In 1779, the reigning chief of Hawai‘i Island, Kalani‘ōpu‘u, who traced his regal line to the great chief Līloa of Waipiʻo, greeted an English captain named James Cook after his ship made port in Kealakekua Bay. As a demonstration of his goodwill, Kalani‘ōpu‘u gifted the ‘ahu ʻula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) he was wearing to Captain Cook, draping the cloak upon Cook’s shoulders.
The feathered cloak and helmet have great extrinsic value, but more importantly, they possess great intrinsic and spiritual significance. For Native Hawaiians, the ‘ahu ‘ula, mahiole, and all other featherwork were reserved exclusively for the use of their ali‘i (royalty), symbolizing their chiefly divinity, rank, and power.
The construction of featherwork in ancient Hawai‘i required an incredible amount of labor and craftsmanship. This ‘ahu ‘ula in particular has feathers from about 20,000 birds. Skilled trappers caught the birds by employing various techniques such as snaring their prey midair with nets, or using decoy birds to lure them onto branches coated with a sticky substance. They often harvested only a few feathers from each bird before releasing them back into the wild so they could produce more feathers. Skilled workers belonging to the aliʻi class crafted the olonā cordage backing, a netting used as the foundation for the cloak, onto which the bundles of feathers were attached, creating bold designs.
After the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole left on Cook’s ship, both were taken to England and passed through the hands of various museum owners and collectors. They eventually came under the care of the Second Baron St Oswald, who unexpectedly presented his entire collection in 1912 to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand, the predecessor of Te Papa Tongarewa. The cloak and helmet have been in the national collection ever since.
In 2013, discussions began between Bishop Museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, and OHA to bring these treasures back to Hawai‘i, culminating in this significant homecoming.
Bishop Museum is honored to be the institution charged with the care of these cultural treasures and to be the recipient of these mea makamae (treasures) from Te Papa Tongarewa. The exhibit space at Bishop Museum will be called ‘He Nae Ākea: Bound Together.’ This reflects the connection of Kalaniʻōpuʻu to his land and people, the connection between the peoples, nations, and cultures throughout the centuries who have cared for these treasures, as well as the connection between the three institutions directly involved in this loan. It is only as a result of all of these ties that we have arrived where we are today.
The exhibit He Nae Ākea: Bound Together was made possible by the generous support and partnership of:
The Ellen M. Koenig Memorial Fund