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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, June 9, 2003

Historic feather garment to be displayed

By Ron Staton
Associated Press

The largest known Hawaiian feather garment — a feather pa'u made at least 180 years ago for a princess — will have a rare display at Bishop Museum this week, but it's not only its age and size that make it significant, said a museum official.

The largest known Hawaiian pa'u, or feather skirt, was made for Princess Nahi'ena'ena, daughter of King Kamehameha I, and will be on display at the Bishop museum Wednesday, King Kamehameha Day.

Associated Press

The pa'u, or skirt, was made for Princess Nahi'ena'ena, the daughter of King Kamehameha I and Keopuolani, a highborn chiefess considered the most "sacred" of Kamehameha's wives.

Descended from ali'i on Maui and the Big Island, Keopuolani was of higher rank than Kamehameha himself, said Betty Lou Kam, manager of the museum's Hawai'i and Pacific collection.

Nahi'ena'ena and her brothers, who succeeded their father as Kamehameha II and Kamehameha III, were of very high rank and were seen as "the strength and purity of the Hawaiian people," Kam said.

"The princess was of high ali'i rank, and this is a special piece that symbolizes that rank," Kam said. "It is symbolic of the times of that period and of the Kamehameha line.

"It has a lot of cultural significance and we want people to understand that we know that significance," she said.

The pa'u will be displayed for one day only at the museum's Polynesian Hall on Wednesday, Kamehameha Day, as a tribute to the princess and her father, Kam said. The rare artifact will be guarded by practitioners of lua, the Hawaiian martial arts, in traditional garb.

Princess Nahi'ena'ena's Pa'u

• Where: Bishop Museum

• When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday

• For details: Call 847-3511 or visit www.bishopmuseum.org.

Certain protocols will be observed, including the chanting of the Nahi'ena'ena genealogy. The chant takes 45 minutes and will be performed three times during the day, Kam said.

Nahi'ena'ena had ties to Lahaina, the capital of the kingdom at the time of her death. After her death, her remains were kept, at least for a while, at Moku'ula, the royal compound on an island just south of the center of town.

This is the first public showing of the pa'u in about 10 years, though it was displayed at a Bishop Museum fund-raiser last month, Kam said.

The pa'u was a ceremonial garment, and the princess is known to have worn it only once, by request and apparently reluctantly, in 1824, when she was about 9, Kam said.

The garment was 20 feet long and 2 1/2 feet wide, but was cut in half and resewn after Nahi'ena'ena died in 1836. It is now 10 feet by 5 feet.

It was reconfigured for use as a pall for the coffins of royalty, Kam said. There is a single reference that it was used at the funeral of Kamehameha III in 1854, and photos show it covering the coffin of King Kalakaua in 1891, she said.

The pa'u is made mostly of yellow feathers from the now-extinct 'o'o and mamo birds. Both birds were mostly black but had patches of yellow under their wings and tail.

A geometric pattern of alternating triangles of black 'o'o feathers and red-orange feathers of the now-endangered 'i'iwi bird lines the edge of the pa'u.

"Some say the triangles represent shark teeth and some say they represent mountains, which are both symbols of power, but we really don't know the reason," she said.

Small bundles of a half-dozen or fewer feathers, about an inch long, are tied into the eye of netting made from olona, a fiber made into cord.

"We think there are about a million feathers," she said. She estimates 200,000 birds were involved.

Specialized bird catchers trapped the birds with a snare or with a long stick with a sticky substance on which the birds would land. After the feathers were taken, the birds' feet were cleaned and they were released, Kam said.

After the death of Nahi'ena'ena, the pa'u remained in the royal family and then was kept at Iolani Palace. It has been at the museum for more than 100 years. It is kept in a secure temperature- and humidity-controlled room for protection.