Story by Roland Gilmore
Photo by Olivier Koning
At first glance the two dozen bark-cloth kites hanging in Bishop Museum’s Science Adventure Center seem incongruous. “What,” one might ask, “do kites have to do with science?”
Well, for one, this is ancient technology, predating Western contact by hundreds of years. The demigod Maui is said to have engaged in various kite-flying adventures, and petroglyphs on the Big Island document a lupe manu—literally a “bird kite,” with wings on each side. Kites have long been flown not just in Hawai‘i, but also throughout Oceania. In Aotearoa they were sometimes used for divination; Solomon Islanders used them for fishing, flying them in front of a canoe with bait attached. In parts of Micronesia, they were woven from leaves of the pandanus or other plants. In Hawai‘i, Tahiti, the Cook Islands and elsewhere, they were also made from kapa (bark cloth), itself a millennia-old Pacific textile.
At least four different kinds of kites existed in Hawai‘i: lupe manu, lupe la (round kites), lupe mahina (crescent moon-shaped) and lupe maoli—literally “genuine kites” of the diamond shape often associated with European varieties. The lupe maoli at Bishop Museum—constructed of handmade kapa and decorated using plant-based dyes and repeating geometric patterns—are of twenty-first-century vintage, made by Leeward O‘ahu fourth-graders as part of a project that linked traditional arts with modern sciences.
“What was neat about this project was that it had the kapa and it had the science,” says artisan Dalani Tanahy, who teamed with Bishop Museum Science Educator Amber Inwood on the program. “So while the kapa was in the fermentation stage, Amber would be doing experiments to explain how fermentation worked. By showing the students not only how kapa was made, but also the science behind it, both came alive for them.”
Before landing at the Bishop, the kites did have their day in the sun. “The winds were wacky, but the kids did fly them … and added another decorative dimension when they were dragged through the dirt a little,” Dalani recalls with a chuckle. “But they’re kites. We had to do it.”