Hawaii Just Became A Little More Hawaiian, Thanks To This Powerful Event

By Kyle Ellison
Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Camera man captures shots of the mahiole, helmet, in New Zealand.  Photo: Kyle Ellison.

When was the last time you went to the forest and tried to catch a bird? Do you think if you went you’d know where to begin, or even what tools to use? Do you think if you caught a single bird about the size of your hand—a specific bird, where your entire goal was to pluck a couple of feathers—you’d be amazed at what you’ done, or the fact that it actually worked?

Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Mahiole, or helmet, close up. Hawaiian helmets were worn not so much for protection in battle but to distinguish one’s rank. Photo: Kyle Ellison.

Now imagine repeating the feat over 20,000 times, and you have an idea of the labor involved with ancient Hawaiian cloaks. Traditionally known as ‘ahu ula, these feathered cloaks were reserved for ali‘i—high ranking royalty or chiefs—where the amount of yellow feathers on the cloak denoted political standing. They are items so rare, so precious and few, that while no amount of currency was used in making the ‘ahu ula, such cloaks today are considered priceless—particularly of notable chiefs.

Ancient, Royal Cloak and Helmet Return Home to Hawaii

Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Opening of the ceremony between the Moari and Hawaiian delegates in New Zealand. Photo: Kyle Ellison.

Recently one such ‘ahu ula returned to Hawaiian soil, as part of a long term loan agreement between Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand and Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. Along with assistance from Hawaiian Airlines and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, an ‘ahu ula of Chief Kalaniōpu‘u, which, in 1779, was humbly offered to Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay, is staying here on Hawaiian soil after 237 years of being away from the islands.

Having circled the globe in private collections from Russia to England and New Zealand, the ‘ahu ula has technically twice returned back home to Hawaii, but both occasions were markedly brief and it soon returned to Te Papa.

Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Delegates from the Office of Hawaiian affairs stand over the ahu ula in New Zealand. Photo: Kyle Ellison.

What makes this moment all the more special is the ‘ahu ula is joined by a helmet, or feathered mahiole, which also belonged to Kalaniōpu‘u and was similarly given to Captain Cook on the Kealakekua shore. Never before have both of these items returned to Hawaii together, and after centuries of travel over thousands of miles to the furthest reaches of the globe, they are now on display at Bishop Museum less than 200 miles from the forested slopes where mamo and ‘ō‘ō (which are now extinct) were caught and released for the regal distinction their beautiful feathers would bring.

An Exchange of Culture and Aloha

Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Gifts offered by the Hawaiian delegates.  Photo: Kyle Ellison.


To commemorate the return of these cultural treasures back to Hawaiian soil, a delegation of Hawaiian representatives traveled to Wellington and Te Papa Museum to present contemporary cultural gifts and show their appreciation. In a three-hour ceremony that was largely conducted in the Maori and Hawaiian languages, an umeke bowl of kamane wood was offered to the New Zealand delegation, as were kahili of colorful feathers and exquisite kauila wood. Also presented was a lei o manō, or traditional shark tooth hand weapon, as well as an a‘u swordbill dagger and woven lauhala mat.

To Kamana‘opono Crabbe, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO who delivered an impassioned oli, (chant), the gifts were “a gesture to Te Papa Museum for all of their help in the process, and a small way to reciprocate the aloha that we have.”

That aloha was felt in the mele, or songs, that were sung throughout the ceremony, from the upbeat chords of Kaulana Na Pua on ukulele and guitar, to a proud rendition of Hawaii Pono‘i—the National Anthem of Hawaiʻi.

Cultural Potency Inspires a New Generation

Photo:  Kyle Ellison.

Helmet and cape on display at Bishop Museum.  Photo: Kyle Ellison.

Eight days later, a crowd of over 2,700 people attended the ceremony at Bishop Museum to see for themselves the ancient treasures which not only once graced Captain Cook, but also Chief Kalaniōpu‘u in a time when Hawaiians lived in unity with the natural world around them.

The museum turnout was completely unprecedented, and to Claudette Springer of Bishop Museum “it was total chicken skin stuff.”

Aside from the fact that the physical treasures are back on Hawaiian soil, their cultural potency inspires a new generation of native Hawaiians, who are being raised in a Hawaiian environment that is far more committed to preserving the culture than the environment their parents once knew. It’s an exciting time to be in Hawaii and watch the Renaissance unfold, and you could say Hawaiʻi just got a little more Hawaiian—now that these treasures are home.

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