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Hawaiian ™

There's a small but skilled group of local artisans who practice crafts that were important to ancient Hawaiians. How can they make a living when foreign imitations of their work sell for much less?


Photo by Mark Arbeit

(page 1 of 3)

UMI KAI WAS 17 YEARS OLD WHEN HE carved his first Hawaiian weapon. He used some wood from a mango tree in his backyard and, with no more experience than woodshop class at Kaimuki High School, fashioned it into a leiomano, a slender wood paddle about the size his hand, lashed with tiger shark teeth he got from a fisherman. Kai shaped the weapon from memory, after a similar piece he'd seen as a child at his uncle's house.

That was 30 years ago. Since then, Kai has studied the Bishop Museum's collection of Hawaiian weapons, read whatever he could on ancient implements, consulted others who were knowledgeable about woodworking and became one of the most esteemed weapons makers in the Islands.

Today, on a Monday afternoon, he's giving a presentation about his craft to about 20 office workers in downtown's Pioneer Plaza. He grips an ihe (spear) made of ohia lehua, an extremely hard native wood found on the slopes of Kilauea and in other high altitudes.

"What do those marks mean?" a woman asks, referring to the marks on the weapon's handle—a cluster of isosceles triangles that look like points on a compass rose.

"It means Umi made it,'" Kai says. But the mark means a lot more than he's willing to tell a room full of strangers. The triangle is an ancient Hawaiian symbol. In this arrangement, it's his trademark, etched into nearly every item he makes. The mark is tattooed on his chest, representing what's important to him. It's who he is.

"These weapons are very beautiful," another woman in the audience says. "It's like art, really." Kai shrugs. He's never gotten used to being called an artist, even though he's been commissioned by collectors to create pieces like the one in his hand. These na mea Hawaii, things of Hawaii, that he makes—weapons, poi pounders and boards, kapa beaters and fishhooks—aren't art to him. They're implements that were once part of everyday living for Hawaiians, used for cooking, fishing and making war. Not showpieces to put on a mantle where no one could touch them.

Woodworker Umi Kai is considering registering the trademark he carves into his creations, including the weapons seen above. The symbol means so much to him that it's tattooed on his chest.

He still marvels at how ancient Hawaiians created these implements without the power tools he uses today. No chainsaw, only a stone adze to chip away at the trunk of a tree; no electric drill to bore holes into wood, just a wili, an ancient version of a bow-drill that would takes hours to do what he can now do in minutes.

That's why it bothers Kai to see such ingenuity and craftsmanship reduced to cheap imitations. They're everywhere now - in Waikikı souvenir shops, the swap meet, drug stores, big boxes. Kai has spent years trying to perpetuate the craft of making tools that were once vital to his people. Now these items are imported from the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries where their makers probably know nothing about their origin.
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Honolulu Magazine May 2018
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