On the Scene with ‘Umi Kai
‘Umi Kai will receive the 2019 Duke’s Waikiki Ho‘okahiko Award, honoring his commitment to preserving and perpetuating traditional Hawaiian culture.
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Gordon ‘Umialiloalahanauokalakaua King Kai’s brothers all got into Kamehameha Schools — he went to Kaimuki High School. The only class that interested him was wood shop, but Kai’s time there inspired a lifelong commitment to making the traditional mea kaua (weapons) and other implements that were part of daily life in precontact Hawaii.
Known professionally as ‘Umi Kai, the 68-year-old craftsman was designated a “living treasure” by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in 2018 and named a “living treasure of the Hawaiian people” by OHA in February. He will receive the 2019 Duke’s Waikiki Ho‘okahiko Award, honoring his commitment to preserving and perpetuating traditional Hawaiian culture, at 4 p.m. Wednesday, at Duke’s Waikiki in the Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort. (For more information on Kai’s work, visit kaikompany.com.)
How did you become interested in making traditional Hawaiian implements?
I saw a lei o mano (a wooden weapon inlaid with shark’s teeth) on of the wall of a relative, and since we were never allowed to touch it that made me more curious. It disappeared after he died, and that got me more curious, so (during) my senior year I made one. I still have it today.
Do you make pieces for display only, or are they designed to be used?
Almost all the things I make — weapons, fishhooks, hula implements (and) poi pounders — are functional items, made so that they can be used.
Do people come to you with designs for things they want you to make, or do they leave the design work to you?
They come to me with ideas from different sources. Maybe they saw it on my website, maybe they visited Bishop Museum or maybe they saw something online. If it is traditional, I’ll make it. If it isn’t, I’ll refer them to someone else because I don’t deviate that far off of tradition. I don’t have an inventory of things for sale. Everything is by order.
How long does it take to make something?
It takes as long as it takes. If I start with wood I’ve collected, the wood needs to be prepped for at least six to eight months. Once the wood is prepped, and depending on the item, it can take from two hours to two days. For a lei o mano, if I have the wood and I have the teeth I can get it to you in two weeks.
Is there something about your work that might surprise people?
I don’t name the items I make. When you give a name to something, no matter what it is, you give life to it, and I don’t want these things living. If they’re going to be in my house I want to be in control of everything. Once you name it and you give life to it, now you have responsibility to take care of it, and sometimes — in the Hawaiian tradition — that means feeding it. For me, I’d rather not, so I never name mine. Mine are all noa (free of kapu) — women can touch it as well as men.
Are there things you enjoy doing outside making traditional implements and researching traditional materials and crafting techniques?
This (cultural responsibility) has encompassed my entire life. My wife is a lauhala weaver so whenever they ask me to do a demonstration she comes along too, to do lauhala weaving while I’m demonstrating how I make weapons or how I make a fishhook — teaching what we know and sharing the experiences that we’ve had. And I have at least six students that come on a regular basis.