When Cook anchored off Waimea, Kauai, in 1778, he and his officers at once noticed the feather robes and helmets. The account is as follows:
“Amongst the articles which they brought to barter this day (January 21, 1778) we could not help taking notice of a particular sort of cloak and cap, which, even in countries where dress is more particularly attended to, might be reckoned elegant.”
“The first are nearly of the size and shape of the short cloaks worn by the women in England, and by the men of Spain, reaching to the middle of the back and tied loosely before.”
“The ground of them is a net-work, upon which the most beautiful red and yellow feathers are so closely fixed, that the surface might be compared to the thickest and richest velvet, which they resemble, both as to feel and glossy appearance.”
“The manner of varying the mixture is very different, some having triangular spaces of red and yellow alternately; others a kind of crescent, and some that were entirely red, had a yellow border which made them appear, at some distance, exactly like a scarlet cloak edged with gold lace.”
“The brilliant colours of the feathers, in those that happened to be new, added not a little to their fine appearance, and we found that they were in high estimation with their owners, for they would not, at first part with one of them for anything we offered, asking no less a price than a musket.”
“However some were afterward purchased for very large nails. Some of them as were of the best sort, were scarce, and it would seem that they are only used on the occasion of some particular ceremony or diversion, for the people who had them always made some gesticulations which we had seen used before by those who sung.”
“We were at a loss to guess from whence they could get such a quantity of these beautiful feathers; but were soon informed as to one sort for they afterward brought great numbers of skins of small red birds (i‘iwi) for sale, which were often tied up in bunches of twenty or more, or had a small wooden skewer run through their nostrils.” (Cook, 1778; Brigham)
“The birds which supplied the feathers, at least the choicer yellow, red and green, were inhabitants of the mountain regions into which as the abode of evil spirits the Hawaiian did not like to go.” (Brigham)
“‘When you take a bird do not strangle it, but having plucked the few feathers for which it was sought, set it free that others may grow in their place.’ They inquired, ‘Who will possess the bird set free? You are an old man.’ He added, ‘My sons will possess the birds hereafter.’” (Brigham)
A “company of twenty-five athletic men, trained to bird-catching on the beetling crags of these mountains …. Their toe and finger nails, never cut, grow like claws.”
“Their sole business is to catch the little black birds called the o‘o, each producing a few yellow feathers under the wings ….” (Judd; Handy)
Feathers for these amazing works were procured by bird catchers, who often lived deep in the wao kele (upland forest) habitat of the birds that they sought.
“The old Hawaiian was a close observer of nature. Having neither books nor the modern curse of newspapers, his memory was strengthened and his eye sharpened.”
“He had a name for every tree and plant and not less for every bird. It is true that he did not always conjoin the two sexes when they, as is not infrequently the case, differ greatly in coloration ; but ornithologists of education have failed in the same way.”
“The hunters knew well enough the haunts of the birds they sought and the seasons when the plumage was at its best. They knew the habits of the birds, their food and other matters that might facilitate their quest.”
“For example, they recognized the curiosity of the birds and planted strange trees in the open places in the forests, and in these new trees placed the sticks smeared with bird-lime which would entangle the prying birds.”
“Bows and arrows would have been of no avail, if they had possessed them, for the rarer birds were seldom killed but captured alive and when the few feathers desired were plucked, released to renew their plumage at the next moulting.” (Brigham)
When bird-lime made of the viscid juice of the ‘papala’ could be obtained it was preferred, although other kinds were known and snares and throwing nets were frequently used. (Brigham)
Another technique called kahekahe, involved pruning branches of the ‘ōhi‘a tree of most of its flowers and gumming the branch near the remaining flowers with the sticky sap of the ‘ulu (breadfruit).
When the bird, attracted by the nectar of the ‘ōhi‘a blossom, alighted on the branch it became stuck and easy to catch. Care was often taken in removing the feathers from the bird, and salve applied to help the bird heal. (Hawaii Alive)
Another approach was to take a stone with a hole though it to form a snare; “A loop of fine cord is passed through the central hole and covered with bait, while the snarer leads the cord to some cover near by. A pull at the right time may catch the leg of the bird in the loop and the weight of the stone prevents flight.” (Brigham)
The common sorts were often killed and eaten. Rare birds especially were seen as a sacred resource.
David Malo wrote in the Hawaiian–language newspaper Ka Hae Hawaii that Kamehameha himself had forbidden bird-catchers from taking the life of the birds so as to allow his children in the future to experience the beauty of these wonderful birds. (Hawaii Alive)
Rain capes, worn by the bird-catchers (lawai‘a manu (those people who ‘fished for birds’) or kia manu) in the rain forest, were made by tying dried ti leaves singly, and overlapping, onto a net made of olona, fiber.
These men also thatched their upland shelters with dried ti leaves (sometimes with tree bark), and such temporary shelters were called hale la‘i (ti-leaf house). (Handy)
“(W)here there were no trails paved with smooth waterworn stones as in most areas in olden times, sandals made of dried ti leaves were a great help in crossing rough lava beds, even some that were only partly cooled.”
“‘A person accustomed to going to and fro on foot knew just how many pairs he would need for his journey and he carried them along with him. As one pair wore out it was thrown away and another put on.’ These sandals were called kama‘a la‘I (literally ‘the-bound-ti-Ieaf,’ from ma‘a ‘to bind’).”
“A fairly strong rope could be made by braiding dried ti leaves together along with their very stout stems. ‘When my grandmother needed a rope for a temporary purpose, this was what she did – a relic of old-time wisdom.’” (Pukui; Handy)
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