Kapa: Fabric of a Culture

Pua Van Dorpe has spent a lifetime pursuing her passion—reclaiming this ancient and lost Hawaiian art.

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Pua loosens the bark with her teeth to gain a fingerhold.
Pua loosens the bark with her teeth to gain a fingerhold.

Scholars like the University of Hawai‘i’s Dr. Rubellite Kawena-Johnson, and the Bishop Museum’s Dr. Roger Rose, cite a number of reasons for its demise, among them the advent of cheap, imported cotton cloth; the discontinuance of kapa as a form of currency; the destruction of the native plants that provided bark and dyes; and the disappearance of the kapa makers themselves, as introduced diseases decimated the Hawaiian population. By the time Puanani Van Dorpe was born, authentic Hawaiian kapa existed only in a handful of private collections and museums.

Her grandmother’s Hawaiian blood flows through Puanani’s veins. Hawaiian rhythms guided her footsteps when she was young and working as a hula dancer in Waikiki. Yet the quest that would define her life began almost by accident. In the 1970s, Pua was a happily married lady of leisure. Her husband, Robert, had been recruited to develop a cultural center in Fiji. While Bob implemented the plans for the center, Pua occupied her time with golf.

“I played every single day for six years,” she says, relaxing on the lanai of the Van Dorpes’ home in Honaunau, on the Big Island. “I was the first Hawaiian to play in the Fiji Open.”

One day a Fijian chief who had befriended the Van Dorpes told them that his mother was returning to her native island of Vatulele after decades away, and invited Pua along. Bob and their good friend, Hawaiian artist and historian Herb Kane, urged her to go. The women of Vatulele were renowned for the quality of their masi. This would be a rare    opportunity to see them at work. Half-reluctantly, Pua agreed. “I thought, being the project manager’s wife, that I’d be taken there by yacht,” she laughs. “It was a small boat, filled with pigs and chickens, bananas and kerosene!” When she asked the boatman where Vatulele lay, he gestured toward the empty horizon.

The Van Dorpes’ daughter, Kapuailohia, accompanied Pua those thirty-five miles in the open boat. “I was six years old,” Kapua remembers. “It was a difficult trip, but there’s a longing to go back there. The first sound we heard was the pounding of the beaters. Then we saw the grass shacks, children running around, and people gathering to greet the chief’s mother.”

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