Hulu Manu – Hawaiian Featherwork

By Leilehua Yuen
Leilehua Yuen oversaw the care and maintenance of the kāhili collection of Pu`uhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park for nine years, from 1997 (working under the guidance of Ranger Carla Freitas) until 2006. During that time she crafted nine of the parkʻs kāhili as well as many others. This article is part of the documentation report she made for the park.

The Royal Regalia of Hawai`i

As one gazes on the pageantry of Hawaiian cultural festivals, their awesomeness is enhanced by the grace of flowing `ahu`ula (feather cloaks), elegance of tall kāhili (feather royal standards), and the festive decorative effect of lei hulu manu (feather garlands). These items and more were an important part of Hawaiian court and diplomatic life from ancient times.

The canoes of Hawaiian chiefs also wore lei hulu manu, giant feather lei. They streamed in the wind telling its direction, providing both function and beauty. With the Hawaiian love of metaphor, they possibly also were felt to add to the mana, spiritual power, of the craft by imbuing it with the spirit and protection of the bird from whose feathers the lei hulu manu was crafted.

Religious articles were decorated with feathers. The best known is the image of Kuka`ilimoku, Kamehameha’s war god. But many other images as well as at least one small shrine were enhanced with plumage.

In Hawaiian legend, the homes of goddesses were sometimes thatched with feathers. Laieikaewai, a chiefess hidden in the magical land of Paliuli by her guardian, lives in a hale thatched with yellow feathers. In the adventures of the chiefly sojourner Kawelu, the chief of O`ahu sets him the task of constructing a hale and thatching it with feathers. Kauakahiali`i, legendary inventor of the `ohe hano ihu, lived in a hale woven of flowering lehua branches and thatched with feathers. (Beckwith, pp. 408, 526, 536)

The regalia of the very highest chiefs could include a feather malo (loin cloth), ka`ei (feathered girdle or belt), `aha`ula (feather cape), mahiole (helmet), kāhili lele carried by a personal attendant and used as a fan or fly-flap as need arose, kāhili carried before the chief as a banner, and large formal kahili for state functions. These feather items often were given their own personal names as in, for example, the feather cloak “Halakeao`i`ahu” and the kāhili “`Ele`eleualani.”

A female chief would have a kāhili pa`a lima to be carried in the hand, lei hulu (feather garlands for head and neck), kāhili lele carried by a personal attendant and used as a fan or fly-flap as need arose, kāhili carried before the chiefess as a banner, and large formal kāhili for state functions. If she were of exceptionally high rank, she might even have a pā`ū hulu manu – a feathered skirt for wearing on state occasions.

These items were made with great care and love. When making them, no evil thought must cross a person’s mind. Nothing unkind, or unloving. The mind should focus on love, long life, good health, righteousness, honor, and success for the person who will wear or use the item.

Mana, according to John Dominis Holt in The Art of Featherwork in Old Hawai’i, was:

“. . . the source of spiritual power, the source of  intelligence and excellence. Mana was hidden in the  divine ancestry of a person. Mana was hidden in the kaona (the metaphor) of chants. Mana – elusive and subtle, much sought after but not easily attained – therefore you put the best of your heart and soul, your feelings and hopes, into a work of art!

“The designs on feather objects and garments were particularly challenging to the old Hawaiian artists. In their mana-steeped consciousness these artists worked always to achieve the most generous acquisition of mana. Mana was granted or collected in objects to the degree the maker put heart and soul into the creation. Inspiration came from the gods. One kept in constant touch with unseen powers. Prayers and chants and certain rituals fortified this union between artist and akua.”

The colors and patterns selected were given intense study and planning. These were the manifestations of Hawaiian heraldry, as important and complex as any royal heraldic traditions of Europe. Color and design themes apparently were based on the heraldry of the individual, and so were consistent for an individual to some degree. But they also were modified by events during the person’s life. For example, a chief who conquered another could appropriate the fallen chief’s regalia and incorporate it into his own regalia to add its mana to his.

The Hawaiian heraldry was similar in function to that of European royal families. The royal knights of medieval Europe wore plumed steel helmets, arms-emblazoned surcoats, and carried banners, all of which told rank, lineage, and saint. Appropriate usage was overseen by a college of heralds.

The royal war chiefs of Hawai`i wore crested helmets, patterned capes, and carried kāhili, all of which told rank, lineage, and `aumākua. Appropriate usage was overseen by a convocation of kāhuna (priestly experts in a field).

According to Holt (p. 38) the designs

“are certainly not happenstance arrangements, but carefully considered elements of  form worked into patterns which are mainly concerned  with an exhibition of symbols relating to clan, to  the spiritual connections with `aumakua, and the constant tie existing between the wearer of feather garments and the universe.”

Kāhili, however, according to kumu hula Kaha`i Topolinski, who worked on a kāhili project for Bishop Museum, did not necessarily fall into the same pattern, and developed a somewhat independent artistic tradition.

The author’s continued studies indicate that the artisans of ancient times were continually striving to maintain balance in a dynamic tension between adhering to strict tradition and kapu, and pushing the boundaries of artistic expression.

Ancient expressions such as the following prayer recorded by Gutmanis (p 91) indicate an understanding of artistic expression as property.

E Laka e, ua lawe aku o (inoa) i kekahi o kou mau mele.
E `olu`olu `oe, e ho`ou a ho`aa iaia i kona manawa e hoa`o ana e ho`ike aku.
E ho`opina `oe iaia e hiki ole ai oia e hoomana`o i na hua`olelo o ka mele.

Oh Laka, (name) has taken one of my mele.
Make him stutter and stammer when he tries to use it,
Make his memory fail him so that he would not remember the words.

This, the author believes, continues to be seen in her informants’ and kumus’ insistence that even when creating a replica of a specific artifact some changes must be made so as to avoid making an exact copy. Examination of kāhili made prior to 1900 show that even paired kāhili are consciously made with distinct differences.

Hulu Manu – Bird Feathers

The feathers for all these works came from a variety of birds. The most valued were the pale yellow feathers, called `e`e, which came from the wing tufts of the `o`o (Moho nobilis).

From the mamo (Drepanis pacifica) came dark golden yellow feathers. The `i`iwi (Vestinaria coccinea) was the main source of red feathers, although the `apapane (Himatione sanguinea sanguinea) also provided red. Green feathers primarily came from the `o`u (Psittirostra psittacea), with some contributed by the `akialoa (Hemignathus obscurus obscurus). But other birds, from chickens to sea birds, and in at least one case the owl, provided feathers for the royal and religious regalia.

Professional bird catchers, kia manu, were deeply conversant with the habits of their prey and the best methods of catching each. Ha`inakolo was their god.

Birds caught specifically for their feathers were captured at the beginning of the molting season, when the feathers were loose and easily removed without damage to the bird. The display feathers used in courtship were no longer needed by the bird, but were still in good enough condition to be valuable for feather work. The birds were snared in nets or caught on poles daubed with pilali (bird lime), a sticky substance which glued the birds’ feet to the pole. After the desired feathers were removed, the bird lime was cleaned from the bird with kukui oil. The bird was then set free to raise its family and grow a new crop of feathers.

Birds which would be eaten were caught by pelting with stones, clubbing, snaring, netting, and tangling with lines as well as by netting and liming (Malo pp 37-39). Ducks were caught by hiding under water and breathing through a hollow reed. When a duck swam by, it was grabbed by the legs. Seabirds were caught with hooks and lines, or with nets. The coastal people of Hāmākua developed a unique method of catching seabirds. In the evening they built smoky fires along the cliff edges. When the seabirds returned home to roost, they flew through the smoke and became disoriented, enabling the Hāmākua people to catch them with scoop nets.

After killing the bird, the feathers were removed and cleaned. Women often did the sorting and bundling of the tiny feathers to prepare them for later use (Handy, … and Others, p. 138).

After preparation, the feathers, while not used as currency in any strict sense, often were collected by the chiefs as taxes, tribute, and as spoils of war. This practice continued well into the monarchy, as evidenced by the kapu placed on yellow feathers when a new cloak was being made for Princess Ruth in 1876.

Lord Thomas Brassey and his wife the Lady Annie Brassey traveled about the world with their family on their yacht Sunbeam. Lady Brassey was quite a collector of “curiosities” and acquired a number of them in Hawai`i. They arrived at Hilo Bay on 22 December, 1876 and departed O`ahu on 3 January, 1877. Despite the brevity of their stay they made many friends and in 1881, King David Kalākaua visited them at their home in Catsfield, England.

In her journal, Lady Brassey writes:

“. . .The woman of the house, which contained some finely worked mats and clean-looking beds, showed us some tappa [sic.] cloth, together with the mallets and other instruments used in its manufacture, and a beautiful orange-colored lei, or feather necklace. It was the first she had made herself. The cloth and mallets were for sale, but no inducement would persuade her to part with the necklace. It was the first she had ever made, and as I was afterwards told that the natives are superstitiously careful to preserve the first specimen of their handiwork, of whatever kind it may be.

“. . . While our accounts were being settled, preparatory to our departure, I occupied myself in looking at some kahilis [sic.] and feather leis [sic]. The yellow ones, either of Oo [sic.] or Mamo feathers, only found in this island, are always scarce, as the use of them is a prerogative of royalty and nobility. Just now it is almost impossible to obtain one, all the feathers being `tabu,’ to make a royal cloak for Ruth, half-sister of Kamehameha V, and governess of Hawaii. Mamo feathers are generally worth a dollar apiece, and a good lei or loose necklace costs about five hundred dollars.” [editor’s note: compare this to the time’s daily wages of approximately ten cents]


Of feathered items worn on the body, the ka`ei and pā`ū probably were the most rare. There are several `aha`ula in existence, most in museums, a number of feathered helmets, many lei, but only two feather ka`ei and one pa`u are known to still exist. All are at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu. One ka`ei is in tatters, only fragments remain (Bishop Museum Cat # 6921). The other is almost intact.

Identification of and use of these long featherworked strips was  problematic for years. Frequently considered loincloths, they  have since been identified as baldrics or sashes. Lahilahi Webb, in a lecture at Kamehameha schools, called it “King Liloa’s ka`ei kapu, a cordon made out of `o`o and `i`iwi feathers. . . It has been thought to be a malo, but it is not a malo. It is the only article of its kind in existence and very probably it was sacredly used in religious ceremonial.” It was depicted on the famous statues of Kamehameha I worn somewhat similarly to a baldric.

John Papa `I`i gives an excellent description of an item very much like that in Bishop museum. In Fragments of Hawaiian History, the English translation of his series of newspaper articles, it is called a malo. `I`i’s mother was its kahu and he was sometimes its bearer.

“When the family went to Kipapa from Kumelewai  by way of upper Waipio to make ditches for the  farms, his [`I`i’s] mother trained him in the  observance of the kapu noho. She placed on his back a bundle containing a wonderful malo made of  feathers from mamo and `apapane birds attached to a fine net, with rows of human teeth at the end; this he had seen when his mother put it out to sun. Slipping his arms into the loops of the bundle, she taught him to cry ‘E noho e! (squat down!).'” (`I`i, p 28)

This could be the same the intact ka`ei in Bishop Museum, the term “malo,” likely being an error of translation.

This ka`ei is believed to have been made for Liloa, the high chief of the island of Hawai`i. He reigned from about 1455 to 1485. His successor was his eldest son Hakau, but the ka`ei passed to his second son, `Umi, born to a lower ranking mother. Hakau traditionally is depicted as a despotic ruler who in 1490 was overthrown by `Umi.

Then, for three generations, there is no mention of the ka`ei.

In the mid to late 1600s, Liloa’s great-great-great-granddaughter Ke-akea-lani-wahine, daughter of Keakamahana, the highest ranking chiefess of Hawai`i, was in possession of the ka`ei. She ceremonially dressed her grandsons, Ka-`i-amamao and Ke`eaumoku, in it – signifying that they were of the highest chiefly kapu (sacredness).

Again, the ka`ei falls into obscurity until `I`i’s mother trains him in its care. It next appears when acquired by King David Kalākaua, possibly sometime in the 1880s. He bequeathed it to his sister Lili`uokalani, who later gave it to the Bishop Museum.

The ka`ei appears to be a base of `olonā covered with a broad red center stripe running its entire length, occasionally crossed by bands of yellow featherwork. The edges appear to be primarily mamo, with some sections in `e`e (the yellow feathers of the `o`o). A row of human teeth hangs from the lower edge of a horizontal band of `e`e. At the bottom edge a section is decorated with alternating rows of human teeth and rosettes or clusters of small fish teeth. This section appears to be bordered with mamo feathers.

Probably the sections were added at later and separate dates, the human teeth being those of people whose mana was wanted to increase that of the ka`ei.

One reason for the obscurity of the ka`ei could be that they were so sacred. The few ka`ei mentioned in legend were closely guarded to prevent them being viewed by the wrong people. For the unentitled to see, let alone touch, a ka`ei was death.

Possibly one reason for the rarity and exceptional sacredness of the ka`ei is this unusually great mana. Even today, often items of personal use are considered to be kapu to their owner. In many hālau hula (schools of traditional dance), it is forbidden to borrow someone else’s instruments or clothing.

So, to wear such a personal garment is to claim a direct link to the mana and fertility of the owner. In other words, to claim descent, either genealogical or spiritual. As mana could be dissipated and lost through careless use and dispersal, such a powerful garment would require great solicitude in its use and display.


The female counterpart to the ka`ei was the feathered pā`ū. The last known feathered pā`ū was made for Nahi`ena`ena, daughter of Kamehameha I. It was 30 inches wide and 20 feet 8 inches long. After her death in 1836, the pā`ū was cut in half and used to form a royal pall, about 5 feet wide by ten feet long. It was last used over the coffin of Kalākaua. [Bishop Museum # 6831].

Legendarily, Kamo`oinanea, a kupua woman, owned a kāhili and feathered pā`ū which had the power to protect the bearer from fire and reduce enemies to ashes. (Beckwith, p. 491)


Feather capes, some of the most memorable of chiefly regalia, were the province of men until Ka`ahumanu, favorite wife of Kamehameha I, appeared in her husband’s golden mantle to announce his dying words.

Up to that point, use of feather capes by women was reserved for the wives of chiefs who had followed their men into battle. These women, knowledgeable in the arts of war, aided their husbands as strategists. According to Nona Beamer, if their husbands were slain, the women might put on their husband’s capes and continue the fight in their stead. However, in her telling of the story of her ancestress, Manono, wife of Kekuaokalani, and the battle in which they fell, Manono covers her husband’s face with his cape. Wearing the `ahu`ula in battle appears to have been an exception, rather than the rule, and only practiced in extremis.

After Ka`ahumanu’s public appearance in Kamehameha’s `aha`ula, other chiefly women began to wear the short cape.

Thousands upon thousands of feathers were used to make a single cape for a high chief. The bold patterns stand out at a distance, and possibly denoted lineage, rank, and `aumakua. In addition to being worn, they also were spread out over the bows of a chief’s canoe when on state functions. In this, they may have functioned somewhat as the chief’s ensign.

Some of the capes have a loop on each of the front edges. These loops are where a person’s hand would be when the cape is worn. Webber’s drawings of the people of Kaua`i show how they were looped over the thumb or finger, giving a wing-like appearance. A chief striding along in his cape, crested helmet on his head, would appear to be a huge bird-like, god-like figure.

In practical use, the large sweeping gestures used to give battlefield commands would certainly be enhanced by the swath of brilliant feathers. It would be much easier for warriors to see a six-foot semicircle of bright red and gold than even the most powerful bare arm. Only the highest ranking chiefs had the resources to acquire enough feathers for a full cloak. Most chiefs wore the shorter capes which came approximately to the elbow.

`Ahu`ula literally means “red garment” (`ahu – garment: `ula – red). Probably in the original feather capes only or primarily red was used. But in Hawai`i the pale yellow feathers of the `o`o were the rarest of those suitable for garments. So, with royalty’s penchant for rarity, they became the most highly esteemed. Next in value were the yellow feathers of the mamo. The anciently traditional red feathers were still valued, just not quite highly. Thus, the higher the percentage of yellow, the higher the rank of the chief. Kamehameha was the only chief known to wear a cloak comprising only the yellow `e`e.

Another unique `aha`ula belonged to Hewahewa, a high ranking kahuna of the time of Kamehameha. Hewahewa was attached to the court of Kamehameha. After the death of his chief, Hewahewa was one of the advisors of Liholiho. He assisted the young monarch in dismantling the religious system of his ancestors.

Hewahewa’s `ahu`ula was made from the feathers of the pueo. As the pueo was a very powerful `aumakua, and therefore seldom molested by even professional bird catchers, wearing an `aha`ula pueo would have made a powerful statement regarding the rank and sacredness of the kahuna. The effect would be comparable to the pope wearing a stole made from threads of Jesus’s robe, or to the Dalai Lama wearing a robe woven from silk planted by Buddha. Ironically, the power vested in Hewahewa by the ancient religion made him one of the few who could destroy it.


The feathered helmets grace the most sacred part of the human body, the head. And so one might extrapolate that the feather helmet also was an object of high honor.   The base is made from tightly woven `ie`ie root. While they won’t offer much protection from bullets, they deflect somewhat the force of a spear, slingstone, or club. But more importantly, they crown the wearer with the protection of his ancestors and gods.

To some these helmets look like the helmets of Spanish soldiers. To others they look like the helmets of the Roman centurions. They are almost very similar to the ceremonial helmets of Tibetan monks. Some believe this demonstrates contact with one or more of these groups. But, such contact does not explain the many shapes of the Hawaiian helmet. Certainly this is a question worth pursuing.

Most likely, the helmet shapes denoted rank, lineage, and `aumakua affiliation. The mahiole of high chiefs were feathered and had a prominent crest ridge. The ridge often was decorated in stripes running its length. Perhaps this symbolized the rainbow which ancient legend said appeared over a chief’s head.

Some lesser chiefs had a lower crest ridge and no feathers. Other lesser chiefs, apparently laterally ranked, had mushroom-shaped protuberances on their helmets and also were featherless. Common soldiers wore a simple skullcap to protect the head from slingstones and other objects.


History and Descriptions

The kāhili of ancient times were more varied and reached greater heights than kāhili of modern times. Some of the tallest state kāhili were as high as 10 meters, with 3 meters of feathering. The small hand kāhili, or kāhili pa`a lima, were up to a meter in length.

Originally fly whisks, the kāhili pa`a lima and kāhili lele still served that purpose at the time of Captain Cook’s arrival in the islands. But the kāhili pa`a lima of the female royalty also functioned somewhat in the same fashion as the royal scepters of European nobility. And, according to Holt, were more important in the spiritual application of warding off bad mana, than in the practical application of chasing flies.

During the monarchy era, the huge formal state kāhili lost much of their height, although they gained many new colors from imported feathers and developed a larger diameter. Probably this was because the state functions had moved indoors, and the tall kāhili were not easily maneuverable under the ceilings and chandeliers, and through doors. The great width of the Monarchy era kāhili could possibly be attributed to the innovation of kāhili-holders, as well as the move inside, so the strength of arm and stamina of the kāhili-bearer, as well as resistance to wind, were no longer considerations.

The first European account of kāhili is recorded in the Journals of Capt. James Cook, (Beaglehole, p. 1227 – Samwell). The occasion was the arrival in January of 1778 of the Resolution and the Discovery at Kaua’i. “Karanatoa brother to Teeave came on board the ship this morning with a man carrying an enormous fly-flap before him on his Shoulder. . .”

Unfortunately, this is just enough information to tantalize, but not to describe. How “enormous” is “enormous?” What were the colors? Patterns? Did it match Kalanakoa’s cape and other regalia? Kāhili pa`a lima and kāhili lele were seen frequently during this and subsequent visits. Might this have been a display of the large formal kāhili of state? Or was it simply one of the larger kāhili carried before the chief as a banner.

The men of Cook’s party termed the kāhili “fly-flaps” because they were familiar with the ceremonial and practical fly-flaps of the South Pacific cultures. It is likely that at least part of the ancestry of the kāhili is, indeed, a fly-flap. Brigham (1899, p 14) says: “It is probable that a bunch of feathers used as a fly-flap was the primal form of feather work . . . and the prototype of the kahili seems to have been a stem . . . of the ki [Cordyline fruticosa]. . .”

Otto Degener (1984 p 207) suggests that the kāhili was “probably in vogue since the time of Hawai`i Loa. . .” Meaning, it appears, since the beginning. Hawai`i Loa is the legendary, and possibly apocryphal, chief who discovered the Hawaiian Islands. He named the largest after himself and the others after his sons. Creation of the first kāhili however, also is credited to Lonoikamakahiki, an artistically innovative chief of the late 16th or early 17th century.

By the time of Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i the kāhili had evolved into several styles and sizes. They ranged from the small personal kāhili pa`a lima carried by an ali’i, to the tall formal kāhili carried before the ali`i by an attendant.

Small personal kāhili pa`a lima were carried about by women of high rank and apparently served as a combination fly whisk, fan, and to some degree, scepter. The extant Cook kāhili range in length from 67 cm to 90 cm. Between half and a third of the length is feathered, and the feathering is about 10 to 15 cm in diameter. Colors and patterns of the hand kāhili show great variation, although black appears to have been a favored color.

When Cook reached Kealakekua Bay at Hawai’i Island, Kona’s high chief, Kalaniopu’u, made a state visit to the newcomers. He made presents of featherwork to Cook. Among the items was a kāhili pa`a lima, described as a “very handsome fly-flap.”

Many kāhili were collected during Cook’s third expedition, 22 of which ended up in the Leverian Museum. Today, however, only a few of these are known to be extant and accepted as from Cook’s third voyage. All of these are kāhili pa`a lima.

In late May of 1786 the fur traders Nathaniel Portlock and George Dixon arrived in Hawai`i. Portlock’s June 11 journal entry gives a description of a kāhili:

“. . . I purchased two very curious fly-flaps, the upper parts composed of beautiful variegated feathers; the handles were human bone, inlaid with tortoiseshell in the neatest manner, which gave them the appearance of fineered [veneered] work” (Portlock, 1789, 1968, p88).

Lady Brassey, who traveled with her family on their yacht the Sunbeam, arrived in Hilo Bay on 23 December, 1876. In a journal entry she says:

“Kahilis [sic] are also an emblem of rank, though many people use them as ornaments in their houses. They are rather like feather-brooms, two or three feet long, and three or four inches across, made of all sorts of feathers, tastefully interwoven. I bought one. . .” (Brassey, 1878, p 279)

According to Malo, (1976, p77):

“The kahili, a fly brush or plumed staff of state, was the emblem and embellishment of royalty. Where the king went, there went his kāhili-bearer (pa’a-kāhili); and where he stopped, there stopped also his kāhili-bearer. When the king slept, the kāhili was waved over him as a fly-brush. The kāhili was the possession solely of the ali’i.”

Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston, wife of Rev. Asa Thurston, published her autobiography in 1882. In it she describes Kamamalu, favorite wife of Liholiho, at a commemorative feast given by the king for his late father, Kamehameha I:

“She, . . . according to court ceremony, so arranged a native cloth pa`u a yard wide, with ten folds, as to be enveloped around the middle with seventy thicknesses . . . Two attendants followed her, one bearing up the end of this cumbrous robe of state, and the other waving over her head an elegant nodding fly-brush of beautiful plumes, its long handle completely covered with little tortoise shell rings of various colors.” (Brigham, 1911/1976 p186)

Larger kāhili, around two to three meters long with about a meter of feathering 10 to 15 cm in diameter, were carried before the nobility by personal attendants. These kāhili functioned much like the banners of the European kings and knights, allowing observers to identify at a distance the signified noble and tell for which level of kapu they should prepare. Again, as in the European courts, the attendants were, themselves, of noble blood.


Kāhili were the tangible symbol of the kapu system of laws upon which the preservation of the mana of the ruling classes rested. To the kāhili of a chief was due the reverence and respect due the chief himself.

John Papa `I`i was kāhili-bearer for the young prince Liholiho. According to `I`i, the order of approach for a chief bearing the kapu moe – prostrating kapu (in this case, Kiwalao, heir to Kalaniopu`u) – was:

1) kapu stick bearer (Keaweaheulu)

2) cape and kāhili bearer and spittoon and mat bearer (Kamanawa and Kame`eiamoku)

3) ranking chief (Kiwalao).

Kamanawa and Kame`eiamoku were junior line nobility of Kiwalao’s family.

When `I`i was a youth and kāhili bearer for Liholiho, his duty was to hold the kāhili and tend the spittoon, no matter how long, or how tired or hungry he was, until he was relieved of the duty.

`I`i likely began his court duties as a “ha`aku`e.” According to Malo (1976, p 59) the kāhili bearers were called “ha`a-ku`e,” “kua-lana-puhi,” and “`Olu-`Eke-loa-ho`o-ka`a-moena.” “Pa`a kāhili” seems to have been a generic term for kāhili-bearers.

According to Pukui and Elbert, the ha`aku`e were kahili-bearers for chiefs and chiefesses of the same sex. “Ha`aku`e” literally means “to shift or ripple, to and fro, back and forth” – possibly in reference to the motions made by the kahili-bearer gently waving the kahili about to stir the air and ward off insects. These were recruited from the youths of high-born families related to the chief whom they served.

`I`i himself was from a highborn family, and his mother was of such high rank that the family servants called her “Wanaoa” [wana-like, having prickles or branches extending out sharply]. She was “likened to trees with branches going every direction,

forcing them to keep their distance because of her rank.” (`I`i, p. 20)

The kualanapuhi were officers of the court who watched over a sleeping or resting chief and waved the kāhili over him. They may have been the same as those who preceded the chief, bearing the kāhili before him.

The `Olu`Ekeloaho`oka`amoena were expert lua fighters of the same sex as the chief or chiefess, with the responsibility of guarding the sleeping place of that noble. Effectively, they were bodyguards. In keeping with Hawaiian tastes, their title means

“The `Ekeloa breeze coolness which rolls mats” – a lovely poetic title for such a duty.

Among other rules of etiquette the kāhili bearers learned and enforced were to avoid stepping on the shadow of the chief, letting the chief’s shadow fall upon themselves or others, and avoiding crossing directly behind the chief, but remaining at a somewhat oblique angle to the spine. The appearance of a kāhili required prostration from the lower ranking, and for the higher ranking, squatting and removal of items such as kihei, wigs, or any garment from the upper body. If the kāhili was wrapped up so as not to be visible, this kapu did not apply. (Kamakau, p. 52)

Names of Kāhili

The kāhili themselves were individually named and, until the monarchy era when Victorian ideas of taste in design strongly influenced manufacture of Hawaiian objects, each was, apparently, a unique and individual construction. Excepting kāhili made after the advent of the monarchy, the author was unable to locate any kahili or documentation which would support identical pairs. Even during the monarchy era, kahili in pairs often were made distinguishable by crafting different designs in their pa`u.

Kuakamano, “a great chief of old,” owned the kāhili Kupukapu, translated by Beckwith as “taboo-sprout.” She says in her commentary of the Kalakaua Kumulipo, “All chiefs in old times had such symbols of office, and each had its distinguishing name of honor” (p 86).

The kāhili of Lonoikamakahiki was named `Ele`eleualani [Dark Heavenly Rain] (Fornander, p115). It figures in the story of Lonoikamakahiki’s sojurn on O`ahu, exciting the envy of his host’s court. It is fashioned from mamo feathers found only on Lono’s own island, Hawai`i.

When Kamehameha gave a pa`ina in honor of Ka`ahumanu, his favorite wife, a large formal kāhili was crafted for her and named Hawai`i Loa (Kamakau, p. 183). At the same pa`ina, his second and third favorite wives, Kaheiheimalie Kaniu and Kahakuha`akoi were accompanied by their kāhili, named Koa`ehuluma`ema`e [Pure (chaste) Koa`e Feathering], inherited from their grandmother.

The dedication of Kawaiaha`o Church in 1829 was considered important enough to merit a mile long procession and the most sacred of kāhili, including the venerable `Ele`eleualani and famous Hawai`iloa. `Ele`eleualani had, by this time, passed down to Keōpūolani and Hawai`i Loa was the kāhili Kamehameha had ordered constructed for Ka`ahumanu. Princess Ruth Ke`elikolani also had her kāhili, Po`ouliuli [Dark Head], out for the occasion. Many small kāhili also were present. (Kamakau, p 293)

The large formal kāhili apparently were used only when several ranking chiefs and chiefesses were convened. They seem to have provided a standard for clan identificaton and also showed the esteem in which the owner held those invited to travel in its presence.


The tallest kāhili were up to 10 meters high. In May of 1823 Liholiho hosted on O`ahu a memorial commemoration for Kamehameha I. At that event these tall kāhili were on display. The Reverend CS Stewart (1828, pp117-118) wrote:

“. . . The upper parts of these kahilis [sic] were of scarlet feathers, so ingeniously and beautifully arranged on artificial branches attached to the staff, as to form cylinders fifteen or eighteen inches in diameter, and twelve or fourteen feet long; the lower parts or handles were covered with alternate rings of tortoise shell and ivory, of the neatest workmanship and highest polish. . . There is something approaching the sublime in the lofty noddings of the kahilis [sic] of state as they tower far above the heads of the group whose distinction they proclaim.”

Stewart also recorded the funeral procession of Liholiho and Kamamalu in which

“. . .Twenty men, in the native costume of black, some with the addition of rich feather cloaks, each two bearing an immense feathered staff of state, about thirty feet long and from one to two feet in diameter, some of black, some of crimson, others of green, and others again of yellow feathers.”

These large kāhili were disassembled after each use, the feathers stored away in special boxes made from bamboo (Freitas, 1999) or calabashes (Degener, 1984, p207) containing the leaves and stems of the `ena`ena (Gnaphalium) as an insect repellant.

The poles also were carefully stored. Before their next use, skilled artisans would inspect the feather branches and reassemble the kāhili.

Brigham (1899, p 14) says:

“The kahili in its greatest development consisted of a pole sometimes 20 feet high, to the upper end of which was attached the hulu or cluster of feathers. . . Neither Cook nor Vancouver mentions these immense kahilis [sic], for they never saw them, no royal funeral occurring during their stay.”

Construction methods and materials varied between kāhili. The small kāhili pa`a lima had either wood or bone handles similar in shape to umbrella and walking stick handles of the Victorian era. Human tibia were prized handles and, unlike having one’s bones made into fishhooks – a high insult and desecration – to be incorporated into a kāhili handle was a supreme honor and compliment.

Degener says,

“The bones were frequently derived from the shins of brave warriors who had been killed in battle by the owner of the kahili and thus signally honored by him. If, however, the enemy had been despised, his bones would not be inlaid in a kahili handle, poi bowl, or sacred drum, but, possibly along with his teeth, in a spittoon or slop basin instead.”

The larger kāhili poles were made from plain kauila (Alphitonia ponderosa) wood fashioned into a shape like a spear or javelin and sometimes decorated in the same fashion as the smaller kāhili. According to Buck, some actually were spears. The ihe, or short spears, used for both thrusting and throwing were about 2 meters to 2.5 meters (6 to 8 feet) long, which answers to the recorded lengths of the medium sized kāhili. Extant examples of pololū, the long spears used as pikes, range up to 6 meters, answering to descriptions of some of the larger kāhili.

Degener emphasizes the importance of the kāhili pole, calling it the “essential” part of the kāhili. He describes them as made from kāhili (Alphitonia ponderosa) or koa (Acacia koa) and says,

“To it much sentiment was attached. It was often elaborately ornamented by the chiefs as a pastime. The handle was made by stringing disks of tortoise-shell on its lower end, these often alternating with disks of bone. All were then carefully filed and polished until a smooth, variegated handle resulted.”

Many types of feathers were used in the construction of kāhili. Feathers were obtained from birds prized for food as well as those prized specifically for their plumage. When food birds were caught, the feathers were carefully plucked, cleaned, and saved for use in kāhili and other featherwork. Other birds were caught at the beginning of the molting season, when the feathers were loose and could easily be removed without injuring the live bird. The iridescent black tail feathers of the moa (Gallus gallus), Hawaiian junglefowl, were prized for kahili. Moa also provided many other colors from white to fawn to red to barred. (Handy and Handy, p. 254).

According to Malo (1976, pp 37-40), in the manufacture of kāhili, feathers of the nene (Bernicla sandvicensis) were “prized,” `alala (Corvus hawaiiensis) feathers were “useful,” and those of the pueo (Asio flammeus sandvicensis) and `io (Buteo solitarius) “are worked into kahili of the choicest descriptions.” Malo also states that the black and grey feathers of the `iwa (Fregata minor palmerstoni) were used for making kāhili as well as decorating the Makahiki image and that the feathers of the `o`o (Moho nobilis) and mamo (Drepanis pacifica) “are made up into the large royal kahili.”

As well as the `e`e (axillary tufts), the tail quills and other feathers of the `o`o were used in kahili. Munro (p. 87) “saw at Waimea, Kaua`i in 1891, a kāhili made from the central tail quills of the Hawai`i `o`o.”

According to Lahilahi Webb (Handy . . . & Others, Ancient Hawaiian Civilization, p 136) in a lecture at Kamehameha Schools, The choicest kahili were black and yellow `o`o. Other choice kāhili were fashioned from the black and white outermost tail quills of the `o`o.

Regarding construction of the feathered portion of a kāhili, Degener says:

“The upper third or less of the pole bore many  branches made from the stiff midribs of coconut leaflets. The branches, of which there might be hundreds, were simple or forking and would radiate in all directions. To their ends were tied tufts of short, bright feathers to form a regular, plumed cylinder, or hulumanu, fifteen to thirty inches in diameter.”

Except for the diameter of thirty inches, this description is in accord with the author’s observations of extant kāhili on display in the Kāhili Room at Bishop Museum. Trials showed that the branches are replicable, although substitutions of cotton or polyester thread for the olonā thread, and introduced songbird and dyed commercial feathers for the native bird feathers must be made.

Kaha`i Topolinski conducted for Bishop Museum studies and a workshop on the construction of ancient kahili. He found that materials used in the construction of the branchelets were variable and included ni`au (midrib of Cocos nucifera), lau hala

(Pandanus techtorius) midrib, finely shaved `ohe (Schizostachyum), and `ie`ie (Freycinetia arborea). Olonā (Touchardia latifolia) was the preferred wrapping and tying material, although hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus) occasionally was used.

Topolinski found many techniques were used in tying, lashing, and shaping of the branches. Some were constructed in such a way that they were flexible and moved in a light breeze. Some were stiff.

Color selection primarily was based on the availability of feathers and the fancy of the artist. Topolinski believes that the more rigid association of specific colors with specific chiefs and with specific meanings did not occur until the monarchy era.

During the monarchy era, the availability of imported feathers such as peacock, introduced birds such as parrots and mynah birds, and dyed feathers, combined with the introduction of new materials such as satin, cardboard, and glue, gave rise to a huge artistic expansion in the construction and color patterns of kāhili.


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Incorporated / Press Pacifica: Honolulu: 4th printing 1989

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DeAugiar, Tom: interview series: 1998-1999: Honaunau, Hawai`i

Freitas, Carla: interview series: 1994-1999: Honaunau, Hawai`i

Halualani, Sandy: telephone interview: 28 April 1999: O`ahu

Kahelepuna, Paulette: telephone interview: 3 May 1999: O`ahu

Topolinski, Kaha`i: telephone interview: 10 May 1999: O`ahu