Aunty Elizabeth Maluihi Lee has spent a lifetime weaving lauhala and sharing the vibrant art form with anyone interested. Day after day, as she has for most of her 84 years, Lee expertly weaves the dried leaves of the hala tree, producing wondrous creations of various patterns, tones and styles.
Lee, who lives in Holualoa, came from a family of 14 children. Her aunt and uncle were her hanai parents. They taught her how to weave when she was 6 years old. Like other Kona families from the early 1900s through the 1950s, weaving was a way of life.
For Lee, lauhala weaving was a meaningful way for her to contribute to the family’s income — a fact she’s proud of. Her creations were used to barter with stores and other residents for basic necessities such as kerosene for lamps and sea salt to preserve meat. Her hats sold then for 20 cents. Today, her hats command more than $1,000. Her work has also been displayed at the Bishop Museum, Hulihee Palace, Merrie Monarch Festival and in other countries, including Japan. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, in 1993, named her a “Living Treasure of Hawaii.”
As a girl, Lee said she was nothing like her father, a politician with big dreams, describing herself as “an opihi,” always shy and satisfied with where she stuck. All Lee ever wanted was to continue weaving, “a gift from God,” as well as fulfill an important responsibility — “to teach people of all walks of life, ages and ethnicity so that it doesn’t become a lost art.”
“I thank God for my hanai parents who passed this wonderful gift of weaving on to me. As I grew older I saw the art of weaving disappearing, it weighed heavy on my heart until one day my niece encouraged me to teach her and others to weave,” Lee said. “At that time, I felt it was my responsibility to perpetuate this art.”
Staring across the long foyer Wednesday inside King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel, Lee’s heart danced in her chest at the sight of 25 kumu from across the state enthusiastically sharing their passion for weaving and the more than 120 students eager to learn as much as they can. They are part of a sold-out conference, taking place through Saturday, organized annually by Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona.
The nonprofit, founded by Lee, has directors and members who understand the importance of lauhala weaving and are helping ensure its survival and growth. She repeatedly thanked everyone involved for their encouragement and support, adding they will always be “my ohana.”
“I consider the sponsors and directors, past and present, the roots of Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona. I consider the branches of this hala tree to be our kumu, and as our branches continue to spread, then the lau (leaf) will come,” Lee said. “The lau is representative of the students we have today. The students will blossom into the beautiful hala seed and the hala will separate and fall to the ground and a new cycle will begin. As the ‘keys’ begin to grow, it is my legacy to watch this cycle continue, even after the Lord has called me home. … It brings me great joy to watch the evolution of this art go from generation to generation.”
Over the past 18 years, Lee said she has gleefully watched conference regulars “graduate” from bookmarks and bracelets to hats. Some become teachers. All give her tremendous satisfaction and a feeling of great accomplishment. Brimming with appreciation, she has written several songs about lauhala and remembering one’s roots.
Michael Nahoopii, Kahoolawe Island Reserve Commission manager and a kumu at the conference, learnedlauhala weaving out of a book. Possessing an engineering background, he quickly fell in love with the art, which he described as mathematical, intricate and creative.
For about a decade, Nahoopii created small items, such as bracelets, before meeting Gladys Kukana Grace, a master lauhala weaver and recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship Award. As her student, he quickly began learning and mastering the labyrinthine patterns, finishes and techniques associated with hats. At one point, he was making 60 hats a year. He also joined Ulana Me Ke Lokomaikai, one of the most respected weaving clubs on Oahu, which was co-founded by Grace. He was one of three men in the club, something that didn’t discourage his passion to carry on the tradition.
Nahoopii spoke about the importance of the younger generation perpetuating lauhala weaving. He said that in the old days, every family had weavers who turned dried hala leaves into utilitarian items, such as table and floor mats, pillows, thatching, sails and baskets. Each family had its signature style. Nowadays, it’s often retirees who are embracing opportunities to learn about the art, but may only get a decade worth of experience, though still valuable and commendable, before passing away. Not everyone gets the privilege like he did to study with the masters, those of whom learned as kids. He added, very few of these kumu remain, and fortunately, they’re still weaving even in their seventies and beyond.
Nahoopii suggested younger students, particularly those in college, would be ideal because they would possibly have more time to dedicate to the craft. If remained committed, they would have years of knowledge to pass on to those who follow them, he added. Nahoopii also spoke excitedly about how people are doing contemporary work, taking ancient patterns and principles, but using other materials or shapes.
Valdeane Odachi, a 39-year-old Hawaii Community College graduate and Volcano resident, has attended the Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona conference for the past five years because it strengthens her skills, as well as connects her to a purpose and the people. She has learned patience, protocols and new skills. She has also applied her knowledge to hula.
When Odachi moved from Oahu to Hawaii Island, she felt more connected to the Hawaiian culture and appreciated the countless opportunities to foster practices. She first learned lauhala weaving through a class — Hawaiian language through the practice of the art. Her passion for it continues to grow, and she hopes someday to call herself with confidence a lauhala weaver. Her goal at this year’s event is not only finish her fifth hat, but to also progress to the point that it’s intuitive and she can make one without kumu assistance.
The Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona conference, according to Nahoopii, is like a reunion, one that continues to inspire, provides an outlet to exchange ideas, and re-energizes people about projects planned for the rest of the year.