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Portabes, Manny (on canoe carving)

Melehina Groves
May 2006

The International Festival of Canoes was held May 13–27 in Lāhainā, Maui, and brought together master carvers from islands across the Pacific. Manny Portabes, a kanaka maoli and master assistant for the 2006 Tahitian crew led by master carver Marirai "Freddy" Tauotaha, invited us to talk story in the shade of banyan trees and with a soft-spoken ‘ano. He began telling us first about their canoe, his involvement with this crew, and then about more personal memories and experiences growing up in Lāhainā with his father, Victor Portabes.

With his permission, we share some of Manny’s stories with Ka‘iwakīloumoku and hope to revisit him on Maui to pick up where we left off!

MP: . . . If you look at all the canoes throughout the festival, they’re different but all similar! Most of them here are fishing canoes . . . you can see the Māori canoe is much more decorated. The Māori and the Tongan canoes both are. Hawai‘i, ours is similar to Tahiti’s. The Māori canoe doesn’t have an outrigger because they rarely go into the open ocean, they’re built low because they’re used mostly in fresh water, lakes and rivers. The wa‘a we take out in the ocean need the palekai and the manu, so when the wave comes, it doesn’t splash into the canoe. That’s the purpose. All just depends on where the canoe is being used and how.

My dad (Victor Portabes) used to go out fishing from the old Māla Wharf, you know, near the Old Lāhainā Lū‘au, by the cannery? That used to be their primary shoreline fishing ground. So they’d paddle out, straight across the channel, because the wind comes straight through from the northeast. They’d catch the wind going down across the point, to Mānele (Lāna‘i). When they hit the wind line, they’d sail to Olowalu, use the wind going towards Olowalu, and then from Olowalu, they’d paddle back up along the coastline, along the shoreline, back to where they started. That way, they used the wind to their fullest advantage, they always knew the elements, which way the winds were blowing, the ocean, they were smart! I used to go with them, but I never really paid attention to why they were doing what they were doing until I got older.

They’d take their kaukau tin, you know, with just rice in it! Only rice, because whatever fish they caught along the way, they’d just eat that with the rice! [laughing] But that was how it used to be, that’s how we lived. When we’d go swimming, diving, doing whatever outside, and we got hungry, we’d just crack the kamani nuts and eat the little seed inside. If you’re thirsty, get the coconut and drink the milk, pick a mango in someone’s yard . . . if you’re in the mountains, pick liliko‘i, pineapples, sugarcane, so many things we used to have. You’d never go hungry! And nobody used to get mad about picking mangoes or pineapples or any of that kind of thing.

MG: So fast everything changes! That’s just one generation removed, really!

MP: Yeah, everything changes. And they call it progress! Now we get everything from the store. When I was a child, my father used to take me out on the pinao, he used to make them. He was Filipino so he’d make the Filipino-style little canoes, you know the pinao, he used to make those. He used to make all kinds of canoes, but all of them were pretty similar. Kids growing up today, they don’t know what that’s like, don’t really have the appreciation for those kinds of things. Everyone has to work so hard, the family life is gone.

MG: What kind of wood are you using on this canoe?

MP: Albizia. And you know with this wood, the grain runs all different ways, so when you’re planing it, you’ll have a smooth section you’ve worked over and then suddenly there’ll be a rough section, kind of fuzzy, where the grain changes. That’s why everyone keeps sanding, sanding, sanding! [laughing] You know the elephant ear? The albizia is in the same family. And sometimes it’s heavy, sometimes it’s really light, within the same log even!

MG: The same log will vary that much in weight and thickness?

MP: Yes. This ‘ama here that we’re going to use, it’s from last year. We used albizia that year, too. I kept the ‘ama at my house all year, and even after a year of drying out, it’s still way too heavy! We had to splice it, hollow it out, then laminate it back together. Too heavy otherwise!

MG: Does the canoe change after it dries out?

MP: Oh yeah. Sometimes it even twists! As the wood dries out, you know? Because when we shape it, the wood is still so wet and sometimes you can see the canoe is twisted after it dries. Back before, after they felled the tree, you know, logged the tree, they’d let it dry out for a year before carving it.

The only reason I can think of is that maybe closer to the outside of the log, where the grains are farthest apart, maybe that’s the lighter sections and then as you move closer to the center, deeper into the wood, the grains are tighter? That may be one thing that causes the difference, but I’m not really sure . . .? We usually use wiliwili for the ‘ama, but now with that wasp, all the wiliwili are dying! Even far back in Honokōwai Valley!

We’ve been doing some work back in Honokōwai Valley, a portion was given to this Hawaiian group to replant native plants, you know, that kind of thing. And every valley we went through had remnants of people, of living sites, lo‘i, and heiau! Every single valley we went through. And you know, every place where people were living, there was a mango tree with a trunk about eight to nine feet around! That’s how old they are! Every place where people were living, there were these mango trees, it was really interesting.

MG: It sounds like you learned a lot from your father.

MP: Oh yeah. My dad used to make his own throw nets, too, you know out of pieces of white linen? He’d get the kukui nut and scrape off the bark to use it . . . you know how there’s the really thick shell and then that reddish bark? He’d take that and boil it to make dye. Then they’d take that net and dye it a darker color so the fish couldn’t see it.

MG: Just water and kukui nut bark?

MP: Yes. Nothing else, I only remember him taking that red part of the bark, chopping it up into tiny pieces, then boil it, boil it, boil it, then throw the white linen nets right in the big pot they were boiling water in. Then they’d hang the nets up, tie little weights all along the bottom so it would not only stretch the net but also make all the knots tighter, you know?

My father knew all the fishing grounds around this area. You know your grounds, know where the fish are, and you only take what you need. The fish, they’re like humans, they all have their own hale. And after fishing in one place, they’d go to a different hale the next time so they didn’t fish out that one area. Then they’d trade for what they needed, you know, maybe from the folks up mountainside with lo‘i. Just a bartering system they had—didn’t need money, just aloha! [laughing] That’s all you needed to survive.

My one regret is that I didn’t learn more from my dad when he was still alive. I had the resource right there, I had the opportunity, but you know, I wanted to play around. Like with the nets, I know how to throw net but my dad used to make them. I don’t know how to sew them, how to patch them.

MG: That’s partly why it’s great to see young children here at the festival. And it’s so important that you are sharing what you know today. How did you get involved in the canoe?

MP: Mostly just from knowing Freddy (Tauotaha). Also just from being around the Old Lāhainā Lū‘au . . . they used to make all kinds of implements for hula and other types of things. So just being around it, you know, you watch, learn, and just start following. The Lāhainā Lū‘au is great because it really takes care of the local kids, gets them all involved in something positive.

MG: I wish we could stay for the launch!

MP: Yeah . . . all of the canoes are going to have maile attached to them. The maile are all connected to the land, and to the canoe, so before the launch they symbolically sever the ties to the land that the canoe and the wood originally came from. Send it out to sea, just like cutting the piko.