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Hawaiian featherworks

By The Bishop Museum 

The 19th century was in its infancy. Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena, descended from the ali‘i and most elite echelons of Maui and Hawai‘i Island society, was still only a child when she was gifted a feather pāʻū so magnificent that its fame lives on today.

Creating the pāʻū was a massive undertaking. The skirt consisted of 1,000,000 tiny feathers bundled and tied to a netted base by the people of Lahaina over what could have been a mere year, says Marques Marzan, the cultural advisor at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, where the skirt now lies. Especially remarkable is its color, which is almost entirely yellow. This hue required the rarest of the feathers to be taken from a small tuft of golden plumage at the neck of the now extinct ʻōʻō. The sheer volume of plumage required kia manu, or bird catchers, to venture in groups into the forests for days to pluck precious, wee feathers from the evasive honeyeaters.

Featherwork can actually be seen all across the Pacific and the world. Early Hawaiian settlers brought the art with them from their homes in older parts of Polynesia, says Marzan, and over time the practice evolved in slight, distinct ways. The type of net backing used in traditional Hawaiian handiwork, for example, was made of olonā, a fiber found only in Hawai‘i. Originally, he explains, both making featherwork, as well as wearing it, was reserved for the chiefly class. The Bishop Museum collection houses everything from magnificent cloaks in royal yellow and red shades, and iconic, crescent-shaped feathered helmets, to elegant lei, and fierce, feather-coated god effigies.

PLUME OF TIME (NMG/Living Magazine) With Bishop Museum Cultural Advisor, Marques Hanalei Marzan. Filmed in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum Hawaiian Hall galleries and ethnology collections. Text by Natalie Schack. Images by John Hook and Skye Yonamine.
Created by Smarthistory.

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