Hawaiian CraftsmanshipHouses, Canoes, Weapons, and Tools

Ancient Hawaiians were highly skilled crafters utilizing many different materials. Pōhaku pa‘a (basaltic rocks) were chipped into ko‘i (stone adzes), an important tool for crafting many other products.

The Hawaiians built formidable stone heiau (sacred places of worship), carved stunning ki‘i (temple gods) from ‘ōhi‘a lehua (Metrosideros species), constructed elegant houses thatched with pili grass (Heteropogon contortus, twisted beardgrass), and carved makau (fishhooks) from bones and shells.

Using the wood of the native koa tree (Acacia koa), ancient Hawaiians built twin-hulled sailing canoes that were more than 70 feet (21 m) long and strong enough to cross the Pacific Ocean. Canoe parts were made from various materials, including lau hala, leaves of hala (Pandanus tectorius, screwpine), which were woven into sails for the canoes.

Strong kaula (cordage) to lash the canoes together was woven from the inner bark of hau as well as olonā (Touchardia latifolia), and from the fibers of the nut of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut palm). This cordage was also important for house construction, fishing nets and numerous other uses.

Olonā (Touchardia latifolia) provided the finest cordage of ancient Polynesia as well as the entire Pacific region. During the process of making olonā cordage, strips of bark were placed on a papa olonā (slanted board) and scraped with a tool known as an uhi, which was usually fashioned from the shell of honu (Chelonia mydas, green sea turtle; or Eretmochelys imbricata, hawksbill sea turtle) or a piece of the turtle’s bone plate beneath its shell. The scraping away of the olonā bark left many fine white fibers, which were then dried in the sun and twisted into the final product.

The Islands were not always a peaceful place for the ancient Hawaiians, and by necessity their ingenuity extended into the domain of warfare. They were the only Polynesian culture to construct pāhoa (daggers), and they fashioned at least five distinct types, including curve-bladed daggers, long-bladed daggers, bludgeon daggers (a combination club/dagger), truncheon daggers (with a pointed end used for stabbing) and daggers made from the blades (bones) of the swordfish.

[Photograph: Ancient pāhoa (daggers).]

Other weapons constructed by ancient Hawaiians included lā‘au pālau (clubs), pīkoi (tripping weapons), ma‘a (slings to hurl stones), ihe (spears and javelins) and ihe laumeki (barbed javelins). Shark teeth were also used to make daggers and other weapons. The niho (tooth) of the palaoa (Physeter macrocephalus, sperm whale) was reserved for the prized royal necklace known as lei niho palaoa.

A great variety of lei were woven from the fragrant ferns and flowers of the forest. Lei were also constructed using colorful feathers of native birds as well as seashells. Shells were used for food scrapers, fishhooks, and various other uses. The shells of honu (Chelonia mydas, green sea turtles; Eretmochelys imbricata, hawksbill sea turtles) also had medicinal uses, and were fashioned into combs and other implements.

The tips of large triton conch or helmet shells were filed off to make pū (trumpet-like musical instruments). Some other musical instruments produced by ancient Hawaiians included the nī‘au kani (mouth harp), hōkiokio (gourd whistle), kūpe‘e niho ‘īlio (dog-tooth anklet), ‘ohe hano ihu (bamboo nose flute), and pā ipu (gourd drum).

[Illustration: Musical instruments listed above.]

Traditional instruments accompanying hula included the pahu hula, a drum made from the trunk of niu (Cocos nucifera, coconut palm) or ‘ulu (Artocarpus altilis, breadfruit), and using a sharkskin drumhead. Also used to keep the beat were lā‘au ho‘okani pahu (drumming sticks), pū‘ili (split bamboo rattles), and the ‘ulī‘ulī, a gourd rattle containing seeds and adorned with colorful feathers.

A musical bow called the ‘ūkēkē was made with three strings that were strummed while the player’s mouth was used as a resonance chamber. The ‘ūkēkē produces a speech-like sound though no noise is made by the player’s vocal cords.

The ‘ūkēkē was traditionally made from the wood of kauila (Colubrina oppositifolia), ‘iliahi (Santalum species, sandalwood) or ‘ūlei (Osteomeles anthyllidifolia, Hawaiian hawthorn). The ‘ūkēkē was the only stringed instrument of ancient Hawai‘i. (For more information about the ‘ūkēkē, see ‘Iliahi in Chapter 8.)