Ancestral tools of survival recreated for modern hands
Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalakaua (‘Umi) Kai crafted his first Hawaiian weapon some 45 years ago. Made from the wood of a mango tree and ringed with shark teeth, his first leiomano or “lei of the shark,” is still with him. So too are all his other first attempts. “They remind me of my mistakes, so I won’t make them again,” he says.
Janice Leinaala Noweo Kai, his wife of 42 years, is a skilled weaver in her own right. ‘Umi and Janice are part of a small group of Hawaiian artists perpetuating the craft of making tools that were once essential to survival. Whether it’s a pāhoa (dagger), ihe (spear), hīna‘i hīnālea (fish trap) or poi pounder, the process of making implements is time-consuming. Sometimes it takes more than 30 hours to transform raw materials into a functional, high quality work of art.
In ancient times, Hawaiians only had fire, stone adzes and files made of coral and sea urchin spine to work with. Yet they crafted such beautiful, functional implements. “Even with power tools, I sometimes have difficulty matching their skill,” says ‘Umi. Each of the pieces he crafts bears his trademark cluster of four isosceles triangles, a symbol that’s also tattooed on his chest.