Kapa and Womenʻs Spaces

In Hawaiian thought, kapa in particular was the space of women. It was an art form that had a special kapu (sacredness) to women and is associated with its tutelary deity, Hina, the archetype of womanhood throughout the Pacific. When a child was born, the child would be wrapped in kapa (barkcloth). In early Hawaiian burials, the deceased would be wrapped in kapa and buried. That practice continued for makaʻāinana until the the 1850s. So a person entered the world wrapped in kapa lovingly made by women and was buried in kapa lovingly made by women. Women and the art of women therefore ushered in the transitions of life and kapa was the tangible symbol of the transitions of life.

The bark used to make kapa, the wauke or Broussonetia papyrifera, is not indigenous to Polynesia. It originates from South East Asia and was brought over to Polynesia some 3,000+ years ago by the first navigators. In Hawaiian legends, this is affirmed. One of the most well known kapa legends is in Nuʻuanu valley, there was a makaʻāinana (commoner) by the name of Maikoha. He was a good man. He had two daughters and when he passed away suddenly, his daughters were grief stricken and buried him by a stream. Hina, took pity on the daughters, Laʻahana and Lauhuiki, and from Maikohaʻs bones came the wauke tree. Lauhuiki became the tutelary patron of kapa preparation and Laʻahana became the tutelary patron of kapa beaters. While men could gather and prepare the dyes, it was women who had domain over the kapa making and the actual tools. It also should be noted that Hina gave the art not to chiefs and she placed a kapu.

In Hawaiian legends, too, there are stories of women giving birth to islands. Pāpā, the Earth Mother, is more known as Pāpāhānaumoku, Pāpā who gives birth to islands. Kapa was used to make the sails of long range voyaging canoes. Without kapa, sails couldnʻt be made and islands could not be discovered or “birthed”. When the kapa of a sail was to be replaced, the old kapa sail would distributed to families in the village who then would use it for burials–again echoing the cycle of life and symbolically linking the deceased with the “birth” of a new settlement or island.

While the male spaces were associated with order, defense and stability, the female spaces was associated with creativity, with breaking norms in order to create new traditions and norms, and with the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Itʻs no co-incidence that the collapse of the Kapu System in Hawaiʻi was largely the work of two women. This is one of the reasons that ka mana wāhine (womenʻs strength) should always, always, always be included in social, economic and political movements and discussions because they give birth to generations, to islands, and to time.

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