From Tree to Kiʻi, The Transformation: Part 1 of 2

From Tree to Kiʻi, The Transformation: Part 1 of 2

The Transformation

Let us take ourselves back, say, 500 years ago, when a solemn group of people stood in the cool, deep forest on the flank of one of Hawaiʻi Island’s volcanoes. A massive ʻōhiʻa tree rose before them high into the shifting green of the canopy. Deeply resilient, impressively patient, ʻōhiʻa trees are able to generate even on barren lava flows and slowly grow to massive proportions as the ecosystem builds around them. Birdsong looped through the branches. A ritual began with chant and offerings. This tree, eight to ten feet in circumference and an elder of the Hawaiian forest, was about to be transformed. After being cut with gratitude and skillfully carved onsite, then carefully transported downslope to the village on the coast, it might stand on or near a heiau, a Hawaiian temple. Wherever the new carving was to be placed, it would now be tasked with the important job of holding the mana, the life force, of a Hawaiian god whose powers and attributes would contribute to that location and undertaking. It would become a kiʻi.

For the Maori of New Zealand, who lost less of their traditional carving knowledge with western colonization than the Hawaiians did, kiʻi is tiki, a word you may feel more familiar with. You may think of it as a wood carving, usually with a snarly face, most often seen as “tropical” decor in bars and restaurants. If you have travelled to any part of Polynesia, that bluegreen scattering of islands dotting the sea between Australia and the Americas, you may have experience of kiʻi that is more culturally authentic. Maybe you visited a national park site, like our partner Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park on Hawaiʻi Island. In that setting, the kiʻi are striking. Imposing, even. They are arranged throughout the park grounds as well as clustered around Hale o Keawe, a restored traditional structure that was once a resting place for the bones of Hawaiian royalty. Maybe you stood in front of the 16-foot-tall single-piece wooden carvings  and felt, in your bones, that something important was represented here in what was once a place of refuge, a puʻuhonua for those fleeing war or retribution. Maybe what you felt was mana

How can a piece of wood have any mana at all? Former HPPA cultural interpreter and National Park Service interpretive ranger Kahakaʻioikamālie was part of a group of park employees and area residents who tended to the cultural objects, which include two dozen kiʻi, at this park site. He said, “There is always an understanding that the kiʻi and the tree it was carved from are part of the same life force as everything, as all of us, so we acknowledge, when we take the tree out of the forest (and the plant and animal community living on it) that we are destroying something, and also taking out one of our water collectors in the watershed. When we take the tree, there is a protocol for how we are going to change it and give it a new life, change its mana.” The appropriate god or god aspect is invited to take up residence in the carving, imbuing it with mana relevant to the purpose of the location. “The resulting carved images are not what we think the god looks like,” he clarified, “because gods are incomprehensible. We carve a kiʻi to look humanlike so we can form a relationship with it and relate to it.”

Part 2 will post in September.

Discover Puʻuhonua o Hōnaunau National Historical Park:

Learn about the ʻōhiʻa lehua tree:

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Hawaii Pacific Parks Association Location Map

Hawaiʻi Pacific Parks Association. P.O. Box 74 Hawaii National Park, 96718 HI