Skip to main content


Feathers and Bones

Rehousing the Treasures of the Bishop Museum

By Anna Maria Gillis | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

Each year thousands of scientists, researchers, and visitors delve into the treasures of Hawaii’s Bishop Museum to discover facts, but also to feel the spirit of the islands, or mana, hidden in the objects.

Mana is a complex Polynesian cultural idea. For the ancients, mana was a quality that came from the gods and was necessary to make the world fruitful. It conferred potency on the people and objects endowed with it.

Because the powerful could pass their mana onto their belongings, lesser mortals could increase their own mana by acquiring the property of the mighty. Some scholars even think that misunderstandings over mana may somehow account for English navigator Captain James Cook’s death in 1779. The Hawaiians may have been seeking some of the English mana when they took objects from Cook’s ship. Cook interpreted the action as theft. An altercation ensued that resulted in Cook’s dismemberment.

Today, mana can be best understood as a spiritual essence.

"The collective mana at the Bishop is palpable," says W. Donald Duckworth, the museum’s director. The Bishop’s rich ethnographic, archaeological, and biological collections put it among the half dozen largest museums of natural and cultural history in the United States. But the Bishop is different from most museums "because here we’re in the immediate presence of the [represented] culture. We really are the museum of the Hawaiian people," says Duckworth.

The greatest growth in use of museum resources has been among Native Hawaiians exploring their heritage by studying artifacts, photos, and botanical specimens. Many locals participate in the federally funded Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program, which supports the study of traditional ways that are in danger of being lost. The Hawaiian language appears throughout the museum, which also supplies materials to the Hawaiian immersion schools. Chant, dance, voyaging in ocean-going canoes, and weaving are among the cultural legacies that the museum helps perpetuate.

Artists and crafts people especially come for inspiration, says Valerie Free, manager of Cultural Resources and Collection Care. Among the most examined objects are those from everyday life: fine mats woven from the leaves and fibers of now threatened plants, kapa (cloth made from bark), decorated gourd containers of all sizes, calabashes (serving dishes), and at least twenty different types of stone tools.

To improve the public’s access behind the scenes and to better preserve the Hawaiian and Pacific ethnographic collection, the museum has transferred much of it to a new storage facility in a modern building. The move was partly funded by NEH grants.

Each item tells a story that helps Hawaiians reconstruct their past. The magnificent, full-length cloak of yellow feathers that belonged to Kamehameha the Great often has an extraordinary effect on people, says Duckworth.

Kamehameha had earned the right to wear the garment because he defeated other leading chiefs and unified the Islands by 1810. As the first king of Hawai'i and the founder of a royal dynasty, Kamehameha’s mana was especially strong.

In traditional Hawaiian society, high-ranking chiefs wore short capes and helmets usually of red and yellow feathers for ceremonies and sometimes in battles. The amount of yellow in a feather garment was a clue to ranking.

Yellow feathers came from two indigenous species called mamo and 'ō'ō. These mostly black birds, now extinct due to habitat loss, had only a few tufts of yellow on their bodies. Gathering these precious plumes was the job of professional bird hunters who released the birds after plucking them. Only someone of Kamehameha’s stature would have had the means to command a mamo cloak that required feathers from approximately ninety-thousand birds.

Other featherwork known as kahili also symbolized might. The handle of one of Kamehameha1s kahili was made of the thigh bones of chiefs he had conquered, says Duckworth. "It was people’s bones, not the soft tissues, that held their mana. If you possessed their bones, you had their mana." (This particular kahili is not on display because the Bishop Museum never exhibits human skeletal remains.)

These feather standards -- some of them more than twenty feet tall -- stood in front of royal residences and were carried during ceremonies. After attending a state procession in 1823, the Reverend C.S. Steward wrote, "I doubt whether there is a nation in Christendom which...could have presented a court dress and insignia of rank so magnificent as these. There is something approaching the sublime in the lofty noddings of the kahilis of state as they tower far above the heads of the groups whose distinction they proclaim: something conveying to the mind impressions of greater majesty than the gleamings of the most splendid banners I ever saw unfurled."

By the time Steward wrote, Hawaiian royalty had already been heavily influenced by European ideas of majesty and attire. Kamehameha I had learned about western governance from British explorer George Vancouver, and he sat for his portrait painting in European dress.

But until his death in May 1819, Kamehameha kept himself and Hawaii faithful to the ancient religion and kapu, a system of taboos that determined who one bowed to, who one dined with, when one worked, and other aspects of Hawaiian life. Traditional Hawaiian society considered balance between opposites -- the chiefly class and commoners, male and female, land and sea -- critical; kapu regulated the interactions between such opposites. The appearance of kapu staves, short poles topped with balls sometimes of white or black bark cloth, warned people to observe the rules or face almost certain death.

Some of the taboos reflected the limits on resources and took into account the need to conserve them. For instance, there were times when it was prohibited to harvest particular fish. Those times coincided with their breeding season, says Duckworth.

Shortly after his father’s death, Kamehameha II broke a fundamental taboo by eating publicly with women, ending centuries of tradition that had been eroding since Cook’s 1778 arrival. The king’s decree to destroy the temples led to the wholesale burning of statues of the gods. Some of the statues that had been hidden away during the destruction are now held by the Bishop Museum.

Duckworth isn’t surprised that many Hawaiians became disillusioned and despaired that the gods had abandoned them. "It’s hard for us to imagine the impact of western contact on a people who had been largely isolated for one thousand or more years. They saw foreigners coming in, breaking taboos, wasting resources, and receiving no punishment from the gods."

When the Congregationalist missionaries arrived from Boston in 1820, they found willing converts among the ali1i, the ruling families. Although Kalahumanu, widow of Kamehameha the Great, supported the missionaries, their Protestant zeal to root out hula and other customs they considered immoral was thwarted. Hula, which was part entertainment and part religious expression and a way to transmit cultural knowledge, continued to be practiced privately and was taught in clandestine schools.

Missionary influence shows up in the material culture. New England women introduced quilting, but the Hawaiians added motifs that gave their quilts a characteristic look. Kapa also changed; designs on the bark cloth and cuts of clothing show the stamp of nineteenth-century New England.

The few people who still know how to make kapa and fine, elegant mats from a plant called makaloa study the unparalleled Bishop collection for hints of techniques that died out last century. They also examine the museum’s botany specimens to understand more about the plants that provided the fibers.

Many of the plants that Hawaiians of the past used to create their material world are now scarce or extinct. "People now don’t even know how to grow some of the gourds that were used commonly," says Free. To keep the crafts alive, "we’re propagating some species and trying to reestablish them so eventually more will be available to artisans," says Duckworth.

Several factors led to the decline in the creation of kapa, makaloa mats, and other woven materials. Clearing for sugar plantations eliminated large stands of paper mulberry, the most important raw material for kapa; and diminished the supply of other plants. The number of people who knew how to make particular materials declined as European diseases took the native population from an estimated 800,000 in Cook’s time to forty thousand by the end of the nineteenth century. Hawaiians used to say, "Native death takes a few at a time, the foreigners’ death takes many."

Hawaiian textiles were replaced with imported, woven cloth, which was convenient and durable. "It was also a status symbol to have western clothes and goods," says Free, who points out that the Hawaiian privileged were worldly and traveled. Many of them brought back the trappings of Victorian England.

Bernice Pauahi Bishop, a princess and great-granddaughter of Kamehameha I, dressed like any fashionable New York or London woman. At eighteen, she married Charles Reed Bishop, an ambitious, self-educated American, after rejecting a match with the prince who would become Kamehameha V. (His feeling mustn’t have been terribly hurt. On his deathbed, the king proposed that Bernice succeed him, another offer she turned down.)

When the princess died in 1884, most of her assets went to the founding of schools, but she bequeathed personal property, including objects she had inherited from her chiefly ancestors, to her husband. The Kamehameha family treasures were the basis of the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, which was founded in 1889. Less than a decade after the museum was established, the Hawaiian Islands were annexed by the United States. American business interests had grown influential, and they were not pleased when Queen Liliuokalani sought a constitution that would return political power to Hawaiians. With the help of the U.S. ambassador and the backup of the U.S. Marines, the queen was overthrown in 1893. She turned the nation over without bloodshed, believing that Washington would restore her to the throne when it realized what had been done.

After some stalling, the United States annexed Hawai'i in 1898. Hawai'i’s location was strategic during the Spanish-American War, given Spain’s presence in the Philippines.

"The annexation is little understood by most people," says Duckworth. "There’s a perception that most Hawaiians favored annexation. That’s not true. Annexation really was an extension of Manifest Destiny." To mark annexation’s centenary, the museum is sponsoring the making of a film to describe the taking of Hawai'i.

While the power structure and demographics were changing -- Hawai'i experienced several waves of Asian and Portuguese immigration as people came to work the sugar and pineapple plantations -- so was the museum’s scope.

Under the leadership of William T. Brigham, the museum’s first curator, scholarship prevailed. "He was a visionary who brought the latest concepts about museums back to Hawai'i," says Free. He and his successors arranged for the collection of biological specimens and cultural artifacts throughout the Pacific. These materials help ethnologists, archaeologists, and biologists understand the similarities and differences across Oceania, which includes Polynesia, Micronesia, and Melanesia.

Despite all the materials, researchers are puzzled about the motivation that drove the first settlers to the Hawaiian Islands. So was Cook, who wrote upon his arrival in the Sandwich Islands (his name for Hawai'i): "I have already observed that these people are the same nations as the people of Otaheite (Tahiti) and many others of the South sea islands...How shall we account for this Nation spreading itself so far over the Vast ocean?"

Polynesian adventurers settled the isolated islands between 0 and 300 AD. Scholars speculate that they made the 1,800-mile journey from the Marquesas Island in ocean-going canoes that also carried their pigs, chickens, dogs, and crop plants.

To see how feasible such a trip would be, the museum has practiced some experimental archaeology by creating Polynesian voyaging canoes that have turned out to be faster and more maneuverable than eighteenth-century ships would have been. One canoe, the Hawai1iloa, is fifty-seven feet long, double-hulled, and made largely of traditional materials. In 1995, it completed a six- thousand-mile trip that included Tahiti and the Marquesas with a crew that used ancient Wayfinding techniques that depend on keen observation of the sky and sea. "Like the ancient Polynesians, they had to rely on their brains," says Duckworth.

It took native Hawaiian artisans, other volunteers, and museum staff six years to plan, build, and launch the Hawai1iloa. Artifacts in the museum served as models for objects that had to be made; findings from a Polynesian boat-building site that had been preserved by sand and mud following a tidal wave guided the canoe’s creation.

Work on this voyaging canoe, done under the Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program, once again pointed out how much the natural world in Hawai'i has changed. The boat makers could not find two koa trees of sufficient size to make the body of the canoe. In the traditional society, a boy who would someday make a canoe would have had to plant a replacement tree before the tree destined to become the canoe was even cut. "The two trees would grow side by side until the time was right," says Duckworth.

Sitka spruce logs were donated by tribes in Alaska and Sealaska Corp., but finding enough fibers to make the lashings to hold the canoe together wasn’t possible. (The ancient Hawaiians had no metal, so everything had to be made from stone, plant, or animal materials.)

The sails proved tricky. "It’s one thing to weave table mats; it’s another to weave something on which people’s lives depended," says Duckworth.

Eleven weavers spent two years making the 375-square-foot sails from leaves that had to be washed, soaked, smoked, rolled, beaten, and split into strips before they could be woven. The first ones ripped in gentle breezes during the ocean trials.

The challenge of duplicating the quality and artistry of objects made by ancient Polynesians created excitement and pride among Native Hawaiians, and it revived interest in voyaging throughout Polynesia, says Duckworth. "There was real joy for participants in realizing the truly extraordinary accomplishments of their ancestors."

Keeping cultures alive and appreciating those that have died are the reasons that justify a museum’s existence and its collecting, Duckworth adds.

About the Author

Anna Maria Gillis is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Maryland.

Funding Information

The Bishop Museum received $1,022,189 from the Endowment to rehouse the collection.
The Museum is a nonprofit corporation that includes the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, the Hawai'i Maritime.