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Nature In Culture

Featherwork in Old Hawai'i
Wood - Mainstay of the Material Culture
The Relationship to the Forest

Hula and the forest

In Hawaiian culture, Laka, the goddess of hula, is a forest dweller, and so are the various plants that are sacred to the dance, including 'ohi'a lehua, maile, and palapalai ferns.  When the ancients went to the forest to gather the materials with which they made their lei and costumes, they were mindful of a conversation ethic that is deeply rooted in old Hawaiian ways: Chant - asking permission to enter the forest. Pay attention to signs from the land, wind and animals. Take from the forest only what you need and give thanks.

The following is an example of a chant used as protocol before entering the forest to gather for Hula. In this way, the spirits are acknowledged and asked to "malu e ho e" or clear the path of all hindrances.

Mele Pule No Laka

Noho ana ke akua i ka nahelehele

I alai 'ia e ke ki'ohu'ohu, e ka ua koko

E na kino malu i ka lani

Malu e ho e

E ho'oulu mai ana o Laka i kona mau kahu, 'o makou no

'O makou no a e


The gods dwell in the woodlands

Hidden away by the mist in the low-hanging, blood-red rainbow

O beings sheltered by the heavens

Clear our path of all hindrance

Inspire us o Laka and dwell on your altar.

Free us.

* Excerpted from "Wao Akua: Sacred Source of Life." DLNR, State of Hawai'i, 2003.

Featherwork in Old Hawai'i

The feathers of many endemic forest birds were used to fashion capes, cloaks, helmets, and lei of spectacular beauty in old Hawai'i.  Feather garments were a symbol of high social rank.  They were worn only by royalty and connected the chiefs to the gods. 

The red feathers of the 'I'iwi and 'Apapane, and the yellow feathers of the now extinct 'o'o and mamo, predominated, but black, white, green, and other colors were also used.

While featherwork may have contributed to the decline of many native birds, examples of the art form are among the most treasured objects to be found in the Pacific collections of the world's greatest museums.

Wood - Mainstay of the Material Culture

Early Hawaiians possessed an especially detailed knowledge of the differing physical characteristics of wood.  Trees such as 'ohi'a lehua, lama and naio were often chosen for the basic framework of a house, while endemic hardwoods such as kauila, uhiuhi, olopua, and koa were used to fashion spears, daggers, and clubs.

Wiliwili, a wood of the dry forest, was known for is buoyancy and used for making fishing floats and surfboards, while koa was used for making canoes, bowls, containers, and tools.

Wood played a singularly important role in all aspects of Hawaiian life.  Shelter, agriculture, fishing, food preparation, storage, transportation, weaponry, and religion all included key structures or tools made from the different trees available in the native forest.


In the early 1990s when the double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hawai'iloa, journeyed to Tahiti, it was the first modern canoe of its kind created as much as possible from native materials.

During its conception, however, the Hawai'iloa hit a significant snag:  a year-long search through the native forests of the Big Island identified only two living koa trees large enough for her hulls.  For master navigator Nainoa Thompson, the discovery came as a shock, and he found that he could not, in good conscience, remove the trees from the forest. 

Instead, he traveled to the Pacific Northwest where he asked two tribes of native Americans for a gift of two large spruce trees.  The experience instilled in Nainoa a strong conviction that preservation of the native forest is fundamental to Hawaiian cultural revival.

The Relationship to the Forest

The Hawaiian relationship to the forest and the land helps to provide a quality of life that is very important because we are creatures of the land.

"Hawaiians put a high cultural value on older or larger trees and thick kipuka that normally housed older trees. Hawaiians did not as a matter of course penetrate the wao ma'ukele or wao akua if the trees they needed could be gotten elsewhere, because of the priority of promoting new growth through non-disturbance of seed-producing forest areas. Hawaiians realized the importance of the food source and the regenerative energy of the forest. Therefore it was necessary to leave some areas or groves of trees as they stood originally, thus the name wao akua. "

*Excerpted from "Wao Akua: Sacred Source of Life" DLNR, State of Hawai'i, 2003.