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Kapa Cloth and Kalua Pig

Lia Chang

On Kaua'i, I tapped into Hawai'i's distinct nature as a community rich in culture and history during my Environmental Journalism fellowship at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG).

On Kaua'i, I tapped into Hawai'i's distinct nature as a community rich in culture and history during my Environmental Journalism fellowship at the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG).

In 1999, after devoting many years to chronicling Asian America, I took a sojourn in search of serenity. Discovering my new muse on the garden isle of Kaua'i, the oldest and the lushest of the Hawaiian Islands, I knew I would return one day to capture the other-worldly landscapes on film.

This Spring, my NTBG fellowship, gave me a special entre to learn about Hawaiian culture and revisit my childhood interest in botany. During my intensive week studying ethnobotany and tropical ecology, I sat down with world-renowned plant ecologists, horticulturalists and ethnobotanists who have dedicated their life's work to finding a cure for illnesses, feeding the world, and saving the planet.

Globally, nine percent of the world's 250,000 plant species are endangered. Half of Hawai'i's native plants are threatened with extinction, as the situation is far more critical on oceanic islands.

Chartered by Congress in 1964, the National Tropical Botanical Garden administers a network of five gardens and three preserves in Hawai'i and Florida focusing on tropical flora. Everyday, I have class in one of the three gardens on Kaua'i - McBryde, Allerton or Limahuli. With over 1,800 acres encompassing diverse tropical ecosystems and extensive living collections of species facing extinction in the wild, NTBG is the premiere facility in Hawaii advancing scientific research, public education, and plant conservation.

THE MCBRYDE GARDEN AND THE CANOE PLANTS OF ANCIENT POLYNESIA

The McBryde Garden, a botanical Noah's Ark for tropical plants encompasses 259 acres of garden and preserve. Amassed from around the tropical world, it is a "living" museum with the world's largest collection of native plants, many of them rare, endangered and extinct in the wild. A treasure trove of tropical flora; there are bromeliads, flowering trees, heliconias, orchids, cycads, gingers and rare palms.

A special focus of NTBG is preserving the ancient traditions of native healers, canoe builders and planters through the study of ethnobotany, which examines the relationship between people and the plants they use to sustain themselves.

Less than 2500 years ago, the Lapita people, oceanic explorers who were ancestors of the Polynesians, journeyed eastward into the Pacific from Melanesia, settling in Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands and other Pacific islands. It was not until 300 A.D. that the Polynesians traveled across the Pacific and settled in Hawaii. Sailing in canoes, they brought many things including plants they used for multi-purposes - food, medicine, building materials, clothing and shelter. Thirty-two of these ethnobotanical plants are in the Canoe Garden located in the McBryde Garden.

Hawaiian educator Sabra Kauka, a former photojournalist conducts multi-generational workshops on the ancient art of producing kapa , a Polynesian bark cloth. Since 1997, Sabra has had an active partnership with NTBG to use the plants in the Canoe garden for her workshops. Sabra takes us through the garden pointing out wauke (paper mulberry), coconuts, taro, breadfruit, banana, bamboo, sugar cane and ti leaves.

In Hawai'i, state law regulates that one hour a week of Hawaiian culture be taught in the schools - arts and crafts, music, dance, language, legend, and ethnobotany. A group of Hawaiian students from Honolulu join us for the afternoon to use the plants in the garden, as their ancestors would have. Sabra welcomes them in Hawaiian and they exchange a traditional nose rub greeting.

Plentiful in the Canoe Garden, the wauke used for making kapa cloth has all but disappeared in most other places on the island.

We harvest our wauke , scraping the outer bark with a seashell to clean the outside, and peel the soft white, shimmering inner bark from the stalk. The inner bark is soaked for roughly a week to loosen the fibers. Starting with the smooth side of her round hohoa, Sabra beats the kapa to spread it into different sizes. After being dried in the sun, kapa is colored using natural dyes, decorative stamps are added to it and the very last mark is the watermark, unique to Hawaiian kapa . She scents the kapa with the mokihana berry, which is endemic to Kaua'i.

According to Sabra, "The cloth was made until the 1800's, and just a few years ago, we started making it again. At the beginning of your life you are wrapped in kapa , when you are married, your bed is covered with kapa . In your ceremonies the women wear kapa skirts, the men wear it as a loincloth-malo , a kihei wrapped over the shoulder. At the end of your life, this traditional cloth is used to wrap the bones of our ancestors. In our culture, when all else melts away, it is the bones that remain. There is great weight placed on the importance of bones. It is our belief that the bones of our ancestors and our chiefs hold a spiritual power. Today we do not know where the bones of King Kamehameha lie. Those who buried them jumped to their deaths afterwards. We want this to remain secret. We do not want our temples, our sacred sites dug up, because of the secrets that are held within them."

Since 1995, Sabra has been making kapa cloth with a group of Hawaiian teachers with the intention of reawakening the culture and the arts in Hawai'i. When the Ritz Carton Kapalua on Maui was being built, thousands and thousands of burials in the sand dunes were found in front of the construction site. The disturbance of old Native Hawaiian burial sites is a serious issue in Hawai'i.

Sabra related, "The native community protested the digging up of the graves of our ancestors. It is from that point that the hotel was pushed back two hundred yards. These sand dune areas where the burials are remain cordoned off. This sacred area is nicely landscaped. It was the first time that the native community stood up and said stop. No more digging, no more building. The hotel is now a strong case as far as Hawaiian culture is concerned. When all these burials were disturbed there became a demand for kapa to wrap the bones of ancestors and for baskets. We use hala leaves to weave the baskets to fit the size of the remains."

Our kapa lesson complete, Dr. Tavana, a Samoan chief and the NTBG director of education, presides over the solemn kava ceremony. This ceremonial drink, made from a mixture of pounded dry kava roots and water, is used when welcoming guests into the village and when chiefs meet to discuss important village issues.

After a fire making demonstration, we weave our own plates from coconut palm fronds and taste the juice of the just cracked coconuts. Coconut milk is squeezed from the freshly grated coconut meat to season our fish and taro dishes. Taro, the single most important food staple for the Hawaiians, is generally cooked like potatoes, the root mashed for a dish called poi.

Early this morning, the NTBG garden staff prepares the Hawaiian imu, an underground oven to cook the kalua pig, which involves digging a hole, filling it with firewood and lava rocks and setting fire to it. The gutted pig is placed on top of a layer of banana leaves, then covered with a gunnysack and more banana leaves. The hole is covered with dirt while the pig steam/bakes all day from the heat of the rocks.

Our feast of kalua pig, roasted breadfruit, fish and taro leaves steamed in coconut milk is followed by members from the Halau Kanikapahuolohi'au performing several traditional Polynesian hulas, infusing us with the gentle spirit of Aloha.

National Tropical Botanical Garden
3530 Papalina Road
Kalaheo, HI 96741 USA
(808) 332-7324
website: www.ntbg.org