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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imu oven
Pua’s daughter, Kapua, lays the balls of fiber between banana leaves and sets them in the sun, creating an aboveground imu (oven) where the fibers will heat and ferment.

Then, like a time traveler, Pua dons contemporary dress to sit at her microscope, surrounded by textbooks, or pore over file drawers filled with detailed information on the myriad plants and soils she’s studied, the methods for extracting their fibers or dyes: red from a finely ground clay found on Kaua‘i; the pink of ‘akala, an indigenous wild raspberry; ‘olena (turmeric) for yellow and gold. Reading glasses perched on her nose, Pua meticulously records for future generations the knowledge she has spent thirty-five years retrieving.

“Kapa-making brought me close to my Hawaiian heritage. I have learned how to be a Hawaiian. I have learned discipline. I have learned what the Hawaiian woman went through to make her kapa—and that’s not all that she did! There were many times that I wanted to give up, but every time I lift that hohoa, the round beaters, or the i‘e kuku [a finishing beater] and the fibers started to move, I felt like that Hawaiian woman. I wanted to walk in her footsteps, to let the world know what this Hawaiian woman did.’ Every kapa that I have made is a part of me. And that part is Hawaiian.”

In 1990, Pua was named a Living Treasure of Hawai‘i. She has lectured at Harvard and Hawai‘i’s prestigious Kamehameha schools. Researchers at the Bishop Museum have declared her kapa indistinguishable, even microscopically, from samples predating Western contact more than 200 years ago.

In 1993, 175 years after his death, the body of Henry ‘Opukahaia, the first Hawaiian Christian, was sent back from New England to his family in Honaunau. At their request, Pua created the burial kapa in which he is now laid to rest. The following year, Father Damien’s holy relics were returned to Hawai‘i, wrapped in the kapa of Pua Van Dorpe. Her most massive project came in 1990, when site preparation for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, unearthed the bones of more than 1,000 ancient Hawaiians. Pua organized and trained fourteen Hawaiian women. Together, they worked tirelessly for four months to create the kapa in which, with ritual ceremony, the bones were reburied.

One of the few places on Maui where you can see examples of Pua’s work in person is the King Kamehameha Golf Clubhouse in Waikapu. Though the course is private, the clubhouse is open to the public, and proudly displays eleven panels of kapa commissioned of Pua Van Dorpe, each honoring a historic Maui chief. Beside the framed kapa are the stories of those long-ago leaders, and nearby is Herb Kane’s mural depicting them.

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