The clever, agile hands of Mary Lou Kekuewa and her daughter, Paulette Kahalepuna, work tirelessly to save the ancient Hawaiian feather craft from extinction.
Waikiki is most assuredly not the first place you'd look for the keeper of a lost Hawaiian art, unless that art is making coconut-shell bras or organizing sunset happy hours. Yet, in the tiki torchlight of a hundred big hotels is where you'll find Na Lima Mili Hulu Noeau, Hawaii's only specialty feather shop. Its name translates as "skilled hands touch the feathers." But everyone who knows the place simply calls it "Auntie Mary Lou's."
For more than 30 years, Mary Lou Kekuewa and her daughter, Paulette Kahalepuna, have preserved feather craft, an ancient art that was once central to Hawaiian culture. In the hands of "the Feather Aunties," as the pair is known to the aficionados who come from all over the state to visit their store, feathers are made into leis, into hatbands, into works of art. And in the process, an important part of Hawaiian culture takes another step toward the vibrancy it once enjoyed.
Auntie Mary Lou's is equal parts store, gathering place, and museum. One wall of the bright space is lined with bins of dyed feathers—pink for Maui, purple for Kauai, goldenrod for Oahu. Another is decorated with Mary Lou's and Paulette's handmade leis, which sell for as much as $600. Visit the store for a while and you'll see a constant but low-key stream of lei makers, most of whom learned the skill from the aunties and still come by for supplies and advice or just to talk story. "I need peacock feathers," says one customer in a muumuu. Paulette shows her where they are, and for the next hour the customer stands and picks at a bin for the ones that are just right. Her total purchase: one-fifth of an ounce of peacock feathers. Price: $7.
The flower lei may be the greeting best known to island visitors, but artifacts made of feathers have a special, more exalted, place in Hawaii. "Feathers were a sign of royalty and esteem to our ancestors because birds were in such short supply," Paulette says. Capes, cloaks, and helmets made from the tiny feathers of five or six indigenous birds, such as the iiwi and the apapane, were the sacred insignia of the highest male chiefs in ancient Hawaii. Most precontact Hawaiian settlements had bird catchers, men whose job it was to gather feathers and whose contributions were deemed so valuable that they were absolved from performing other communal duties. Not that they had time to do anything else: The Bishop Museum in Honolulu estimates that the fanciest feather robes, which explorer James Cook likened to "the thickest and richest velvet," were made of half a million feathers.
The leis the aunties create now aren't as ornate, but they're still magnificent works of art that are time-consuming to fabricate and much in demand. "There are nearly 1,000 feathers in a 23-inch head lei," Paulette says. "Each one is hand tied to the main strand." Her hands fly as she speaks, attaching a yellow feather with three twists and a half hitch around the yarn core. Although the aunties do some work on commission, they prefer to teach others how to make their own leis.
Auntie Mary Lou, 76, presides over the store with the quiet dignity of the monarch she is: She was queen of the 1975 Aloha Festival, a statewide cultural extravaganza, 20 years after she first sought the honor. "I lost in 1955, but I ended up working in the costume shop for the festival and learned how to repair feather items," she explains. "In 1970, I began teaching feather lei making to classes, because it was right around then that people started getting interested in Hawaiian culture again." Paulette learned from Mary Lou, and in turn the two have taught Paulette's daughter and granddaughter, as well as the hundreds of hula students for whom feather leis are a vital part of their costumes.
These days, Paulette, 57, does most of the teaching and touring in Hawaii, and sometimes on the mainland, to expose feather craft to a broader audience. "I go out and teach, but I always introduce myself as Auntie Mary Lou's daughter," Paulette says. "She's the one who's known and recognized in the community as the expert." That may be, but still, as the name says, the hands that touch the feathers are skilled.
Photography courtesy of Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.