story by Rose Kahele
photos by Ann Cecil
Eight years ago, David Fuertes flew to O‘ahu to learn a traditional Hawaiian art from an elderly, self-taught master. Fuertes, a long-time resident of the Big Island’s Kohala district, had never met Kingu Gushikuma, a second-generation Okinawan American who lived in Pearl City. So he was a little unprepared for his initial introduction to the slowly vanishing art of Hawaiian saddle making.
Upon arriving at Gushikuma’s home, Fuertes, a high school teacher in Kohala, was warmly greeted by the sensei, who wanted to sit and talk story about North Kohala and Hawi, his old hometown. Fuertes politely obliged. Their Saturday morning conversation dragged on into lunch and then into dinner, meals that were generously provided by Gushikuma.
Fuertes returned the next morning and Gushikuma was ready for him with more food and stories. The pair whiled away the hours, exchanging tales about mutual acquaintances and experiences. Later that afternoon, the sensei asked his prospective student if he would like to return the next weekend. Fuertes anxiously agreed. He desperately wanted to learn saddle making.
When Fuertes returned to O‘ahu the following Saturday morning, Gushikuma shared more stories, none of which involved saddle making. On Sunday afternoon, with his return flight only a couple hours away, Fuertes approached the master. He feared that Gushikuma didn’t want to teach him; if this were the case, he would leave and not return. But the teacher spoke first: “You come back next week, and we learn. I think you’ll be a good saddle maker,” said Gushikuma. “You get plenty patience.”
The following weekend Fuertes’ training began.
A third-generation Filipino-American learning a Hawaiian art form from an Okinawan craftsman? Even though Fuertes’ induction into the art of saddle making seemed straight out of a Hollywood martial arts film—more Mr. Miyagi than Matt Dillon—it was a wholly appropriate experience: Hawaiian saddle making is a post-contact art and one that has been influenced by many different cultures and many different hands.