiian kapa making, giving herself  little credit for the blood, sweat, and tears, of sitting and pounding kapa for hours on end. Her designs are unique and dye colors, brilliantly natural. Join us as her welcoming candor sheds light on this fine and rare Hawaiian art form.

Kristy:  Could you kindly share a little bit about your background, upbringing, and family?

Dalani:  I was born and raised in San Diego, California. My mother grew up in Wailuku and Waikapū and her father had lo‘i and grew kalo on family land there.  She left Maui when she finished high school and she, her four sisters and one brother all went to school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. My grandparents worked very hard to make sure they all went to college.  Most of them earned  degrees in teaching, including my mom, and the two who didn’t quite finish ended up marrying teachers.  It seems teaching is in our blood. Four of them returned home, but my mom moved to San Diego and married my dad and her youngest sister moved to Anaheim.  Growing up we were very close with those cousins and spent lots of time at Disneyland since they lived just ten minutes away.

But nearly every summer as we grew up, she would bring us back home to know our Hawai‘i grandparents and cousins. My Grandmother, Emily Enos was the first dorm mother of the boys college at Church College of Hawai‘i (now Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i Campus) and when my grandpa left Maui to join her, they also became the supervisors of the cafeteria at the college.  Later on they bought the Laniloa Restaurant in Lā‘ie and ran that for many years.  All my cousins worked there and I was hoping to also when I turned 14, but she sold it the year before I did.  That restaurant is still standing and now houses the McDonalds restaurant there.

My grandmother’s great- grandfather is Edward Bailey, who built the Bailey house in Wailuku, which was originally a girls school especially for Hawaiians.  My grandfather’s father was from Portuguese immigrants and his mother from the Keanini family from Molokai.

Growing up in San Diego, my mom had us attend events and classes at the Hawaiian Civic Club there, which had many members and we were very involved in their activities.  My dad  didn’t care much for Hawaiian food so my mom didn’t make it, but when we went to the big lū‘aus that the Club used to do we would look at the food and say, “nope not going to eat that, or that’s green or that’s alive! And all we would eat is the cake at the end of the line [chuckles].
I think because of their missionary influence growing up, speaking of my grandparents, and they also converted to the Mormon church very early on, we didn’t learn lots of Hawaiian cultural things, like language, although my Grandpa could speak it, but he didn’t to us; or hula or mo‘olelo or anything.  However, they were very Hawaiian in their love for their families, their generosity and kindness, always doing for others, and we were very influenced by that.

Kristy:  How did you start teaching kapa?

Dalani:  Well, I wasn’t a teacher when I started teaching, I mean I don’t have a degree or anything and I’m actually very shy, or used to be.  Actually, I wasn’t a kapa maker either.  I was hired by Ka‘ala Farm to teach this kapa class in the schools.  They knew me from another program I was working in, teaching kids how to make pōhaku ku‘i ‘ai as part of their reading and writing skills class.  They gave me a curriculum and we were able to pilot the program, called “The Art and Science of Kapa Making” class at the original Nānāikapono Elementary School in Nānākuli.  Teaching fourth graders is great because they are very honest.  If you are boring, they will let you will know it, so I always made sure they couldn’t take their eyes off me!  And then when I started teaching groups of all ages and types, I just taught the same way.  No one really knows anything about kapa, so they are all at my mercy.  I’ll ask a group of 25 and maybe 2 raise their hands, if they ever saw kapa being made.  So that’s fun for me, and always makes teaching about it a great experience.

Kristy:  How did artistry come about for you?

Dalani:  My grandmother was an artist. She would teach us oil painting and sewing and crafts, and so we always loved to visit her and learn something new.  My mom is also talented and exposed us to lots of arts and crafts such as macrame’ and batik and my parents always bought us gifts that encouraged us to be creative and artistic. My sister and I learned sewing in Home Economics class, yeah back in the day, and my mom bought a sewing machine for us to use.  We used to make a lot of our own clothes, which I continued to do when my own children were small.  I also enjoyed quilting and embroidery, knitting and crochet, sculpting and carving and building things.  I really liked to work with my hands and see things appear from raw materials.  When I started doing kapa, it was almost a natural transition, just into a new medium because I already had an affinity for detailed slow work.  It’s interesting when you discover that you’ve been training yourself all along for something you would end up devoting your life to.

Kristy: Where do your kapa designs and dye colors come from?

Dalani:  When I first started kapa making, there was nothing online to research. Actually, I wasn’t even online for another couple of years!  I had the curriculum that had been developed by Ka‘ala Farm, as well as the book, Ka Hana Kapa by Hiram Brigham.  Later I read information from Kamakau, John Papa Ii, and sources about kapa from other parts of Polynesia as well.  And I had opportunities to study kapa and tools in Bishop Museum as well as some of the other museums, and get a hands-on feel for everything.

The best book of documented designs is Hawaiian Clothing, from the Arts and Crafts of Hawai‘i series by Peter S. Buck.  He had gathered hundreds of the bamboo ‘ohe kāpala stamps and documented them, and they are still in the collections at Bishop Museum.  I am slowly trying to work my way through making many of the designs from that collection.  They are so detailed and intricate, and then to discover the many ways to use and manipulate them when you print, makes the designing options endless.

The dye colors all come from natural sources, plants and minerals mostly, and I either need to know where I can gather them or grow them myself.  There are also different ways to prepare them and that’s nearly an art of its own.  Because I often do kapa that will be framed and exposed to light, I sometimes will boost the natural dyes with commercial dye to help hold the colors.  Traditional dyes don’t have the same kind of mordants that say, fabric has, so the dyes tend to fade quickly.  To see all the colors that can come from flowers and roots and tree bark is always an amazing thing, and gives me such an appreciation for the patience and ingenuity of our ancestors, and I mean our worldwide ancestors, as all native peoples of all countries did the same.

Kristy:  Why teach Hawaiian kapa?

Dalani:  Teaching an art such as Kapa puts you under so many parameters.  A teacher says “I have 30 kids and 2 hours”,  and I had to learn to work within these parameters to create a meaningful, educational experience, so that they learned something, and when they took their work home they could explain what they made to their families.  At Nānāikapono Elem, almost every child was of Polynesian descent.   We would tell them, “You already know how to do this; we’re just helping you to remember.” All the tools they used were traditional, such as the ‘opihi shells, shark tooth knives, the kua lā‘au and pōhaku, and the plants. I would go down to the beach near Mākua and gather rocks for the class, and I would ask them (the rocks), “E nā pōhaku, who wants to come?” And I would gather the ones who wanted to come and I’d bring them back and before the kids even touched a rock, there’s this whole narrative about how kumu went to the beach saying, “E nā pōhaku, who wants to come with me, I’m teaching a class, and its going to be a little rough because the kids are going hit you, but you’re going to help them make beautiful kapa”.   I used to take 30 rocks to the class, and I’d have my car loaded and carry them to the class myself, so one day I got smart, and said to the kids, “Come, I’m going to tell you a story about the Menehune and how they built fish pōnds.” “Now as you’re passing the pōhaku, say ‘Hello, how are you, I’m happy to meet you.’” And so they would pass the rocks, one by one, all 30 of them, and they would say “Hello pōhaku.” [Chuckles] But they learned to respect the rocks and the tools and the work that way.

Kristy:  What were some of the uses for kapa?

Dalani:  Kapa was used for just about everything we use fabric for, especially clothing and bedding.  But it was also used for taxes and tribute to ali‘i.  It was used as temple dressing at the heiau.  It was used ceremonially by many of the kahuna of different arts.  It was used as kites for fun and work kites that pulled canoes.  Because kapa was essentially paper, I don’t imagine they tried to make it last forever. As it got used and got smaller and softer, they would just keep utilizing it.  Today it’s a pā‘ū, or your kīhei, and then next you wrap the baby in it.  Pieces get smaller and then it is a wrapping for ho‘okupu or a sling for a broken arm.  It gets smaller still and then it becomes a candle wick for the kukui hele pō and its gone.  It’s the most environmentally friendly thing you can imagine and then another tree is right there growing and you start the whole process again.

Kristy:  Are there places that sell kapa making tools?

Dalani:  Years back after we started teaching the class, the teachers and Kupuna began asking to buy tools.  We started making an entire tool kit, as well as develop classes to teach the teachers, and even persuade principals to let us grow wauke in little school gardens.  That way, the teachers and Kupuna would now be equipped to teach kapa year after year on their own.  The kit we made contained all the kapa tools;  the beaters, the knives, the ‘ohe kāpala, the kua lā‘au and kua pōhaku, the book that showed all the steps and even muslin pā‘ū and malo so that the kids could learn how to wear the clothes.  In the last few years as more people have started making kapa and looking for tools from their woodworking friends, more people have started making and selling them.  McD Philpotts, who is an amazing woodworker who specializes in using non native woods to create native implements as well as canoes and all types of woodwork, started making the beaters using the AutoCAD program on the computer.  You put in the dimensions and the computer controlled router cuts it perfectly.  I was amazed when I saw it.  We have come a long way from carving using stone and shark teeth.  I’ve made my beaters using shark tooth knives, using every kind of blade and X-acto’s, and power tools and everything but I still haven’t done it as fine and detailed as the tools our Kupuna made the hard way.  The beaters I used in the presentation are all ones that I made, but I really enjoy that part of the kapa making process as well.

Kristy:  It sounds like kapa making has brought many opportunities your way, is this so?

Dalani:  For me, it’s been an amazing journey. I never pursued being a famous kapa maker.  I was just doing something I enjoyed doing and teaching it to just about anyone who asked.  Over time opportunities began coming my way. I got to travel to the Festival of Pacific Arts in 2008 in American Samoa and be one of the artists and performers to represent Hawai‘i. I was able to meet bark cloth makers from Samoa, Tonga, New Guinea, and Fiji and see what they did and compare notes.  It was a wonderful experience.  For the last few years I’ve been able to go to Japan and participate in a big Hula Festival that Kumu Hula Kalani Pōmaihealani puts on, and demonstrate kapa there with a group of Hawai‘ian practitioners.  As you know, the Japanese love Hawai‘i and there are many devoted hula students and halau there.  I‘ve also been able to go to the Smithsonian Museum of the Native American Indian in Washington D.C., where they also have a Hawai‘ian festival every year in May, and for the last 2 years I was able to be a part of that.  Recently I was asked to go to the Ethnological Museum of Berlin in 2012 to be in a show and educational experience of Hawai‘ian art and native artists.  That just blew me away!  And of course I said YES!  As far as creating and promoting kapa, I was able to create a number of works for the new Disney Aulani Resort and Spa at Ko‘olina.  There are over sixty native Hawaiian artists involved in this project and that resort will be as much of a modern Hawaiian art museum and gallery as it is a hotel.  I’m very honored to be involved in that project, and the designers from Disney have been amazing in incorporating so much meaningful art from local artists in the design of the hotel.  I was able to be in the Apprenticeship Program through the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts, and worked with my good friend and fellow kapa maker Cheryl Pukahi on that.  I also recently finished making a kapa for a vest and cravat, which is the English style men’s tie, for a client and friend in London, Wayne Rapozo, who wanted to wear something very ‘native’ to the big events there.  The vest was so beautiful the tailor who made it hung it in the window and people kept coming in to ask what it was made of.  I'm sure they were quite astounded to discover it was from tree bark!

For more Hawaiian kapa making information, please visit: www.kapahawaii.com