Wendeanne Ke`aka Stitt is an unusual name for a nice Hungarian-Irish girl. In Hawaiian, it means “the mischievous laugh,” a name given to Stitt by her Hawaiian language teacher, Kau`i Peralto, at Stanford University. Anyone who spends time with Stitt soon knows how well the name suits her.
Though not Hawaiian by blood, Stitt is Hawaiian at heart she says. She well remembers the time in 2001 when Peralto asked her to join a group called Kuku I Ka Pono for a two-year apprenticeship to learn how to make traditional Hawaiian kapa cloth. Stitt considered the opportunity to learn kapa alongside native Hawaiians an honor: “When you have a group of Hawaiians ask you to do something, you jump,” she enthuses.
That leap of faith has taken Stitt on an artistic and cultural journey into the world of kapa, a cultural tradition that was once lost and is still little understood. Today Stitt’s work in kapa is on exhibit in museums and galleries around and world. And her pieces are worn in important protocol ceremonies and performances in Hawaii, like the Merrie Monarch Festival, considered the Olympics of hula.
At the end of the two-year apprenticeship, Stitt accompanied Kuku I Ka Pono to Hawaii to carry out their mission, reburying ancient bones that had been disturbed by construction or repatriated by museums. Before reburying the remains, the group wrapped the bones in the kapa they made, as tradition required. Even today, Stitt says, when a Hawaiian dies, a piece of kapa cloth is draped in the coffin over the body.
Kapa is the traditional Hawaiian cloth made from the bark of a wauke, or paper mulberry tree. In ancient Hawaiian times, kapa was used for everything from clothing and blankets to paying taxes and decorating temples. Kapa-making completely disappeared from Hawaiian culture around 1850, shortly after the arrival of the missionaries, who brought cheap, manufactured cloth to the islands. “The Hawaiian women were absolutely fascinated,” Stitt says. “Soon it was determined that the women no longer needed to make the kapa.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that a renaissance in kapa and other Hawaiian cultural traditions began. But puzzling out how exactly kapa was made wasn’t easy for the cloth-makers, anthropologists and historians interested in traditional Hawaiian culture, since few records were left. “The kapa makers had basically died out by the 1850s and the tools [were] ravaged and thrown out,” says Stitt. Anthropological records were sketchy at best. So a dedicated group of women like Pua Van Dorpe (“my hero,” says Stitt) and Malia Solomon brought kapa back to life through a process of trial and error. They went to other Pacific Islands, like Tonga and Samoa, where they learned about materials and techniques. Then they came back home and adapted them to Hawaiian kapa. They also studied chants and songs which spoke of making kapa.
Stitt’s next project is to make traditional pa`u hula (hula skirts) and malo (loincloths) out of kapa for the performance of an original hula being created by the Academy of Hawaiian Arts, in Oakland, with the support of the Creative Work Fund. Stitt will make the kapa but the women of the halau (school) will piece together, dye and sew the costumes, in an effort to bring back the more social and communal aspects of how kapa was traditionally made.
Stitt is honored to be part of a culture she so admires. “The Hawaiians were artists,” she says. “Their tools were beautiful, you know their cloth was beautiful, their tattoos, their music is beautiful.” And their way of thinking and being is as well. “You have to stay within a Hawaiian mindset when you pound kapa,” she maintains. “Which is one of humility — of being humble and of being grateful for what you’re doing. Only then,” she says, “can you pound beautiful kapa.”