Artist Michael Furuya
The Hawaii Mamo bird is a tiny black honeycreeper with golden yellow feather accents on its shoulder, tail coat and legs. Because of its deeper hue of yellow, Mamo’s yellow feathers were much more valued and used to plait the magnificent feathered ornaments which were reserved only for the ali‘i (chief) and high-ranking warriors in Hawai‘i.
Endemic to the Island of Hawai‘i, the bird is now extinct due to the change of their habitat. Some reports indicate that the last time the Mamo was observed, was in Kaumana (Hilo) in 1895.
Though we can’t see them flitting about the velvety Hawaiian forest canopy anymore, we can still admire their beauty in the treasured cloaks and other feathered works from old Hawai‘i. Their beaming yellow color is so vibrant that they not only uplift the heart of viewers but also teach us how Hawaiian people lived in harmony with the surrounding ecosystem.
One of the most lavish cloak ever made, is the full-length ʻahu ‘ula (feathered cloak) of King Kamehameha I. 450,000 individual Mamo bird feathers wrapped the silhouette of the statuesque king, forming the golden ripples of waves. They used naturally fallen yellow feathers of the Mamo birds, applying a sticky latex paste on their favorite Lobelia trees. Lured by the sweet nectar of the tree, Mamo birds would visit the tree and their loose feathers would get caught on it. It was against the Hawaiian Pono (motto) to disturb the delicate balance of nature by over-catching the precious birds. After providing a few feathers, the birds were released and returned to the forests to continue their paths to pollinate flagrant native flowers with other endemic birds.
The rich symbol of royalty, was also a symbol of abundance and a sustainable lifestyle for the Hawaiian people. It was a celebration of their life deeply enmeshed into the thriving environment.
Back in March, people in Hawai‘i welcomed the return of such symbolic Hawaiian relics from New Zealand. For the first time in 237 years, the long-gone treasures of the islands, ‘ahu ‘ula and mahiole (feathered helmet) were flown back to Hawaii. They were the gifts from the chief of Hawai‘i Island, Kalani‘opu‘u, to Captain James Cook when his ship entered into Kealakekua Bay in 1779.
Despite the bitter footprints of the history that followed after, the return of the glorious feathered ornaments gave us a chance to remember the impeccable craftsmanship of our ancestors, their respectful relationship with nature and the lost species of the Islands. Through the color of vibrant yellow still intact, the legacy of the Mamo still travels freely in our hearts beyond time and oceans.
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