‘I‘iwi in Hawaiian Culture

Written by Ashlyn Ku‘uleialoha Weaver. 

Enter the Hawaiian cloud forest and look for a canopy of ohia lehua blossoms (Metrosideros polymorpha). You may be lucky and catch a glimpse of the vibrant ever singing ‘I‘iwi (Drepanis coccinea) as it flies among the nectar-rich flowers. The eye-popping crimson color of this unique honeycreeper made it an object of fascination for early Polynesians and it continues to enamor island residents and visitors today. Hawaiians consider such reds in the forest to be sacred and their use became a mark of societal rank. The feathers of the ‘I‘iwi were a defining component in many Hawaiian crafts and helped steep the bird deep in Hawaiian mythology.

Hawaiian feather work

Hawaiian’s historical relationship with the native forest birds is most notoriously demonstrated in the intricate art of Hawaiian feather work and the well-known cloaks, helmets, and leis worn by Hawaiian nobility. The tightly woven feathers of these adornments are arranged in bold patterns and have a velveteen appearance. A fine-meshed net made of olonā fibers (Touchardia latifolia), known as naepuni, is the foundation for most Hawaiian feather work. Constructed in the same fashion as fish nets, certain naepuni could take up to a year to complete. It was during this time that the early Hawaiian bird catchers, kia manu, went about collecting the necessary feathers.

The kia manu used natural sticky latexes, either from ‘ulu trees (Artocarpus altilis) or the outer layer of Pāpala kēpau seeds (Pisonia brunoniana), to capture forest birds. The latex was applied to ‘ōlapa branches (Cheirodendron trigynum) that were placed throughout the forest. If a bird, such as an ‘I‘iwi, perched on the branch, it stuck to the latex and the kia manu could collect them. After enough feathers were collected and sorted by size, shape, and color, they were strung in bundles that were then tightly woven in overlapping rows on the naepuni.

Hawaiian ali‘i wore the time-consuming feather cloaks into battle or on special occasions. At first only high ranked men wore the feathered cloak, but after death of Kamehameha the Great, his daughter Nāhiʻenaʻena and other women of rank decided to obtain their own feather works to wear at peaceful occasions.

How the ‘I‘iwi bird got its color

The demi-god, Maui, was looked upon in some stories as the “Hercules of Polynesia.” Spoken of in stories throughout Polynesia, Maui pulled up the islands from beyond the oceans depth and in Hawaiian mythology had many exploits including snaring the sun. But the one story that is not so common among Maui mythologies is the story of how Maui gave the birds of Hawai‘i their colorful feathers.

Some kupuna speak of times long ago, where the birds would fly around the houses of ancient people. The leaves and branches of the trees and shrubs would move in the motion of the bird’s wings and their fluttering could be heard from great distances. The birds would sing sweet melodies from their perches, and although they could hear them, the people could not see the birds. Only one man could see them, and that man was Maui.

Maui was a demi-god who was born with clear vision. Maui could see the swift wings, as the birds flew back and forth, from branch to branch. He saw colors of red and gold and he enjoyed listening to their unique songs. It has been said by some that the vast colors of these remarkable songsters were individually painted by Maui. The ‘I‘iwi in particular was very made to be very bright and had a call that resonated throughout the forest.

One day, another god, residing upon a different island, came to visit Maui. Each god boasted about the merit and beauties of each their islands. During the joyous conversation, Maui decided to call upon his friends, the birds. The birds quickly flew in at Maui’s request and their sweet voices filled the still air. When the visitor remarked about the mysterious harmonies, Maui decided to lift the veil that concealed the beautiful birds. For the first time, the ancient people saw the remarkable red birds, the ‘I‘iwi and Apapane (Himatione sanguinea), and the gorgeous yellow feathers that belonged to the ʻōʻō (Moho nobilis) and the Mamo (Drepanis pacifica). They were delighted to find the birds were joyous to both their eyes and ears.

About the author: Ashlyn is a Hawaiian Studies graduate from the University of Hawai'i-Maui College. She is currently studying Education and Ethnic Studies at the University of California-Sacramento. While pursuing her degree, Ashlyn volunteers her time researching Hawaiian cultural practices and stories for conservation in Hawaii. Her overall goal is to teach the next generation what Hawaiian history consists of, why our environment and ecosystems are amazing, and why our culture is beautiful.