For the First Time in 237 Years, A Hawaiian Chief’s Royal Treasures Return Home

You can see Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s priceless Ali‘i feathered cloak and helmet at the Bishop Museum.
Ahuula, Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u
Photo: courtesy of te papa tongarewa


On a cloudy Friday morning in Wellington, leaders of the Native Hawaiian and museum community marched up the steps of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa to greet their Māori hosts in a welcome that began with a ceremonial challenge and ended with two priceless Hawaiian artifacts packed in custom wooden crates to fly home to Hawai‘i.


Some dressed in traditional malo and kīhei despite the 57-degree March weather and the chill wind blowing  off the harbor, others wore business attire.


Neither the weather nor the clouds dimmed the spirits of the delegation of more than 20 who had trekked nearly 5,000 miles to bring back the feathered cloak and helmet of a long-dead Hawaiian ruler. A bank of New Zealand media jockeyed for position near those of us who’d flown in with the delegation to witness the chicken-skin electricity of the historic hand-off. Chants, speeches and song rang out along with haka and hula performances once the group entered the brightly colored interior of the museum marae (cultural meeting place). First in Māori, then in Hawaiian, rarely in English, the ceremony continued for hours, with at least one of the TV crews conducting follow-up interviews in Māori.


SEE ALSO: Hawaiian Chief Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s Treasured Helmet and Cloak, Made From Feathers of 20,000+ Birds, is Coming to Hawai‘i


 The historic occasion began with formal ceremonies in New Zealand that returned the feathered treasures to Hawai‘i. Both items departed the Islands in 1779, when Kalani‘ōpu‘u reigned over Hawai‘i Island. English explorer Capt. James Cook visited Kealakekua Bay and so impressed the powerful chief that Kalani‘ōpu‘u gave his own intricately woven feathered cloak—‘ahu ‘ula—and helmet—mahiole—to the visitor.


History tells us that Cook returned weeks later, battered by storms and seeking provisions to restock his ship, only to be killed in a fight. The garments left with his crew and it would be another 237 years before they returned to Hawai‘i together. 


Despite their age, dramatic history and extensive travels, the royal garments remain remarkably intact, vibrant red and yellow with no bare spots. They have been recognized as significant Pacific cultural treasures for more than the century that they were in the care of Te Papa Tongarewa (which translates literally from Māori as “container of treasures”). Some estimates have placed the dollar value of the cloak alone at $6 million.

   Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u

Photo: Robbie Dingeman 


Office of Hawaiian Affairs CEO Kamana‘opono Crabbe played a key role in helping return the items for what is officially a 10-year loan to the Bishop Museum. 


For Crabbe, the journey home resonates both as a way to celebrate the past and plan for the future. “It’s about finding ourselves and being able to walk in the footsteps of our ancestors,” he says.


Kalani‘ōpu‘u inspires through his own story, although he is less known today than his nephew, Kamehameha I.  Says Crabbe: “He was courageous. He stood for tradition and he stood for protecting his people; protecting our cultural heritage. Yet, even though he was introduced to foreigners, he continued to demonstrate great compassion as a diplomat, as a global leader, as a political leader.” 


Returning the items to Hawai‘i took a confluence of forces: a shift in international museum philosophy toward repatriation of cultural items to their homelands, relationships built over time, goodwill and coordination among many. Crabbe’s first efforts came before he joined OHA as he built strong relationships in New Zealand. 


The return of these royal garments was made possible by a partnership between the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs, The National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Bishop Museum with the support of Hawaiian Airlines.


Former Bishop Museum president and CEO Blair Collis who resigned last month, also traveled to New Zealand for the transfer, says he found the spirit of collaboration throughout the journey uplifting.


“It’s not a normal or typical thing to have a museum reach out to another and be so warmly accepted in the idea of being able to bring treasures that are important to our people home,” he said.


Te Papa runs under a bicultural leadership, where a Māori Kaihautū (co-leader) makes decisions jointly with a non-native CEO. On the day before the treasures were packed to travel to Hawai‘i, Kaihautū Arapata Hakiwai met with the delegation from Hawai‘i to plan the ceremonies. Hakiwai stood, smiled and said, “this is a great day,” as it marks a continuing mission to reconcile grievances of the past by returning important items.


 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 


Despite the thousands of miles of ocean between them, there are many parallels between Māori and Hawaiians, with commonalities in language and tradition, that includes stories of Maui pulling different islands from the sea floor.  “We Māori and Hawaiians are beginning to bridge both worlds, in the spirit of self-determination and independent governance,” Crabbe says.


Marques Hanalei Marzan is a cultural resources specialist who has worked for Bishop Museum for 14 years and made the journey to New Zealand. 


“Te Papa has been at the forefront of that idea of proactive returning things to their appropriate homes and people,” Marzan says, “but this is the first time that they are sending something other than their Māori cultural things back to their tribal homelands.” 


Te Papa officials have said they don’t intend to bring back the items to New Zealand, even though they are considered a long-term loan. But Marzan explained it will take time to make that official because “the cloak and helmet is a high-value asset to their institution, they can’t just willingly give it away.” 


That spirit of repatriation has Bishop Museum examining its own collections to determine if any Māori artifacts should be sent back to Te Papa in the spirit of returning items to their homeland.


Marzan says there’s no simple swap for these rare items: “We tried to look through our collections to see what could be an appropriate thing to return in exchange but there’s nothing as significant as those two pieces in our collection that has the same kind of weight and gravity.”


Of course, the delegation did not come empty-handed. Marzan is also a Hawaiian fiber artist, so he expressed his thanks by weaving a traditional fan as a gift to Te Papa with the design of the cloak woven into the handle. 


 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u
RARE HULA: This dramatic shark hula pahu celebrates the prowess of Kalani‘ōpu‘u and may not have been performed for 200 years.
Photo: Aaron Yoshino 

The return culminated in two formal presentations: The first at Te Papa in a Māori pōwhiri (ritual ceremony of encounter) began the historic journey, while the formal ceremony at Bishop Museum capped it on March 17. 


In between, Hawaiian Airlines made special arrangements to carefully transport the crates, helping to safeguard them on the journey, even placing them in a section of the cargo hold where the temperature would not dip lower than 70 degrees.


At Bishop Museum, the audience of invited guests was dominated by Hawaiian societies, leaders of the ali‘i trusts, as well as OHA, and included performances, chants, songs, speeches and hula performed by some of the most acclaimed hālau in the state: including Mapuana de Silva, Victoria Holt Takamine and kumu hula Snowbird Bento and the men of Ka Pā Hula o Ka Lei Lehua, who performed a dramatic shark hula pahu (drum) that celebrates the military prowess of Kalani‘ōpu‘u. Organizers said this may have been the first performance of this hula in 200 years.


For many, the items are symbols of rebirth and reconnection to the first Hawaiian sovereign to begin international relations. Even the size of the large cloak hints at the powerful leader who once wore it. Crabbe says: “He gives us great inspiration to strive to be bold and courageous.” Crabbe believes  Kalani‘ōpu‘u would approve of his gifts’ return as something for all to treasure: “all, not only Native Hawaiians, in uplifting not only our heritage but the history of these Islands.”


Robert Lindsey made the journey as the chair of the trustees of OHA, the driving force behind the return. He’s also a lineal descendant of Kalani‘ōpu‘u.


At Te Papa, Lindsey explained the special value to Hawai‘i’s first people of royal garments which contain Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s spiritual, political and cultural mana and represent a time when others saw Hawai‘i as isolated from the rest of the world. 


“When Capt. James Cook touched upon our shores in 1778, he altered our world. When Kalani‘ōpu‘u gifted Cook this feathered cloak and feathered helmet in a demonstration of goodwill in 1779, little did he know that he was thrusting us into a new time, a time of great change,” Lindsey said. “We went from isolation to globalization. When as a sovereign country and people we would move from a culture and economy based on fiber, stone and subsistence to one based on iron, competition and consumerism.”


OHA community engagement director Mehanaokalā Hind, who is also a lineal descendant of Kalani‘ōpu‘u, sees the treasures as symbols of hope. 


She was inspired by UH Hilo associate professor Hiapo Perreira, who challenged those gathered in Hawaiian: “Now that they’re home, what are we going to do as a people? If we don’t do anything, then that’s just a hat and a cape.”


Hind feels the swell of excitement, the shares on Facebook and Instagram, and the opportunity, sees people building on the inspiration of these cultural items: “They’re making ‘ahu ‘ula, they’re studying genealogy, people are chanting.”



The Journey of Two Treasures

 Bishop Museum, Kalani‘ōpu‘u
HONOLULU Magazine and our sister publication HAWAI‘I Magazine traveled as guests of the delegation that brought the artifacts back. The per-person value of the trip was estimated at $2,000, with airfare sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines, and hotel and car by OHA. The organizations neither asked for nor received any special treatment in telling the story.
photo: courtesy of hawaiian airlines


Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s Gift (1779)

Kalani‘ōpu‘u, high chief of Hawai‘i island, is wearing both items when he greets English explorer Capt. James Cook on the beach at Kealakekua Bay in January 1779 and presents them as a gift. Although Cook was killed in a later visit, his crew took the items back to England.


Leverian Museum in England (1806)

The ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole are acquired by Sir Ashton Lever and displayed at the Leverian Museum, then sold in an auction to Thomas Atkinson.


London Museum (1817)

They are displayed in the London Museum of William Bullock, until they are sold at auction in 1819 to Charles Winn.


Lord St. Oswald Collection NZ (1912)

After the items had been in the Winn family for nearly 100 years, Lord St. Oswald (Rowland Winn), leaves them along with his whole collection to the Dominion Museum in New Zealand (a Te Papa predecessor).  


Hawaiian Featherwork Exhibition (1936)

They are displayed publicly in New Zealand for the first time when the new Dominion Museum opens in 1936.


Bishop Museum Visits (1960, 1978)

The ‘ahu ‘ula returns on loan to Hawai‘i’s Bishop Museum for a special display during Aloha Week in 1960, and again in 1978 for an exhibition of artifacts from Cook’s voyages. 


New Zealand Museum Relaunch (1984)

Both items appear in a new exhibit at the National Museum (another Te Papa predecessor) in Wellington. 


Te Papa Tongarewa Opening (1998)

Both are displayed as part of the opening exhibitions of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Kamana‘opono Crabbe composes and performs a chant for Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s ‘ahu ‘ula.


Hawaiians Visit (1998–2016)

An increasing number of Hawaiian artists, activists, researchers and school groups add add New Zealand to their travel itineraries so they can visit Kalani‘ōpu‘u’s items. 


The Return (March, 2016)

For the first time in 237 years, the ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole return together to Hawai‘i. 


Source: Bishop Museum; Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Te Papa Tongarewa. 



Illustration: Kelsey Ige

Feathered Fine Points 

  • The cloak (‘ahu ‘ula) is estimated to include about half a million feathers from about 20,000 birds.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

  • The red feathers are from the ‘i‘iwi bird and yellow feathers from the mamo bird, as well as two ‘ō‘ō birds from Maui and Hawai‘i Island.


  • The cloak provided beauty, stature and some protection in battle because the netting and feathers could deflect blows, stones and other weapons.


  •  The helmet (mahiole) is made from split ‘ie‘ie roots twined together, then covered with olonā net, red ‘i‘iwi feathers and yellow ‘ō‘ō feathers. 


  • Bishop Museum has only five helmets in its collection, three of them feathered.


  • On the first day of public display at the Bishop Museum, about 4,000 people visited the museum (which was free to residents and military for the opening day). And while that’s not the most ever, officials said the numbers reflect remarkable interest in the items compared to other record days that featured large popular dinosaur-focused exhibitions.


  • Although some Hawaiian artifacts included pelts of dead birds, historians believe that many of the feathers were plucked from live birds caught in a net, then released.  

Source: Bishop Museum 


See the cloak and helmet as part of He Nae Ākea: Bound Together along with an interactive companion exhibit, Lele O Nā Manu: Hawaiian Forest Birds, 1525 Bernice St., 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily.