Hawaiian ‘Ahu‘Ula

November 16, 2020

Hawaiian ‘Ahu‘Ula

“I ʻike ʻia nō ke aliʻi i ka nui o nā makaʻāinana.” “The chief is known by many of his followers.” In the Native Hawaiian culture, the ali‘i were the high-ranking chiefs that governed an island or in some cases, several islands. They were distinct in the way they upheld themselves around the makaʻāinana or the people of the islands. Highly respected, the ali‘i were adorned in the beautiful pieces that were handmade by the people. These pieces were often symbols of ranking for the ali‘i.  The most intricate Native Hawaiian garments were feather cloaks, also known as ‘ahu ʻula (red garments). 

In Native Hawaiian culture, the color red was associated with gods and chiefs. It represented nobility and high ranking. One ‘ahu ʻula often required hundreds of thousands of distinctive red feathers from local birds known as the ʻIʻiwi and the ʻApapane – both still found in Hawaii. In addition to red feathers, the ‘ahu ʻula were decorated with black and yellow feathers which came from a species of bird called ʻōʻōs – which became extinct in 1987. In order to obtain the feathers, a special bird catcher would gather their feathers and then release them back into the wild. The feathers covered the entire cloak using fine techniques that are still cherished by the Native Hawaiian community to this day. 

While the ‘ahu ʻula was originally used as a symbol to adorn the highest ranking chiefs of Hawaii – they also represent a crucial part of the Native Hawaiian culture. The attention to detail in the feather work, usage of bright colors and intricate patterns of each feather cloak gives us a deeper look at the skills possessed by the Native Hawaiians. The remaining pieces of art are admired across the world and can be viewed at museums in Honolulu, Scotland, San Francisco, London and New Zealand. 

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