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

Pololu and Other Valleys

Kohala pasture land
Kohala pasture land

I live in the small town of Kapa’au — population circa 1500 — in the far north of the Big Island of Hawai’i. It is fertile pasture land and rain forest, with a rocky coastline of high cliffs. It was the family land of the great Hawaiian king, Kamehameha I, who was born in 1752 by some accounts (there are many dates given for his birth as there was no written historical record until the early nineteenth-century) at ‘Upolu Point, where there is a large heiau, or temple, said to have been built by one of the Tahitian settlers of the eleventh century, a powerful priest named Pa’ao (the historian Nathaniel Emerson wrote that, “We have no proof that he was a cannibal. The times were perhaps not ripe for the development of this particular quintessence of paganism and heathenism.”)

There is a legend that during the pregnancy of Kamehameha’s mother, she wished to eat the eyeball of a chief (she was given the eye of a shark instead), an omen that the child she was carrying would one day become king. The night before his birth, a blazing streak passed across the sky, later thought to be Halley’s Comet (which would make his birthdate the winter of 1758). It was taken as another omen, as was the rain, thunder, and lightning that marked his birth. Because of these signs, certain ali’i (high chiefs) in the court of the child’s great uncle, King Alapa’inui of Hilo, conspired to kill the infant, saying the words, E ‘aki maka o ka lauhue. “Nip off the bud of the poison gourd.” This is a quote from the book, Ruling Chiefs of Hawai’i, by the nineteenth- century historian, Samuel Kamakau:

A numerous guard had been set to await the time of birth. The chiefs kept awake with the guards (for a time), but due to the rain and the cold, the chiefs fell asleep, and near daybreak Keku’iapoiwa went into the house and, turning her face to the side of the house at the gable end, braced her feet against the wall. A certain stranger was outside the house listening, and when he heard the sound of the last bearing-down pain…he lifted the thatch at the side of the house, and made a hole above. As soon as the child was born, [and] had slipped down upon the tapa spread to receive it, and Keku’iapoiwa had stood up and let the afterbirth…come away, [Naeole] covered the child in the tapa and carried it away. When the chiefs awoke they were puzzled at the disappearance of the child. Kohala was searched that day and houses burned.

Naeole, a chief of Kohala loyal to the child’s father, was pursued through the night and at last trapped, but he was allowed to keep the infant, and to become his kahu, or guardian. The two lived alone in the isolated ‘Āwini gulch of North Kohala, earning the boy the nickname, The Lonely One, until he was five years old, when he was taken to Hilo by his great-uncle to be raised at court, as befitted a royal chief.

Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform.
Foundation of a heiau in the abandoned settlement of Haena, with steps marked by two lava rock posts leading to the platform

Pololu Valley, which is at the end of the road, is a much favored spot by tourists, not only because of its beauty, but because there is little else to see here (there are few beaches), especially if one is unaware of Kohala’s history. The location, even the existence of certain ancient trails, or the sites of rock platforms and terraces which once formed the foundations of heiau, or the freshwater mountain pools loved by Hawaiian queens and thus forbidden to commoners, are often kept secret, lest they be despoiled, or even viewed.

W.’s great great grandmother on the left, said to be a sorceress from Tahiti
W.’s great great grandmother (left), said to be a sorceress from Tahiti

I, too, am ignorant of the history of this ancient district, but in writing a book of non-fiction, Paradise of the Pacific, about Hawai’i that will be published this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, I have come to learn a small part of the history of this mysterious and beautiful place. My husband, W., descended from bird-catchers who in the eighteenth-century lived down the coast at Kamae’e in the district of North Hilo, has also taught me to see more than I would have ever discovered on my own.