Note: Dr. Brigham, the director of the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, well says, “Kapa (tapa) is simply ka (the) and pa (beaten) or the beaten thing.”
The cloth used for centuries by the Hawaiians and some other Polynesians was “the beaten thing” resulting from beating the inner mucilaginous bark of certain trees into pulp and then into sheets which could be used for clothing or covering.
The letters “k” and “t” have from time immemorial been interchangeable among the Hawaiians, therefore the words “kapa” and “tapa” have both been freely used as the name of the ancient wood-pulp cloth of the Hawaiians.
The old people said that in the very long ago their ancestors did not have anything like the kapa cloth which has been known for many centuries. They said also that there was no kapa maoli, meaning that there was nothing in nature which provided clothing or covering. Very little reference is made in the legends to the use of skins as clothing, although the dog and pig were brought with chickens by their early ancestors.
The clothing of the oldest time was sometimes made by tying dried banana leaves around the body, and coverings were made by throwing dry banana leaves over the body. Thus Kawelo was warmed and brought back to life, according to one of the most famous legends of the island Kauai.
The long, fragrant leaves of the ti plant were dried, soaked in water until soft, the outside scraped off, then fastened together by braiding or tying. In this way a very warm cloak was made and worn by bird-catchers. They found it very good for shedding rain and keeping out cold when they went into the mountains.
Sometimes the long leaves of the Lau-hala were thatched into covering for the body as well as for the house. So also grass was braided into very fine cloaks as well as into mats. Banana leaves hanging in strips like a fringe were used for malos (loin cloths) for men, and pa-us (skirts) for women.
For many generations the Hawaiians made most beautiful and costly feather garments. They braided or wove a foundation mesh of very fine vegetable fibres, such as the long threads of the ieie vine. This mesh was fashioned into a mahiole, or warrior’s helmet, a kihei, or shoulder cape, or an ahuula, or long cloak, and covered with the most brilliant red and golden feathers which could be secured from the birds of the forest.
In the legend of Makuakaumana the gods Ka-ne and Kanaloa are represented as feeling pity for one of their worshippers when they saw him shivering in a fierce storm of cold rain; therefore they taught him how to make a kihei, or shoulder cape. Great was the wonder of the people of the northern side of the island of Oahu when he appeared among them and taught them how to make cloaks like “the gift of the gods.” The legend is interesting, but only shows that the people sometime learned how to make a work-day cloak. Presumably the Hawaiian method of pounding the adhesive bark of certain trees until that bark becomes a pulpy mass and then making it into sheets and drying it was used in Samoa and many other islands of the Pacific Ocean and also even in Mexico hundreds of years ago. Evidently the Hawaiian brought the art with him or learned it from the sea rovers of about the tenth century. Nevertheless, the Hawaiian legend of the origin of kapa is a myth well worth keeping on record in Hawaiian literature. It was partly published in a native paper, the Kuokoa, in 1865, but many references in other legends printed about the same time fill out the story.
Back of Honolulu a beautiful valley rises in a gentle slope between two rugged, precipitous ranges of lava mountains until it reaches cloudland and drinks ceaselessly from the fountains of the sky. A stream of laughing water rising from waterfalls blown into spray by swift winds rushes and leaps in numberless cascades through pleasant groves down this valley of restful shadows until it is lost in the coral reefs of an iridescent sea.
This is the noted Nuuanu Valley of winding ways loved by sightseers as they climb to the grand outlook over extinct craters, island coast and boundless ocean, called “the view from Nuuanu Pali.”
This was the valley supposed to have been the first habitation of the gods, from which all life spread over the island group. Here the gnomes, or the eepa people, had their home, and here the Menehunes (the fairies) built a temple for “the child adopted by the gods.”
The waters of the valley stream fertilized large areas where the valley broadened into the broad seaside plain in which now lies the city of Honolulu. Here at Pu-iwa, by the side of the running water, a farmer by the name of Maikoha lived with his daughters, having no care except raising whatever food they needed for themselves and for their tribute to the king and their offerings to the gods.
Years passed by and Maikoha became weak and ill. The eepa people of the upper valley had always sent driving rains and cold winds down the valley, and Maikoha had cared little for them; but the old man at last went into the days of death feeling a chill which struck to his very heart. On his death-bed he called his daughters and commanded them to listen carefully and to obey his words, saying: “When I die, bury my body close to the waters of our pleasant stream. A tree will grow from that burial-place. This tree will be to you for kapa, from which you will make all things good for clothing as well as covering when you sleep or are ill. The bark of this tree is the part you will use.”
When death came, the daughters buried their father by the running water. After a time a tree grew from the grave. The daughters saw that it was a new tree such as they had never seen before. It was not tall and large, but threw out a number of small, spreading branches. This was the wauke tree.
The daughters with great fear drew near to this monument which was over their father’s grave. They believed it was a gift from the aumakua, the ghost-god, into which they supposed the spirit of their father had been changed.
Reverently they touched the tree, broke off some of the branches, stripped off the bark, and pounded and pounded until the pieces were fastened together in a rude kind of cloth. Thus they found kapa, “the beaten thing,” and learned how to make it into small and large pieces and out of these fashion such clothing as met their need.
Wherever they cut or broke the branches of this new tree the broken pieces took root, or, if the fragments were caught by the swift-flowing stream, they were tossed on the bank or carried and scattered over the plain, and wherever they went they found a place to plant themselves until they grew even to the sea.
Branches were carried to the other islands; thus the wauke became a blessing to all the people. This tree under the name “aute,” which is the same as wauke, was a blessing to many Polynesians, from Tahiti to New Zealand.
In after years other trees, such as the mamaki, the maa-loa and po-ulu, were found to have bark from which kapa could be made; but the old people said, “From the wauke we get the best kapa for fine, soft clothing.”
Maikoha became the chief aumakua, or ancestor-god, of the Hawaiian kapa-makers, and has been worshipped for generations. When they planted the wauke branches, or shoots, prayers and incantations and sacrifices were offered to Maikoha. Before branches were cut and placed in bundles to be carried to a field set apart for kapa-making, the favor of Maikoha was again sought.
One of the daughters of Maikoha, whose name was Lau-hu-iki, became the aumakua of all those who pounded the prepared bark, for to her was given the power of finding kapa in the bark of the wauke-tree, and she had the power of teaching how to pound as well as bless the labor of those who worshipped her.
The other daughter, Laa-hana, was also worshipped as an aumakua by those who used especially marked clubs while beating the bark into patterns or marked lines, for they said she learned how to scratch the clubs with sharks’ teeth so that marks would be left in the pounded sheets. She was also able to teach those who worshipped her to mark figures or patterns on the pounded kapa.
Thus Maikoha and his daughters became the chief gods of the kapa-makers; but other ancestral gods were also found from time to time as some new step was taken in perfecting the art.
Ehu, a man, was made the aumakua of kapa-dyers because he learned how to dip the cloth in dyes and give it color. He discovered the red dye in the blood of the kukui5 tree; therefore prayers were offered to him and sacrifices laid on his altar when the kapa-maker desired to color some of the work.
A small corner in a house in the kapa-field usually had a very small pile of stones called “the altars.” Here small offerings of leaves or fruit could be placed while the worshipper chanted his prayer.
Kapa-dyers searched forests for trees and plants which could give life-blood for different dyes. The sap of these plants was carefully put in bamboo joints and carried to the place where the pounders sang and worked.
Offerings of leaves and fruits and flowers were made to Ehu from time to time while the dyes were being collected as well as when they were used to color the kapa.
Sometimes the sheets were spotted by sprinkling colors over them. Sometimes they were marked in lines and figures by using bamboo splints or bamboos with ends pounded into brush-like fibres. Stone cups were kept in the kapa-fields for the dye and the marking-splint.
Sometimes torn-up pieces of dyed kapas were pounded up with new sheets, producing a mottled effect. White kapas of the best texture were used in the temples to cover the gods during certain parts of the temple ceremonies. They were also used to mark a strict tabu. When kapa was laid on an object, it meant that it was not to be touched under pain of punishment by the guarding aumakua. Fastened to a staff and placed in a path, it meant that this path was tabu. It was in this way that tabu standards were placed around the temples.
A kapa dipped in a black dye was kept for the death covering, especially for those of very high rank.
Sometimes the perfumes of sweet flowers or the oil of such trees as the iliahi6 (sandalwood) were pounded into the kapa while it was being made. The perfumes were made in this way. The sweet-smelling things were placed in a calabash and covered with water. Hot stones were put in the water and the fragrance drawn out of the plants. The water was boiled away until the perfume became very strong. This was done with the sweet-scented flowers of the niu7 (coconut) and of the lau-hala,8 and the wood of the iliahi and other fragrant plants.
When the kapas were perfumed, they were dried inside a house so that the fragrance should not be lost.
Sometimes the kapas were well scraped with pieces of shell or rubbed with stones, then were rolled in dirt and put in a calabash and well soaked for a long time. When these kapas were washed, scraped and pounded again, they became very soft. Often the kapa-maker would take these sheets of kapa and spread them over a layer of cold, wet, fresh-water moss, leaving them all night for the dew to fall upon. These kapas became very bright and shining. Sometimes finished kapas were oiled so that they became excellent protectors from the wet and cold of heavy mists and rains. These oiled kapas were frequently varnished by being rubbed with eggs. Spider eggs were considered the best for this purpose.
In the early time a flat stone was used upon which to pound out the sheets of kapa, but blocks of wood and long, heavy sticks were found to give the best results. These were called kua-kuku. A block cut in a certain way was very much liked by the women, for it gave back a soft sound with the rhythmic beat of the mallets, accompanied by their own chants and incantations to Maikoha or one of the other aumakuas.
Hina, the mother of the demi-god Maui, was the great kapa-maker of the legends of the ancient Hawaiians. It is said that she still spreads her kapas in the sky. They are the beautiful clouds of all colors, sometimes piled up and sometimes lying in sheets. When fierce winds blow and lift and toss the cloud kapas and roll off the stones which Hina has placed on them to hold them down, or when she throws off the stones herself, the noise of the rolling stones is the thunder which men hear.
When Hina rolls the cloud sheets together, the folds glisten and flash in the light of the sun; thus what men call lightning is the sunlight leaping from sheet to sheet of Hina’s kapas in cloudland.