Skip to main content

Aona-Ueoka, Kawai (on kapa making)

Camille Naluai

Kawai Aona-Ueoka was born and raised in Nānākuli. It was through her love of hula that she began her journey to find kapa. In this talking story session, Kawai talks about that journey, the practice that was lost, and how it was resurrected by a few, like her, set out on a journey of cultural treasure hunting.

Kawai: In actuality it’s Pua Van Dorpe that’s at the forefront of kapa. Because she’s the one that pounded the kapa on Maui.

Camille: How long ago was that?

Kawai: Honokahua. Geez I don’t know the time. About 20 years ago yeah?

Camille: Yeah the 80s.

Kawai: Remember they unearthed, they were building the hotel and they unearthed thousands of iwi. They was beginning to have a resurgence in kapa. But for myself, because it’s such a labor intensive discipline. I call it a discipline because it is a discipline. There’s no way you’re going to finish any piece if you don’t have the plant and we don’t have the plant. That was my first problem. I didn’t have the plant.

Camille: Is there a particular plant that you need?

Kawai: Wauke. The paper mulberry. I started a project up in Kahana but the plant needs to be cultivated. It’s not one of those plants you can just; it will survive in the wild, but it’s going to struggle. It’s one of those plants that you gotta mālama.

Camille: Is that also known as the paper tree?

Kawai: Yeah, the paper mulberry. So, I got started when I was going through my training with Aunty Maiki Aiu as kumu hula for the ‘Ilima class. Towards our ‘ūniki time we had gotten together and agreed that we wanted to give Aunty a Hawaiian kapa to honor her and to thank her. So each of us had decided we were going to make kapa. Alright! Good idea. Yeah right. Everybody went and touched all their ‘ohana throughout. I had Keahi Chang, Vicky Holt Takamine. I had some pretty heavy people that were connected in the community and we couldn’t find Hawaiian kapa for the life of us. We had to settle for this Tongan tapa. Ugly tapa.

Camille: What is Tongan tapa?

Kawai: There are distinct differences with different styles of kapa making.

Camille: When you pound it or when you put the colors on it?

Kawai: All. The one thing that is similar is that they are both bark and they are both pounded. After that there are differences. Anyway, we had decorated that kapa which is part of the hālau right now where we had put all of our pahu designs on it. We had done research and put natural dyes and did all that stuff. We had to print the design of our pahu on our kihei when we ‘ūniki’ed. Anyway, ever since that time it kind of bothered me. It bothered me that here we were, Hawaiians, in Hawai‘i and we don’t have anyone making our own clothes, our own native clothes. Not the kind you buy in the store. It just kind of bothered me that this happened. That was the first time that I was aware of the fact that kapa was such a unique thing. Then I started teaching. I worked at Lili‘uokalani teaching.

Camille: What did you teach?

Kawai: I was kumu hula. I had gotten this job at Lili‘uokalani teaching hula as a means to promote self- esteem. So I worked with all the challenged children [laughs] out in Kahuku. That was fun. My first group was the men. I had gone to an interview after my husband said, “You gotta go over there. I think they need a kumu hula.” I said, “Nah, nah, nah.” So Earl calls and I tell him, “Oh yeah I ‘ūniki’ed for Aunty Maiki, but no I not ready.” He said, “Make your appointment anyway.” So I make the appointment and my husband comes home early from work, he wasn’t my husband at that time, and he says, “Oh I thought you had one appointment.” I said, “Nah, nah, nah. I’m not ready I no like.” My husband said, “The least you can do is give them a call.” So I call and Aunty Malia talks and then they put somebody else on the phone, “Oh yeah come, come, come.” I like, “No, no I no like.” So I went. I guess I wasn’t sure that I was ready so they convinced me to come. Then I find out that it was for teaching kāne. Then after the interview I tell my husband, “Nah, I not going get it. You know why? Kāne teach kāne. Wāhine no teach kāne.” My husband says, “You going get ’um.” I said, “Nah.” Next day Earl Kawa‘a calls, “Kawai. Can you come in and teach the boys just as a sample?” So I went and taught the boys and I got the job. That was in the old shack before they had this nice building. I had the privilege of working with all the Hawaiian kids who just don’t fit. They don’t fit in Kamehameha system. They no fit in DOE system. In a sense, some of the charter schools are attempting to reach them, but they’re still falling through the cracks. At least something is trying to get done yeah? Anyway, things went on. It went really well. The agency had a huli again. They never finished the five-year plan. They went huli everything and Hawaiian culture was not at the forefront and the priority became individual family service. I didn’t want to be a social worker. I just didn’t want to be a social worker. I’ve always believed that my forte is not to be entrenched in the system but to be an artist because I’m an artist. It’s not that I cannot do that stuff, it’s just that that stuff sucks too much energy. So I ended up in the kūpuna system and I told myself that I would learn kapa. I had gone to one workshop by Happy and Katz Tamanaha. There was a group called Na Hoa Hoala Kapa; oh when I got married to my husband. Before that my uncle, who’s a blind master craftsman in lau niu and ‘upena had this Haole friend from California, the Lovelens. He use to always bring them to my stuff. I use to wonder why my uncle is bringing these Haole people to my stuff. But they appreciated it. They really liked Hawaiian things. I never thought anything about it. That’s my uncle’s friends. I just talked to them one time, the wife, and I said, “You know one day I want to make kapa. I really want to make Hawaiian kapa.” And she said, “Oh a mo‘i? I think that’s a good idea.” I was like whatever. I don’t know these people yeah. That’s my uncle’s friend. I forgot that I told her that. When I got married, my uncle invited them to my wedding which was across from Pat’s Punalu‘u. The Hanohanos had that place. My husband knew David Pali and we had asked them if we could have our wedding there. It was all bushes and junk cars and refrigerators. We had gone in and cleaned up to make ready. In a year we got married. Of all the appliances people give you, you know four can openers, blenders, I hate being in the kitchen. It’s nice stuff it’s just that I’m not the kind of person that’s a homebody. I’m not what you’d call an ideal wife type person. But this was all my Hawaiian friends, my family, nice pretty presents. Then I open this present from this Haole couple and it’s this i‘e kuku, my first Hawaiian tool. Her husband, apparently, they had gone to the mainland and they had acquired some Hawaiian tools through an auction or whatever, some old Hawaiian kapa tools. He was one of those people who helped develop the Ginaca machine. He was a machinist. Anyway, they had given me this iʻe kuku and that was my most prized, most precious of all the presents. You know, coming from Nānākuli, you know Christmas time and birthday time, we never get presents ’cause never had money. It was like, wow plenty presents. I never had that much presents before in my life, but it was nice. That one though was the one that went grab me. It’s just awesome that these Haole people were the ones that gave it to me. Of course my husband didn’t care, he never knew. After that, every time we moved I’d come across this tool and I’d remember that time I said, “Oh one day I’m going to make kapa.” But then I’d think, nah, nah, nah, I not ready and I would hide it. Next time I move, there it is saying, “I thought you wanted to make kapa.” So this tool was always showing up. Even though I’d put it in this box, I looking for something, I’d come across it. When I quit Lili‘uokalani, or they quit me, whichever, I had decided to do that. So I went to workshops and I found out, I get only one tool. I no more plant, there was so much that I didn’t know. I think Happy had given me my first plant. I planted it and I waited and waited. Moved house and moved the plant. It took a long time for that plant to take, but once it took it just went for broke.

Camille: Can you use the plant over and over?

Kawai: Well, it grows in a way that, you know ‘ulu? It propagates through the keikis that shoot through the roots. It sends runners out. You cut the mama, you use the mama and the rest come up. I’ve got one here. She’s been in the water for a while. I gotta hemo the bark. Then you hemo the bark and you use the bark. Anyway, they gave me the plant, and by the time I had gotten the plant, I decided that I should make my tools. I went around scrounging for wood cause my husband likes to golf. He’s not a hands-on.

Camille: Is he Hawaiian?

Kawai: No he’s Japanese. That’s where the Ueoka comes from. That’s why I kept my maiden name. Anyway, I had to scrounge wood from the tree trimmers. Had one tree growing along the beach over here and they were trimming the branches that were growing along the road, but this piece wasn’t growing along the road, it was going parallel with the road. Anyway, I was going to work and I see them and I say, “Oh, tree trimmer. You know, you going cut that branch.” They look at me real funny and say, “What lady, the thing not even on the road and you like us cut it.” I said, “Oh I teaching in the schools and I don’t have enough tools to do workshops for the children and I really need some wood. I don’t have a chain saw and I don’t know how to cut the tree.” They start looking at me like, who is this lady. So they tell me, “If we decide to cut the tree, you like us put ’um inside your car?” I said, “Look my car, one small Toyota. The thing no fit. Maybe, if you guys want . . .” I write down my address, “This is where I live. Just in case you have the feeling and you feel like cut ’em.” So I drive down to 7-11 and buy soda and I put ’em in my garage with one note. “If you bring my log, this soda for you.” I go work and my husband calls and says, “What is this log doing in the garage?” I said, “What log?” “There’s a log in the garage who put their rubbish . . .” I said, “No touch ’em. That’s mine.” The log is in the garage, the soda and the note is gone.”

Camille: Right on. They got the feeling.

Kawai: Yup they got the feeling so it’s been like that. That’s been the whole journey. I need something, I ask and I tell the story. It’s amazing how much people will come forward. I didn’t know how to work wood. I didn’t know how to do nothing.

Camille: Did you already know about plants?

Kawai: Well, I knew how to put them in the ground but my background is hula. My grandma planted, but I didn’t know anything about this plant. I just planted when I could. It grew, never grew, I just kept watering the stump. Basically I didn’t have time. I had two babies. I didn’t have time to go run to town work and take care of my babies and go and find somebody to teach me, so it was just trial and error. From the plants that I had, I finally finished the tools to start. Whenever I heard of somebody that was a carpenter or knew wood, I was right there, “Oh you do. You know how to, and what happens when, I have this piece of wood but I don’t have the tools to cut it. I was wondering.” I would have this piece of wood, and then I would have to have somebody come and cut it. I find somebody that knew wood to cut that log. I had to draw all the pictures, give him the dimensions so that he could cut, so that I could have more tools.

Camille: What about your KAPA organization?

Kawai: That was later. Through all that struggle I said, “You know. This is too much hard work for one person.” Before, you had a whole community of people. Whoever was the planter, they would take care of the plant. Whoever was the woodworker, they would make the tools. Whoever was the pounder, they would pound. Whoever was the one to gather the dyes, they would go do that. There would be many people doing the whole process, not one person learning and doing everything themselves. It was too much hard work for me. I told myself, if I was going to teach this, I was going to teach Hawaiians first. My idea was, kapa; you know lauhala, what has happened with Hawaiian culture, even hula, is that it has become so common. Like the word Aloha. It’s been cheapened. People no longer understand the depth and meaning of that word Aloha. When you go to the shows, “Aloha!” That just irks me. It has no “ha” the way they use it. It cheapens us, it cheapens our culture. That’s why people don’t give us recognition, because we’re cheap. For free kine. I had decided earlier that my focus, if I was going to teach anybody, my priority would be to Hawaiians. I would go into Hawaiian communities and I would find Hawaiians to do kapa, first and foremost before I teach any Haole or Kepanī. You know there are good Haole, good Kepanī and if they come with the right heart, I teach. Anyway, I had found some people that helped me to write the bylaws and we started KAPA Aloha Perpetuation Association. One was one Haole that knew how to operate one computer. Then some friends like Kunani Nihipali. In fact they’re still the board members because we haven’t been that active yet. We got grants from OHA and we did workshops on all the major islands, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, O‘ahu, Maui. Kaua‘i I went several times because they had written some grants for themselves. I went and I worked with the kūpuna group. One time I go for tools, next time I go to finish off the tools. Then I go for planting and pounding until we did the dyes. That was the kūpuna group in Kauka. I think lucky that the right people have come in my path. In fact, it was just a dream that I thought wasn’t even possible, but I just dreamt it anyway. I dreamt that one day we’d have kapa makers on all islands that were Hawaiians. And that we wouldn’t be cheapening our art or our work and that we would stand for more then just things that were pretty. Now I do workshops with Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna to help communities to repatriate their own iwi.

Camille: You make the kapa to wrap them in?

Kawai: Yeah. Whether it’s the Hoʻolauloa community or the Wai‘anae community. I worked with Eric Enos to start his wauke. He had some wauke. That variety he had wasn’t a good one so I went and did a couple workshops up in Wai‘anae, Bishop Museum. If anybody’s going to value it, they’re going to have to be educated. My idea was to create a market. In order to create a market you have to educate. You have to educate the producers, educate the consumers so that’s basically what I’ve been doing and making kapa for repatriation. I did do several commission stuff. In fact, I have three pieces in Kawaiaha‘o Plaza on the trustees floor. It was integrated into the design of the space. When you come out of the elevator there are panels, its natural color, that’s kapa laminated between glass. When you go into the lobby they laminated the kukui-dyed kapa on the round table in the lobby and the light shines right on to it and then down the hall there’s a statement on the curved wall, there are kapa there too that they laminated onto the wall.