“The 19th century was in its infancy. Princess Nāhi‘ena‘ena, descended from the ali‘i and most elite echelons of Maui and Hawai‘i Island society, was still only a child when she was gifted a feather pāʻū so magnificent that its fame lives on today.
Creating the pāʻū was a massive undertaking. The skirt consisted of 1,000,000 tiny feathers bundled and tied to a netted base by the people of Lahaina over what could have been a mere year, says Marques Marzan, the cultural advisor at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, where the skirt now lies. Especially remarkable is its color, which is almost entirely yellow. This hue required the rarest of the feathers to be taken from a small tuft of golden plumage at the neck of the now extinct ʻōʻō. The sheer volume of plumage required kia manu, or bird catchers, to venture in groups into the forests for days to pluck precious, wee feathers from the evasive honeyeaters.
Featherwork can actually be seen all across the Pacific and the world. Early Hawaiian settlers brought the art with them from their homes in older parts of Polynesia, says Marzan, and over time the practice evolved in slight, distinct ways. The type of net backing used in traditional Hawaiian handiwork, for example, was made of olonā, a fiber found only in Hawai‘i. Originally, he explains, both making featherwork, as well as wearing it, was reserved for the chiefly class. The Bishop Museum collection houses everything from magnificent cloaks in royal yellow and red shades, and iconic, crescent-shaped feathered helmets, to elegant lei, and fierce, feather-coated god effigies.”
Stacy Kamehiro, “Empire and U.S. Art History from an Oceanic Visual Studies Perspective,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 6, no. 1 (Spring 2020).
Stacy Kamehiro, “Featherwork in the Hawaiian Monarchy Period, c. 1820–1893,” in Royal Hawaiian Featherwork: Nā Hulu Aliʻi, ed. Leah Caldeira, Christina Hellmich, Adrienne L. Kaeppler, Betty Lou Kam, and Roger G. Rose, pp. 80–105 (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press; San Francisco: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, Honolulu, 2015).
Stacy Kamehiro, The Arts of Kingship: Hawaiian Art and National Culture of the Kalakaua Era (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009).