Talking Story with Kaha‘i Topolinski
|Photo Courtesy Kīhei de Silva
Kaha'i and his men at Noumea, New Caledonia, prior to their performance at the Secretariat of the Pacific Headquarters
|Photo Courtesy Kīhei de Silva
Kaha’i Topolinski stands with Madame Marie-ClaudeTjibaou in Kone, Province Nord, New Caledonia, at the close of an impromptu ceremony marking Madame Tjibaou’s acceptance of the feather cape “Nā Maka Aloha o Kawena’ulaokalani o Hawai’i Nei.”
Kumu hula John Renken Kaha‘iali‘i Topolinski is descended, by koko, from the Kauauaamahi line of fiercely independent Kohala; he is descended, by instruction, from an equally unassailable line of tradition-keepers that includes Maiki Aiu Lake, Mrs. Patience Namaka Bacon, and Mary Kawena Pukui. Topolinski is best known for the powerful hula of his Ka Pā Hula Hawai‘i, for the elevated, courtly language of the mele he has composed, and for the uncompromising defense of his traditional and loyalist beliefs. Topolinski is also, in quieter moments, a feather-worker par excellence. Among his most notable and least known accomplishments is the feather cape named, in tribute to two of his teachers, Nā Maka Aloha o Kawena‘ulaokalani o Hawai‘i Nei. The 20,000-feather ‘ahu‘ula, assembled in true lima hana maiau fashion by Topolonski and his student Kuahiwi Lorenzo, was presented at the 8th Festival of Pacific Arts to Madame Marie-ClaudeTjibaou, widow of the martyred New Caledonian sovereignty leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou. The cape is now a national treasure of the native Kanaky people of that land, a symbol our common struggle and new-found, mutual respect. We sat with Topolinski to discuss another of his feather related talents, the art of traditional kāhili-making.
Camille: How did kāhili making start in the Hawaiian islands?
Kaha‘i: It started in pre-Cook times of course. It was used as emblems, as standards for the ali‘i very much like what the flags and banners are used for in Europe. The kāhili has its ideas and beginning from looking at the tī leaf plant and how the stalk and its branches were attached to each other. The Hawaiians used that as an example to create the kāhili. They used a pole and attached branches such as the ‘ie‘ie and feathers to it very much like the tī plant. Kāhili’s were also a symbol of an ali‘i’s rank and genealogical connection.
Camille: I have never heard of the tī leaf example before. Why the tī leaf?
Kaha‘i: Because of its sacredness and its connection to life. You can cook with it; you can wear it, a lot of things. I have Bingham’s “Hawaiian Canoe Work 1899” which shows an example of kāhili and its connection with the tī leaf. From that Hawaiians took the innovation and created beautiful things and became renowned for their feather work. In the Pacific they were the best, of course.
Camille: What were some of the more prized feathers?
Kaha‘i: I have some here. The mamo, ‘iwi, ‘ō‘ū. These belonged to our family and they are from leis that fell apart so I took the feathers and put them in here so that maybe someday I can make a lei. Bingham’s feather work was excellent in that he cataloged all types of feather work.
Camille: How did you get started in kāhili?
Kaha‘i: Just by interest.
Camille: Obviously it was a family thing?
Kaha‘i: So, so but when I became interested in feather work I went to my teachers Pukui, Ah Yat , Reese, Kawena, Montgomery. We are used to seeing the kāhili as full and really manicured like “Aloha Week” kind but they always had spaces in between. I guess they make them fuller for aesthetic purposes. These ladies really taught me a lot. Actually it started with lei hulu, kāhili, and then ‘ahu‘ula.
Camille: What are the differences between all of those?
Kaha‘i: Lei hulu is a feather lei. You attach the feathers on to a cord. It’s the same process as putting a kāhili on to a pole.
Camille: What kind of significance did those who made these things have in the community? Were you considered a master craftsman?
Kaha‘i: In those days either you specialized and if your family was in that line then you took it over or if you wanted to learn a new specialty you were sort of hanaied by a teacher. Along with feather work came the kiamanu who were the feather gatherers. That was a sacred task and a lot of mele were associated with it. The kiamanu chanted to the gods, and to the birds. Their methods for catching birds were either using breadfruit gum or some kind of pasty glue, nets that they would throw over a small tree, or they used decoys like stuffed birds. The rare birds such as the mamo and ‘ō‘ō they just took several feathers those are the black birds with the yellow tufts.
Camille: Was it possible to take a few feathers and let them go?
Kaha‘i: Well if they are ensnared, you take the bird, you take the feathers and you let them go. Birds that were plentiful were the red birds. They killed those out right for all their feathers. But, you know there was a quota right? There was a kapu system. You could only take so much for the season. The seasons that the bird catchers left to get the feathers were a time of molting when feathers were easily found.
Camille: So it’s not true that Hawaiians killed them all off?
Kaha‘i: No of course not. That took place when foreign birds were introduced and insects and so forth. That killed them off. Ocean front housing took away the habitat. Waipahu was all lehua forest before. From here all the way down to Pearl Harbor. Progress I guess. Today we have remaining birds. No ‘ō‘ō, no mamo, they’re all gone, that’s for sure. But other birds still exist, on the edge.
Camille: Do you go out and get your feathers the traditional way?
Kaha‘i: No, we send to the mainland for it. The company is called “Shorts Feather Company.” They have all kinds of feathers and we order in bulk 5 to 6 pounds, dyed special to what we want.
Camille: So your kuleana then is strictly the making? So, what are you working on right now?
Kaha‘i: The hālau has opened up a class for feather cape making. We will probably have it here.
Camille: Are those girls and guys?
Kaha‘i: Yeah both.
Camille: Was it either or back in the day?
Kaha‘i: Well anciently women could not make the capes and the helmets because of its sacredness. The male in the society, being the positive of the two, could do it. Women could gather. They could clean.
Camille: Then the women could do the catch the birds?
Kaha‘i: Yeah but it was mostly men that gathered. If the male line died out then the female took over until a male was born again to take it over. They never lost the art. Women could make lei hulu. Lei hulu was a woman’s form of adornment. It was never a man’s. Today everyone wears it. A cape was only for men until Ka‘ahumanu. She wore the cape and the helmet and said this is it. After that women and men began to share in the art form, especially the women in the past century.
Camille: Is this a living art form or is it something that might soon be lost?
Kaha‘i: I don’t think it is a dieing art form. We have people like Mary Louise Kekuewa who have a lei shop and other people that make feather work. But, none of them go into the other aspects of feather work such as the cape and the kāhili. I know Mary Louise Kekuewa has done kāhili up at Pauahi Chapel, it’s beautifully manufactured, well done. It's not done in the old way though; it's on a wire. I think before you learn any kind of art form you’ve got to go back to the past to learn the basic rudiments, the tradition. Then you can branch out and not say ‘well they used wire back in the old days,’ that’s not true or floral tape. I guess its convenience too isn’t it.
Camille: What do you use then?
Kaha‘i: We use this. This is ‘ie‘ie. Today we use hau fiber. We use what I call the new olonā from the Philippines which are okay. We use thread too. These branches are made of coconut, bamboo cutting slivers or we use wicker. You get the same results. Kāhili is unique to Hawai‘i.