Locals pound kapa to enshroud ancient bones

At the Kewanui fish pond last Sunday, 44 international students learned the Hawaiian craft of kapa-making from Mililani Hanapi as a lesson in the making of traditional clothes, but the Wauke bark they pounded will not be worn by anyone living. Hanapi, along with Terrilee Kekoolani-Raymond of Oahu and several other volunteers, are preparing the kapa for the traditional burial of the largest collection of skeletal remains in the pacific – the bones of Mo`okapu on the island of Oahu.

The kapa prepared on Molokai will be used to wrap the individual bones for reburial. The skeletal remains of 1500 individuals have been stored at the Bishop Museum since 1942, when they were extracted from the Mookapu sand dunes to clear the way for a military airstrip. The US Marine Corps has been in control of the area since 1952.

Although she agrees that University of Hawaii archaeologists have learned invaluable information about Hawaiian history from the remains, Kekoolani-Raymond says that the excavation of the bones represented an assault on the Kahiko of Mo`okapu. She is part of a group of families and organizations who have come together to take responsibility for the proper reburying of their ancestors.

The bones have been released for reburial because of movement led by people in the Oahu community who are federal claimants under the NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation) Act. NAGPRA is a federal law that requires federal agencies to allow federal tribes to obtain culturally affiliated human remains and artifacts. “It is a matter of respect,” explained Kekoolani-Raymond, “This is our way of saying we are sorry. We are so sorry for allowing this to happen.

Kapa-making is a time-consuming and arduous process. Kapa-makers must first cut the bark the whole length of the Wauke (mulberry) stick with a sharp serrated shell, and having carefully peeled it off, roll it into small coils with the inner bark on the outside. After several days, the strips of bark are unrolled and laid flat. The outer bark is scraped off with a large shell and the remaining inner bark is rolled up again and soaked in sea water for a week to soften it and remove any resin. In the first of two beating stages, the softened strips are laid across a stone or a piece of wood and beaten with a round beater (hohoa) turning them into long thin strips called mo`omo`o. Next, the strips are bleached in the sun and soaked again to soften the mo`omo`o for the second stage of beating on a wooden anvil (kua kuku) with a square beater (kuku).

Hanapi, a Molokai resident and expert Kapa-maker, said that the Mookapu case is part of a “terrible pattern throughout the islands.” “The ancestors are out and they’re being mistreated,” she said, explaining that in some cases, the “historic preservation” of remains means being put in a cardboard box in a trailer. At the Keaumoku Wal-Mart on Oahu, for example, the bones of entire families who died in a smallpox epidemic are being exhumed to make way for the Wal-Mart loading dock. “They found a father with a child on top of him in his arms….his wife next to him and several other children at their feet,” she said. “They can move a loading dock…these were people.”


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