The Man Behind the Fence

Kupuna Butch Tabanao lives each day to the fullest. 

By Jennifer Smith

Uncle Butch’s Taro Patch Jewelry workshop is located in the old Laundromat next to the General Store in Maunaloa.

He began carving jewelry from materials found on the islands in the early 70s. From puka shells, black coral, and deer horns Uncle Butch carves earrings, necklaces, cribbage boards, knife handles, hair accessories, and chess sets.

True to his laid back nature, the sign on the door reads: “Da Kine Hours: Wen Open-Open; Wen Closed-Gone Surfin! Aloha-Butch.”

Uncle Butch can typically be found there in the morning, but interested customers can call a day ahead to make an appointment, 552-2364.

Obstacles Overcome

If you saw him in the ocean or carving out a piece of jewelry you might never know, but Uncle Butch was born with a physical disability.

When neighborhood kids ask about his disability he matter-of-factly tells them, “sometimes people are born this way…once you tell them, it is all cool.”

A birth defect limits the flexibility of his arms and legs. Uncle Butch feels that “growing up with a disability you have got to adjust to what has happened; it made me a stronger person.”


Uncle Butch does not let insecurities hold him back from the things that he loves most.

“The one thing that really got me going all these years is surfing,” he said. “Once I get in the water I’m equal with everyone in the world,”

In the 1980s Tabanao started a surf club called Kamohana. As the President he made sure that all of the particulars of running a club were taken care of. However, it was his love of surfing that kept him involved.

To steal a line from a popular surf company, he said, “Only a surfer understands the feeling.”

Unfortunately, Kamohana is no longer active, but Uncle Butch is interested in starting another surf club on the West End. “We need that stuff to happen, to have that connection with kids and adults,” he said.

When he isn’t out in the ocean with surfing buddies, like Keola Kino, Uncle Butch takes the neighborhood kids to the beach to go boogie-boarding.

Uncle Butch said the parents tell their children, “When Uncle Butch takes you surfing and he’s picking up a wave, you don’t even say nothing, you just let him go.”

61 and still having fun

It is a different kind of letting go that has led Uncle Butch to create a full life for himself on the Friendly Isle. Having lived on the island for over 30 years, Uncle Butch feels he has a, “whole family in Molokai.”

He tells people, “you control your lifestyle…I’m doing what I like to do. Isn’t that the way it is supposed to be, enjoy life, be happy?”

“He never got lost from being free,” says Jordan who considers Uncle Butch a life long friend, mentor and surf buddy. “He taught me to live in the moment. He is a very soulful guy – I feel blessed and stoked to be around this guy.”

If those around Uncle Butch are stoked it is probably because the man himself is stoked too. “I have a good life here, I could go for another 20 years,” he said.


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