Rick San Nicolas sets up the display for his replicas of the feather cloak and helmet of Hawaiian High Chief Ke‘eaumoku Pāpa‘iahiahi at the Kahala just before it was publicly launched in 2015.

Fit for a king

Summit + Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative

Text Jennifer Sudick
Art Dana Edmunds

The Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative (HLRI) is a nonprofit dedicated to rebuilding Hawai‘i’s natural rainforest environments and to restoring the diversity and integrity of the native ecosystem. HLRI is an organization run by people with lifetimes of experience in all of the areas necessary to the success of this project. It is a new way of sustainable reforestation that is found nowhere else on Earth.

To hear Brook Kapukuniahi Parker tell the story of the Battle of Moku‘ōhai, instrumental in Kamehameha the Great’s rise to power in the late 1700s, is to feel the personalities, strengths and struggles of Hawai‘i’s legendary leaders come alive.

In his 2012 debut oil painting “Ahu‘ula O Kamehameha Kunuiākea” and a subsequent collection of 6-by-8-foot original works of art being installed throughout Hawai‘i, Parker has visually depicted some of the islands’ most iconic historical events and leaders.

Each piece is significant in its scope and broader mission to connect Hawai‘i’s culture, environment and history.

Commissioned by the Hawai‘i-based Hawaiian Legacy Reforestation Initiative, a nonprofit organization working to reforest endemic trees throughout Hawai‘i, Parker will complete 14 large-scale paintings unlike any other in the world. The pieces each offer a closer look at the Hawaiian leaders depicted in “Ahu‘ula O Kamehameha Kunuiākea,” which shows Kamehameha and his uncles at the funeral festivities of his uncle Kalaniopu‘u on Hawai‘i Island, shortly before the Battle of Moku‘ōhai.

“I have always been a great fan of Hawaiian history, initially taught to me by my father,” says Parker, a renowned historian and public speaker. His father had an extensive library where Parker learned about the ancient Hawaiian featherwork featured prominently in his paintings. “My hope is to bring a greater appreciation for those who walked the land before us.”

Brook Kapukuniahi Parker works carefully on one of his paintings. Based on extensive research, Parker’s paintings accurately depict some of Hawai‘i’s most famous leaders from the late 18th century.

The first paintings in the collection are launching this year in collaboration with a featherwork series by Rick San Nicolas, one of only a few known practicing ancient Hawaiian featherwork artisans in the world.

San Nicolas has worked with HLRI since 2013 on a series of 14 life-size featherwork cloaks (Ahu‘ula), sashes (kā‘ei or Kā‘ei Kapu o Līlo‘ā) and helmets (mahi‘ole) for many of the leaders depicted in Parker’s original painting. The initial featherwork pieces—the cloak, sash and helmet of King Kamehameha I—debuted in June of 2014 at the Four Seasons Hualālai on Hawai‘i Island. The second featherwork display in the series—the cloak and helmet of Hawaiian High Chief Ke‘eaumoku Pāpa‘iahiahi—debuted at The Kahala Hotel & Resort in September of 2015. The third display, launching in September 2016 at the Hawai‘i Convention Center, features pieces worn by Kekūhaupi‘o, a senior advisor to King Kamehameha I, in the painting.

“These pieces provide our guests with the opportunity to connect with Hawai‘i’s rich history and culture on an up-close and personal level,” says Robert Whitfield, regional vice president and general manager of the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai. (The resort has committed to planting 500,000 koa Legacy Trees with HLRI as a part of a global tree-planting initiative by Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.)

All featherwork pieces are hand-woven by San Nicolas in keeping with traditional artisan methodologies from ancient Hawai‘i. Each featherwork display cumulatively takes roughly 4,500 hours to complete, not to mention time spent on rigorous research and planning. It is the only series of its kind in the world.

“I sought advisement from experts at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu when starting the collection,” San Nicolas says. “This project represents a critical continuation of Hawaiian featherwork. Few modern pieces of this type are available to the public, and it is estimated in historic accounts that there are less than 30 ancient Hawaiian featherwork cloaks in existence worldwide.”

The cloak of King Kamehameha I measures 60 inches in length and uses nearly a quarter million individual golden breast feathers from Chinese golden pheasants. The sash, which is nearly 12 feet long and six inches wide, is feathered on both sides featuring the reddish-orange feathers of the Lady Amherst pheasant in addition to those of the golden pheasant. The hand-woven helmet is made entirely of golden pheasant feathers. All feathers were ethically sourced as a bi-product of pheasants harvested for food.

In ancient times, these prized featherwork pieces were worn into battle and at important events by Hawaiian chiefs and leaders. They were made from the feathers of endemic birds including the ‘I‘iwi, the Mamo and the ‘Ō‘ō.

The featherwork project was spearheaded as part of HLRI’s ongoing efforts to enhance awareness around the restoration of habitat for endangered species. HLRI is reforesting more than 1,000 acres that was formerly the personal property of King Kamehameha I on the slopes of Mauna Kea, with plans to expand its Legacy Tree planting efforts on O‘ahu as well.

“The ability of this collection to reach and educate a variety of audiences from around the world allows us to contribute to a broader understanding of how Hawai‘i’s culture, history and natural environment all work together,” says Jeff Dunster, HLRI executive director. “We are working today to protect our endemic forests for future generations, and our reforestation efforts are already encouraging the return of rare and endangered wildlife.”

Through tens of thousands of individual Legacy Tree sponsorships, HLRI has reforested more than 325,000 indigenous trees in the world’s only Hawaiian Legacy Forest. In the past seven years, an entire native ecosystem has been re-established on denuded pastureland, serving as a habitat for rare and endemic wildlife. HLRI’s efforts help support more than 330 charitable organizations worldwide.

Learn more at legacytrees.org.


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