Lei Hulu (feather garlands) symbolize cherished elders

, the Hawaiian word for “feather/plumage,” also means “choice and precious.” Feathers symbolize an esteemed kupuna (elder). In conversation, hulu kupuna -- literally “feather elder” -- means “precious elder.” This symbolism likely heightened the value placed on featherwork in old Hawai‘i.

grn_leihulu05-27-03-0461.jpgBack then, only royalty and nobility wore feather accoutrements -- capes, helmets, lei and hair ornaments -- because feathered objects were considered sacred. The fabrication process itself was also sacred. Religious icons were crafted from feathers painstakingly collected and prepared; kāhili (feathered standards) were used to announce the arrival of chiefs and kings. Some objects took the work of several generations to complete

Featherworks carry great mana

“Featherwork was used as regalia by the ali'i in much the same way other cultures used precious metals and gems for theirs,” feather lei-maker Bill Randolph tells us. “As a result, featherwork evolved to a very high art form in ancient Hawai‘i. A spiritual sense, or mana, was encompassed throughout the making of the featherwork, which was transformed into the piece itself and conferred on its user. This resulted in pieces becoming highly prized for the mana that was contained. In a similar way, today's feather lei-maker gives of his/herself in the making of the feather piece.”

The humu papa (flat sewn lei), pictured above, is usually worn as a hatband.

During the 19th Century, fabrication of feather objects virtually ceased, largely because their sacred contexts were overshadowed by the influx of Western ideas, especially Christianity.

But the crafting of lei hulu continues, and although moved out of the sacred realm, still flourishes as a symbol of esteem and aloha, as prized today as in yesteryear.


Hear pronunciation:
hulu: feather, quill, plumage. 2. Esteemed, choice, precious; esteemed older relative
kupuna: Grandparent, ancestor, relative or close friend of the grandparent’s generation; Starting point, source
kāhili: Feather standard, symbolic of royalty; segment of a rainbow standing like a shaft (also a sign of royalty
ali‘i:  Chief, chiefess, officer, ruler, monarch, peer, headman, noble, aristocrat, king, queen, commander; royal, regal, aristocratic, kingly
mana: Supernatural or divine power, miraculous power; power, authority