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Reflections on the Return of Kalani?pu‘u’s Cape and Helmet

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Two significant pieces of Hawai‘i’s cultural history are returning to the islands this week. They are a very special ‘ahu‘ula and mahiole—or feathered cloak and helmet. In 1779, they were presented to Captain James Cook by Kalani?pu‘u—the paramount chief of Hawai‘i Island.  HPR guest commentator Noelle Kahanu says the return is important not only because of history, but also because of timing.

Some see these chiefly adornments as symbols of Western contact and the difficulties that would ensue, but others see them as the very embodiment of Kalaniopu‘u himself. Might we imagine that such a momentous act by Kalaniopu‘u was not merely a “gifting” but rather a means of projecting his mana beyond the borders of his known universe? That he saw how such treasures might travel across oceans, binding people, even countries, and creating relationships that would span generations? The exhibition, “He Nae Akea: Bound Together,” is thus an apt title for a project that has generated unprecedented cooperation among  Te Papa Tongawera Museum of New Zealand, which holds title to these treasures, Bishop Museum, which will house the works, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, principle underwriter of the endeavor. It is also a tangible representation of “mana moana” where indigenous Pacific entities are finding powerful new ways to connect and support one another.

Taken a step further, Kalaniopu‘u’s chiefly adornments can also be described, in the words of Maori scholar Paul Tapsell, as having a “comet-like trajectory,” whereby items once gifted inevitably return for an important “life crisis.”  Why their return, and why now? Is it a coincidence that the paramount chief of Hawai‘i returns just as Hawaiians gather in contemplation of Nationhood? Is he here to remind us that he and his chiefly descendants sought relations on a global scale with countries centuries old? That the United States was but a fledgling infant when Kalaniopu‘u sought to create lasting bonds with Captain Cook and his kind?  Indeed, how best can we comprehend the words and wisdom of our chiefly ancestors, even as we struggle to bind together our future Hawaiian nation?

Noelle Kahanu is an assistant specialist in the Public Humanities and Native Hawaiian Programs at the University of Hawai‘i at M?noa. HPR airs guest commentaries from time to time, and if you have an idea for one you can contact our news director Bill Dorman

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