The Cloak of Bird Feathers

Looking east from the lookout at Pololu toward Honokāne and Honokāne Iki

W. and I go to the lookout at Pololu often, sometimes twice a day, because W. takes photographs of the ‘io, the rare hawk that is found only on the Big Island. No one knows how the ‘io, a species related to the mainland red-tail hawk, came to be here, but it is surmised that birds were blown off their migratory course 40,000 years ago to take refuge in the Islands. W. published a book of photographs of the hawk last year, ‘Io Lani (, and when we are at Pololu now, some of the surfers and old- timers recognize him and tell him about hawks they have seen. “Behind Arakaki Market, get one nest high in a ironwood tree…”

Taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes
Fred taking the trail into the Valley with the horse Maka-Blue, or Blue Eyes

The hawks often appear low in the sky, leaving the valley and swooping over the house of Kindy Sproat, a member of one of the last Hawaiian families to live in Honokāne Iki. Visitors in the nineteenth century described the valleys along this coast as well-populated, with forty grass houses in Pololu alone, stretching from the beach, along the river, and into the gulch, but they are abandoned now, and the invasive vegetation (seen by some as a metaphor) has covered any signs of past habitation. Kalāhikiola Church, founded in 1841 by the missionary, the Reverend Elias Bond, at Iole in nearby Kapaʻau, was built with lava rock walls, strengthened with sand from Pololu. G. W. Bates in his book Sandwich Island Notes by a Haole wrote, “The sand was brought from the valley of Pololu and the beach at Kawaihae — the former place six miles distant, the latter twenty-six. There were no roads over which a team could travel; consequently, the materials were conveyed to the site of the building in a method entirely new, and each native threw in a share of labor. Some carried sand from the place just mentioned in handkerchiefs, others in their undergarments. Others very ingeniously connected an entire suit

together and filled it with the same material, and then conveyed it to Iole.”
perched 'io 2 At Pololu, we often stand with our backs to the ocean, causing some visitors to ask why we are looking away from the view that they have come some distance to admire. The tourists sometimes stay at the lookout a minute or two and then head back to their hotels. Others take the steep trail into the valley. Others only photograph the obliging mules in the Sproats’ nearby pasture. People often ask W. (because of his serious-looking camera) to photograph them with their phones. Others simply photograph themselves. selfie at pololu A few miles to the west is the favorite surfing spot of Kamehameha’s favorite, the high chiefess Ka’ahumanu, whose name means The Cloak of Bird Feathers. kuhio3_thOnly high chiefs wore the bright red, yellow, and black capes, made with hundreds of thousands of feathers in designs of fins, rainbows, sharks, and wings (the color yellow was associated with O’ahu; black and red with the island of Hawai’i), flung over one bare shoulder to facilitate the use of weapons. Judge A. G. M. Robertson, W’s great-great-uncle (left), wears a cloak of peacock feathers (over both shoulders) at the funeral of Prince Jonah Kuhio in 1922. Kuhio’s nickname was Prince Cupid, given to him by a French schoolmaster at what is now ʻIolani School, for his mischievous smile and “twinkling eyes.” A young Duke Kahanamoku is to the left of Robertson, wearing a feather cape.

Kamehameha took Ka’ahumanu as his third wife in 1785 when she was seventeen years old. She was six feet tall, and said to be without blemish. Samuel Kamakau wrote that her arms were like the inside of a banana stalk:

…her fingers tapering, her palms pliable like kukunene grass, graceful in repose, her cheeks long in shape and pink as the bud of a banana stem; her eyes like those of a dove or the moho bird; her nose narrow and straight, in admirable proportion to her cheeks; her arched eyebrows shaped to the breadth of her forehead; her hair dark, wavy, and fine; her skin very light. Of Kamehameha’s two possessions, his wife and his kingdom, she was the more beautiful.

The missionary Hiram Bingham, not given to praising women for their beauty, wrote in 1823, when Kaʻahumanu was fifty-five years old, that she was “sprightly, and beautiful for a Polynesian, and engaging when young . . . Kamehameha was exceedingly jealous of her.”

Black sand beach at Pololu
Black sand beach at Pololu

Upon their marriage, Kamehameha built a stone wall at Kauhola Point to make a small protected cove where he could teach her to swim, although it seems unlikely that she would not have known this essential skill by adolescence. He did teach her to surf, and throughout her life, she was a keen and skillful surfer. John Papa I’i described one of her favorite surfing spots in Kohala:

Kekahau was a kama’aina [old-timer] of the place, and it was he who led Ka’ahumanu to the surf of Maliu . . . As the story goes, Ka’ahumanu and Kekakau swam or went by canoe to the spot where the surf rose. Before they left, Kekakau talked with the king about the nature of the surf and showed Ka’ahumanu the places to land, which would be signaled by the waving of a white tapa. If the tapa was moved to the right or to the left, she was to go to the side indicated before the sea rose up high and overwhelmed her. If the tapa was spread out, or perhaps wadded into a ball, the signal meant to go in on the middle of the wave.


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