Story by Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi | Photography by Arna Johnson
The artifact gleams with the luster of smoky quartz, as though lit by an inner fire. Its perfectly rounded head is studded with white nuggets that, at first glance, look like bleached coral.
They’re human molars.
“You know how gunslingers put a notch on their gun after they’ve shot someone?” asks Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalakaua Kai as he runs his fingers over the smooth surface of the newa (war club) that he has sculpted from rare kauila wood. “Hawaiian warriors would take a molar from their fallen enemy and inlay it in their newa. They believed the mana [spiritual power] from the slain warrior was transferred to the club, thus giving its owner more mana.”
Although the ten molars embedded in Kai’s newa were donated, human teeth aren’t readily available these days, so he usually substitutes pigs’ molars. “The teeth are extracted after the pigs are cooked in the imu [underground oven] for lu‘au,” he says. “They look exactly like human molars.”
Kai puts the club in my hands, and I slowly turn it, admiring its fine grain, rich hue and meticulous workmanship. It’s hard to believe that, centuries ago, the purpose of this beautiful object, obviously crafted with care, was to maim and kill.