The Invisible Someone

Tattooed chief in feather cape and helmet, 1838

William Chillingworthʻs book, ʻIo Lani, The Hawaiian Hawk, was published in 2014, and this winter won an award for the best photography book of the year from the association of Hawaiian book publishers. Williamʻs maternal ancestors were birdcatchers in the district of Kamaeʻe, north of Hilo on the Big Island.  The feathers of certain birds, many of which subsequently became extinct, were used to make the ravishing red, yellow, green, and black capes worn by the chiefs, as well as helmets, leis worn on the head and around the neck, effigies of gods, and the royal staffs known as kahili. The now-extinct mamo, pictured below, was perhaps the most highly prized of all the birds, perhaps because they were particularly difficult to catch. Found only on the island of Hawaiʻi, they were first recorded by Captain Clerke of Cookʻs third voyage in 1779. Their few yellow feathers were more vivid than those of other birds. A cape belonging to King Kamehameha I, which is now in the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, was made of 450,00 feathers, 80,000 of which were mamo feathers. As their population diminished, there was a kapu on the birds, but by the turn of the last century, the mamo had been hunted out of existence.

Mamo (Drepanis pacifica)

The following is from an essay by the Hawaiian cultural anthropologist Nathan Napoka of Maui, written for W.ʻs book. This quote from the historian Kepelino (1859) describes the different ways to catch a Hawaiian hawk, or ʻio, whose feathers were not commonly used in decoration or clothing:

There are two methods of catching the ʻio. The first involved the use of a hapapa, a long stick with a shorter stick tied to it in the form of a cross. The catcher would tie a small live bird or a captive ʻio just below the intersection of the sticks. This bait, along with the skilled ʻio call of the bird catcher, summoned the ʻio from its lofty heights. “They…hurry like human beings to save the one who is in distress. Because the Io is a bird who loves its fellow Io when in distress of when taken captive. If a live Io is tied with a cord, it struggles and jerks to and fro and cries ʻfiro.ʻ The others hear the cry of the Io that is tied up; they fly hither to rescue him. If the cord is not well tied, the captive Io will escape with the aid of its rescuers. If a man is careless or foolish he will be badly injured by the Io, as it is a bird that flies into a rage when a man comes too close. Therefore, in order to kill an Io, he should run up with a stick in hand as soon as it swoops down upon the birds tied to the hapapa and thrust it in front of the Io. It will grasp the stick with its talons, then the bird catcher twists the stick around rapidly, thus breaking its legs. And so on.

Feather cloak
Feather helmet, or mahiole, constructed on a wickerwork frame

perched 'io 2

The Hawaiian hawk (Buteo solitarius), which closely resembles the Swainsonʻs hawk and the short-tailed hawk (Buteo brachyurus) found in South America, arrived in the Islands tens of thousands of years ago, presumably blown off course during its annual migration south along the coast of what would one day be California and Mexico. In order to reach the southeastern-most islands in the Hawaiian archipelago, the lost birds would have had to fly for seven or eight days before at last reaching landfall.

North Kohala


The biologist John Culliney writes:

Having established itself across the main islands of Hawaiʻi…before the arrival of human beings, the adaptable ʻio weathered the onslaught of environmental change that began with the expansion of the early Hawaiians [in the ninth century A.D.]. Within a few centuries, lowland forests were greatly altered and diminished as growing human populations burned wide areas for…agriculture. Many bird species became extinct, replaced by new kinds of prey that arrived with the Polynesian canoes…For a time, ʻio populations thrived in the increasingly turbulent ecological disruption brought by the human pioneers, and the Hawaiians took significant notice of these fierce birds that soared with such a powerful presence on the trade winds.

With the establishment of the Hawaiian kingdom in the late eighteenth century and the rise of the Kamehameha dynasty, the ʻio became the bird of kings; a royal totem of enormous power and majesty.

hawk mono
A monotype of the ʻIo made by W.

The high priest of the sacred ʻIo cult lived in the valley in North Kohala where Kamehameha I was first hidden as a child from the rivalrous chiefs who wished to kill him. One of the high priestʻs descendants, Montano, remembered that “the priesthood of Iolani was the highest priesthood of the islands…Neither chieftains nor priests dared utter the word Io…Io is the Holy Spirit, the invisible someone. There was no human sacrifice on this altar…The people by this religious order did believe, however, in stoning a wrongdoer to death. The priests of Io were feared and respected…Io to us is Jehovah to other peoples.”

The ʻio was once on the list of endangered species — they are killed by hunters, poison, dogs, cats, the mongoose, starvation, and the mysterious, at least to me, “actions of introduced ungulates” — but is no longer considered a threatened bird. They are raucous during the breeding season in the spring, when they make a piercing cry, much like their name in Hawaiian. They customarily have a clutch (such a good word) of one egg. Should you be on the watch for an ʻio, mature birds have yellow legs, while the legs of juveniles are fittingly greenish. (An ungulate is a large mammal who may be classified as odd-toed, that is, horses and rhinos, or even-toed, such as cattle, pigs, giraffes, and camels, the latter two yet to be seen in the Islands, at least outside the melancholy zoo in Honolulu.)

theblogazine-kiki-smith-20121001-3 (1)
Portrait of SM with an owl, or pueo, by Kiki Smith

In a survey made by the United States government in 2007, there were perhaps three thousand ʻio living on the Big Island, primarily in the district of Kohala, with a range of 2,372 square miles (58% of the island).There have been occasional sightings of the bird over the last thirty years on Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, and Maui.

Looking south into Pololu Valley

io eye 2 (1)

io hiwa

wsc puu pili

The above photographs of the ʻio and of Kohala were taken over the last two years by William S. Chillingworth. There are more of his photographs on the website

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.