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Eskaran, Kāwika (on native carving and Pacific connections)

Melehina Groves
January 2006

"The things that sweat equity can teach you are often much greater than what a chainsaw can teach. I think you gotta pay your dues to really understand. I think there’s a place for both the traditional and the modern in what we do."

Kāwika Eskaran is a faculty member and master carver at BYU Hawai‘i. He recently presented Ho‘opili, a koa carving offered in a cultural exchange between Te Puia, the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, and Kamehameha Schools. Kāwika shared with me about the many teachers who have been instrumental in his life, the importance of fostering cultural awareness and education, and how keeping an open mind—and heart—have led him to many great opportunities. 

MG: Thanks for talking with me today, Kāwika. We’ve gotten to know each other on our trip to Aotearoa through your work as a carver, but you’re officially a faculty member in the Hawaiian Studies Department at BYU Hawai‘i, right?

KE:   Yeah, I’m in charge of all their special projects. I help with the canoe, Iosepa, for example. We built the canoe, and now I help with the training of the students, in seafaring, in life-saving techniques. We also take care of the garden area, Kahuaola, about a half-mile from here. There are as many as six student workers that work with me to help upkeep the Hawaiian Studies program area. 

There are also different locations with lo‘i around this area and we’re thinking about talking to Hawai‘i Reserves about letting us take care of them, so we can start community programs where our kūpuna don’t have to go out and buy kalo anymore! We’ll raise it not to make money but just to give back. A lot of times, even what little kalo we have up at Kahuaola, when it’s time to harvest, we give it to the senior citizens home in Kahuku. We go over there and give them kalo.

MG:     The hands-on aspects of the Hawaiian Studies program are great.

KE:      Yeah, and the program is open to all students. I enjoy seeing students from places like Hong Kong, this is so foreign to them! To see them on the canoe (Iosepa) for the first time and to see how they approach it is so interesting. By the end of the class, you see how much respect they gain for everything. All of them are expected to oli, to go through the protocol before they enter, and they all grasp on to that. Even on occasions outside of class when I’ve traveled with some of them, they’ll ask me, "Is this a proper time to do an oli?" If it feels like it is, I’ll tell them yes and they’ll offer an oli in a place where they feel strongly, and I feel so proud! They feel that doing that will enrich themselves . . . I can really feel that whatever entities are around kind of sanction what they’re doing. I feel like our kūpuna are happy that we’re doing this to honor them.  

MG:       That’s a pretty good achievement, because it’s hard to get students to come out of their comfort zone and do something new to them!

KE:       Oh, yeah! And actually, a lot of the students that have come into the program are from the mainland, a lot of females, and a few of them have married into our Hawaiian families. Because of the canoe! They met at the canoe while they were working together. The guys would ask me, "What do you think about so-and-so?" We play match-maker, too! [laughing]

MG:     Through Iosepa or the Hawaiian Studies program, do you work with some of the charter schools in the area? 

KE:       Not yet; we’re doing it in steps because we tend to bite off more than we can chew [laughing]. Right now it’s kinda hard as it is just doing the university stuff. Some of our faculty in Hawaiian Studies—actually there’s only two others, Bill Wallace and Kamoa‘e Walk—we’re doing things with other groups and their youth. Their counselors call them their "wayward" youth, but I tell them, "You shouldn’t say that!" You shouldn’t let your kids hear you say that!

The kids come, they work with us on the canoe, help us with repairs, things like that. We also do work in Kahuaola, the native garden. We have lo‘i and endemic plants we’ve been trying to get going. We want to have a hula mound. It’s going to be a big project!

MG:     What year was Iosepa built?

KE:       2001. November 3, we launched. It took us eight months to complete it and get it ready to launch. The canoe is made out of a wood called dakua, from Fiji, from the Kabara Island group. Each log was about 25 feet in length and about four to five feet in diameter. Tuione Pulotu was already in the South Pacific, and he had built a 104-foot canoe for the king of Tonga because in the year 2000, they wanted the king of Tonga to be the first one to see the sunrise. So they had to build a canoe that was magnificent enough for a king. Tuione had good practice in creating what they called the Mileniuma.

MG:     That’s the name of the Tongan canoe?

KE:      Yeah, Mileniuma. And that one, you see how high the deck is on our canoe? On that canoe, it’s nine feet high. If you stand inside our hull, it stands maybe five to six feet high. Theirs is something like nine feet! You spread your arms out and your fingers just brush the sides.

MG:     Wow.

KE:      Huge! Double-hull. 104-feet . . .

MG:     That’s twice the size of Iosepa!

KE:      Yeah, it’s humungous. Huge logs. You know the kauri tree in Aotearoa? The Fijian dakua is the same as the kauri in Aotearoa, same tree, different name. 

MG:     Wow! How long have you been carving? 

KE:      I started when I was about six with my uncle. Not formally, of course, but my uncle is Augie Schrader, he graduated from Kamehameha and he was a student of Fritz Abplanalp, who was a shop teacher. My uncle would come home with things he had made in the shop and they would be the most fabulous pieces I’d ever seen! I was only like six, seven, eight years old and I would sleep in my grandmother’s living room on the lauhala mats and Uncle Augie had his carvings lined up against the wall. I would sleep right against his carvings, fondling the face, you know? The women looked so lifelike, the texturing, the smoothness of the wood, how the corners of the mouth turned up, all the little details. I admired that and I thought, "One day, I’m going to be able to do that." 

So the next morning, I’d wake up, go into my grandmother’s kitchen and take out her paring knife, or cleaver, or butcher knife and sneak them off in my fishing tackle box. I’d tell her, "Gramma, I’m going fishing!" and I’d run straight to the beach and search for driftwood and start carving stuff with these knives. I’d come home and have these little ki‘i—I had one I kept for years of the feather god Kū. It was so good, and I kept it because it showed me what a six-year-old could do. I don’t know where it is today, hopefully one day I’ll find it again.

There was something there way back and I guess my dad saw it. He would sneak me chisels, I was maybe ten and I know my mom didn’t really like it because I could get hurt. But my dad would sneak them over and I’d carve little things, make gifts for my brothers and sisters for Christmas. I went to Kamehameha in the seventh grade and that’s when I started with Wright Bowman, Sr. Even him, you know, in class you make the regular things: castings of all the Hawaiian islands, clocks, or the famous tool box that I think every Kamehameha graduate who took shop class had! [laughing] The "Wright Bowman Tool Box" and sandalwood teardrops, all those things to take home. 

But in his class he had a caged area where he kept canoes and bowls and things that he was working on, I guess they were from places like Bishop Museum. That’s what I wanted to learn how to work on! After school I would go to his class and the doors would be closed, but I would sit where he could see me. He’d look and smile, and he’d wave but he wouldn’t open the door! I thought, "Aw, man!" So next class, I told him, "Wow, Mr. Bowman, I really wanna learn! If you’d teach me, I’d just love that." Then I’d go the next time, and he’d smile at me, but he still wouldn’t open the door! [laughing] What is that?!

But I guess it was a test to see if I really had it in me, if I really wanted to learn. One day I went and the door was open, so I came in and he said, "Don’t touch, but you look at this and tell me how you would fix this." He had some bowls that were broken, ‘umeke with one side broken off and in pieces, and I didn’t know how to fix something with multiple pieces broken off, or fix the bottom. How would you make those parts stick together? He showed me a trick that I still use today, with an inner-tube cut into a long, continuous strip that forms a rubber band around the ‘umeke and provides even pressure.

MG:     He’s the one who helped you bend the wood for Iosepa’s ‘iako, right?

KE:      Yeah. I learned all of that from Mr. Bowman. That one day Brook Parker brought him out to visit us where we were working on Iosepa . . . he must’ve been 90-some-odd years old! When I saw him get out of that car, it brought a lot back to me. That reminds me of when I came to BYU Hawai‘i and began working at the Polynesian Cultural Center. I was in the Hawaiian village one day and I asked Cy Bridges, "Where did that canoe come from?" There were three canoes in the village at that time, but the one I was referring to was a really sleek-looking one made out of koa. He told me that one had been donated by Wright Bowman in the ’60s! When I first came to the Hawaiian village, I had looked at the canoe and thought, "I know those patches, the stylings of that canoe."

So when I saw Mr. Bowman get out of that car, my mind went back to that canoe that is still in the Cultural Center. When we launched Iosepa, we invited Mr. Bowman to come back. We had several keynote speakers that day and he was one of our guests of highest honor.  

MG:     It was meant to be that he showed up just then to help you with Iosepa’s ‘iako.

KE:      Yeah, so then I brought that little koa canoe back, stripped it down, and rebuilt it and we used it right alongside Iosepa. That was the canoe we’d use to take all our supplies out to Iosepa when we were moored out in the bay and had to go back and forth. We’ve got that koa canoe here now, repairing various things on it. I asked him at the launch, "Mr. Bowman, you recognize that little koa canoe?" and he looked at it and "Oh, yeah! Yeah! You did a good job!" That was a real good compliment for me. I’m sure they never thought it would go back in the water, but we just did it to honor Mr. Bowman.

MG:     How did you learn how to build a wa‘a like Iosepa?

KE:      Just bits and pieces here and there, working on smaller canoes. A lot of the knowledge about canoes came from working at the Cultural Center. They have all kinds of different canoes there and we worked on restorations for several of them. After I left the Cultural Center, I worked at Kualoa Ranch and did all kinds of carvings at that time, including a topographical map of all the lands Kualoa Ranch owns. Then I worked at Queen Lili‘uokalani Children’s Center (QLCC) as the Community Development Coordinator for this area. Those jobs helped prime me for working over here, working with the wa‘a. I got to meet a lot of influential people that could help me here.

I loved that job at QLCC because one of our main focuses was working with kalo farmers on all islands. I could take the kids into the lo‘i on any island! We’d go into the boonies, into the most beautiful places where the feeling is still there, the ‘āina is rich and it loves you. You feel so safe and content in the middle of it all, that’s what it should be like! The kids loved it. We tried to empower our farmers and help them with water rights and land rights. But it was beautiful. We helped open lo‘i on all islands.

MG:     What a great job!

KE:      Yeah, that was one of my beloved jobs. You work with people of all ages on something that you really love. And you’re putting food on the table for generations of people, and going back to the sacred places of our kūpuna, and you’re getting paid to do it! [laughing] And like I said, that job really helped prepare me for this job at BYU. That’s one of the main things I’ve learned through the years, try and take care of those relationships, learn to love people and be sincere. Let them know how you really feel about things. 

MG:     Later on did you train under anyone else?

KE:      Quite a few men inspired me, my dad, for one. He was a fireman but also a woodworker of sorts. He would build rafts for fun and make small carvings. We did that Pinewood Derby together, I loved that! Paint ’em, race ’em . . . I felt so bad because I wanted my dad to win the derby and when his car lost to mine, I was kind of crushed. [laughing] There was also my uncle, Augie Schrader, Fritz Abplanalp, and Lewis Hubbard. Lewis Hubbard was also my bus driver, from Wahiawā and from North Shore, too! Good man. 

Just recently when Iosepa was on Moloka‘i, we went up to the lookout overlooking Kalaupapa. While we were up there, one of the crewmembers told me someone wanted to talk to me. So I went down, tapped him on the shoulder, he turned around and it was Mr. Hubbard! [laughing] I learned a lot from him, too, a lot of the technical things, use of machinery, safety, things that really helped me. 

MG:     How did you get more involved in the carving of Hawaiian and other Polynesian images and artifacts? 

KE:      When I left Kamehameha, I came here to BYU and started working in the Hawaiian village doing carving. I worked with a lot of different masters of the Pacific. Hawaiian, Samoan . . . one person that really influenced me was Epanaia Christy, we call him Uncle Barn. Uncle Barn studied under Pine and John TaiapaThey were brothers who were asked by the New Zealand government to take on students to perpetuate the art of carving, so the art wouldn’t die. Uncle Barney was one of the guys that joined their crew. They created several marae, one they carved almost entirely in New Zealand and then sent the carvings off to Hawai‘i. What you have at PCC are the carvings they did in the ’50s or ’60s. 

I was able to work with Uncle Barn for almost 14 years. Māori, they have their real strict customs and I was just lucky that Uncle Barn took me under his wing. My dad passed away when I was in the eighth grade going into ninth and Uncle Barn became like a second father to me. He would teach me and we’d work all those long hours, carve all kinds of things, restore all kinds of old carvings. He recently passed away, but the things that people like him leave behind, you cannot put monetary value on. The spiritual, cultural, and emotional value of the things you’ve been taught are the priceless things that you want to pass on to the next generation.

And that’s what I’m looking for! I’m looking for Hawaiians that want to learn how to carve. When I came to the university, I thought, "There’s almost a guarantee that there’ll be a student, or several students, that will be pounding down the doors trying to get into our program so that they can learn how to build canoes, to carve," but nobody’s come forward yet. Going on six years over here, still nobody. My own sons, I think they may shy away because they see the level of commitment it takes to make a project go. I don’t think they’re willing to work 18–24 hour days for two months in a row, and I wouldn’t want that for them, either, but it’s my passion! It’s what I love to do!

MG:     You wouldn’t want it any other way for yourself.

KE:      Yeah, but for so many, I think they’ve been taught they need to "work smart," not hard. So many of the youth are going into computer programming and other fields, and I’m proud of our Hawaiian students who are in our program now. They’ve been kind of chastened by their parents, you know, asked, "What are you going to do with your Hawaiian Studies degree?" That’s aggravating! 

MG:     I think we can all probably relate to that!

KE:      You could ask a Political Science major, "What are you gonna do with your degree?" Same thing. 

MG:     So you still haven’t found that one student?

KE:      You know, when I was in New Zealand, there was this one young man who left Hawai‘i with his father, and he was with Hoturoa Kerr. They told me the level of work he was doing—they could show him a picture in a book and the young man would carve it. This Hawaiian kid would get in there and he’d just go for it! They were so surprised that this Hawaiian could do it. So I met him in Aotearoa, and he said, "Uncle, when I get back to Hawai‘i, I’ll look you up!" I said, "You better!" [laughing] That’s the hope.

All of my sons know how to work wood, and all of them have worked on this canoe. All of them have sailed on the canoe, so if anything ever happens to me, all of my sons’ knowledge put together should be able to answer any questions that may come up about structural integrity of the canoe, things like that.

MG:     Well your sons are still young, right, maybe the calling will come a little later.

KE:      Yeah, they’re young. My eldest are twins, they’re 24. My youngest is ten. But they’ve all become stronger because of our culture. Even my daughter, she used to be very introverted until we attended a leadership conference in Hilo One. She was getting ready to dance one day during practice and I told her, "When you dance, think of your grandpa, my father. He was born and raised in Waipi‘o. When you dance, every time you turn to Waipi‘o, think of Grandpa." 

After they finished and did their oli and everything, it was like something went off in her head! She was a totally different person, I can almost mark the hour that it happened! I said, "Wow, was like the spirit of you kūpuna caught you, yeah!" [laughing] Ever since then, she’s a real go-getter. I think what helped is she really found that she could take the leadership role during that conference. I was proud of the things she would say. It was just wonderful.

MG:     How do you find the time to fit everything in, teaching, special projects, plus your own personal endeavors, like creating Ho‘opili for the Kamehameha/Te Puia exchange?

KE:      You know, I explained to Uncle Bill Wallace about the mission of Ho‘opili and the pride it would bring not only to Hawaiians but also to solidify the relationship with our Māori cousins. This type of work in wood is so revered in Aotearoa, as well as here and in other oceanic places. I knew the stories that would come out of its creation would be special. Every time I carve I prepare myself, and every time something really special happens. I told Uncle Bill that I knew with Ho‘opili something great was gonna happen. I didn’t know what, but I just felt it . . . this is one that I just gotta do, no matter what.

That’s why I was so happy when Randie asked me and that he even remembered me from all those years ago when we went to Australia!

MG:     Speaking of traveling, did you have any particularly memorable experiences on our recent trip to Aotearoa? Several people I talked to were blown away by the Māori children we met.

KE:      I love the kids. Watching the Māori youth and seeing even the youngest of them in there—you know they’ve been taught their culture and they’re proud to show it. They’re unafraid! The mana of them, the power of all those children . . . how do you teach our children the same values . . .

MG:     Right, it would seem like it depends on how the child is raised, the home environment.

KE:      Yeah, the trip also helped me as an artist. Visiting Lyonel’s (Grant) place was unreal! And on several occasions, my wife and I had the opportunity to go with Wikuki (Kingi) to their workshop. She wasn’t allowed into certain areas, but we were able to meet with Wikuki’s mom and dad and some of the other conference participants there at their marae. We had more intimate dinners back where they have their boil-ups. I got to see that side of their culture which I hadn’t seen previously. Wikuki and I were working side by side at another location away from the marae, and so this last experience was really special. His workshop and how things are set up is really traditional. Then to see the flip side of that in a more modern location with Lyonel at Unitec, it was completely different. Same emphasis, though.

MG:     Were you able to draw inspiration for your own work from visiting them?

KE:      Oh yeah, so much! Both sides. Years ago I had met some of their top artists, painters, basket weavers, back maybe in the late ’70s or early ’80s. To me, it seemed like there was a rift between the traditionalists and those that wanted to break away and do more modern interpretations of the culture. I couldn’t see why they couldn’t do that. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have training in a real strict traditional setting here that I don’t understand the problem. I feel like the art form has to change just as the people change. The language changes, everything else is changing around us. If all we can carve are those things that we carved centuries ago, there’s no growth there. I was kind of agreeing with Lyonel in that we need to advance. We need to perpetuate but we also need to continue on and advance the art in a modern way. I agree with that.

We used chainsaws on this canoe. I’m sure if our kūpuna had a chainsaw, boy, they would’ve used it, too! [laughing] Using the modern equipment is what enabled me to finish Iosepa.

MG:     Yeah, our kūpuna were definitely innovators! Took new things and adapted them to fit their needs.

KE:       Sometimes we’re criticized for using the modern tools. But if we had to do it the old way, we could. I think that’s where it’s at. You need to learn the traditional first and know it well. If a bomb was dropped, all the electricity goes out for several years, you could still do your work because you have an adze, you have all your hand tools. You’d still be advancing. Maybe at the same rate, or maybe not. 

I don’t know, sometimes the modern tools take away from the spiritual essence. The things that sweat equity can teach you is often much greater than what a chainsaw can teach. I’m torn between the two. I think you gotta pay your dues to really understand. I think there’s a place for both the traditional and the modern in what we do.

While we were making the canoe and new people would come, we’d give them an adze but we’d listen to them. The adze would make a definite "thunk-thunk-thunk" and if the sound changed in any way, they were either going too deep or not deep enough. Not deep enough, it’s OK, but if they’re going too deep we’d yell out, "Hey, stop! You’re going too deep!" The guys would wonder how we knew, but we’re listening to it. You can hear it, every hit, you can hear it.

MG:     Yeah, and I remember the Te Puia carvers talking about how the green stone adze was such a great tool to use, how the old tools were the best. James Rickard was telling us about that.

KE:      Oh yeah, I used that adze! That thing was fabulous! It doesn’t get stuck in the wood. When you use those real sharp metal tools, every time you hit, it gets stuck and you have to shimmy it and muscle it out of the wood. But the jade tool didn’t stick, or at least didn’t when I was using it. It cut real clean and it was easy, I was really surprised. 

MG:     I would never have thought you could use jade to cut wood! Seems so fragile.

KE:      I declined, I didn’t want to be the Hawaiian who broke their adze! [laughing] They said, "You will never break this adze," and they kept telling me over and over again, "You can try anything you want to, you will not break that adze." So finally I said, "OK," and I started cutting, and wow! The adze was good! But I was afraid at first. [laughing] They said all of them had the same fear when they were first given the opportunity to use the jade adze. 

MG:     Any projects in the works?

KE:      There’s always projects on the back burner! But that’s what I do, I put myself out there and make myself open to things. Just put yourself out there to give yourself opportunities, but the other thing, too, is that you gotta be ready.