From my father’s side I am 100% Polish. On my mother’s side I am mostly Hawaiian-Portuguese. At this time in my life I am drawn to exploring my mother’s family, and my Hawaiian heritage that is part of this genealogy. These roots were nourished while I grew, through stories, visits to the land, food, relationships with my grandparents and aunties, uncles, and cousins.. There were two iconic artifacts that I remember well, even while far away from the beloved land of Hawai’i. They were with us in our home in San Francisco. Firstly, a large conch shell, luminous and white… It had a rosy-pink interior, and told secrets in the sound of the sea. Secondly, a lovely piece of bark cloth, about 7 feet long by about 4 feet high…an amber-colored, textured mystery from bygone days that often captured my attention. My siblings and I called it, “the tapa.” It hung prominently on a wall, next to a gigantic, over-sized spoon and fork carved from monkey pod wood. Those utensils could be considered a third icon…a story of colonial propaganda and a very unimaginative metaphor at that. So I am going to just skip that and move on…
When I was a young keiki, all I knew about tapa was that it was made from tree bark, and that it was used for clothing and bedding in the old Hawaiian days. I didn’t have any idea about the meaning of the printed designs, or the cultural significance. This piece of tapa that belonged to our family had come from a much larger piece. It had come to us first as a gift to my grandfather, from a Samoan friend of his. I don’t know how big it was originally, because my grandfather in turn had cut it into portions and given smaller pieces to his daughters and sons. My mother gave me her piece eventually. I have had it about 20 years now. Since it has been with me, I learned that this tapa that I have admired and treasured for most of my life, is Tongan. In its light golden brown and sepia tones the design is a print of hermit crabs, crescents, flowers, and wreaths spatially arranged with words written in Tongan. The words say:
“KO TONGA MOUNGA KI HE LOTO” “THE TONGA MOUNTAIN WITH HEART”
In some island cultures of Polynesia, making tapa has become extinct because over the last 300 years, everyday products and personal articles that were once made from it, have been replaced by western-style goods. On the other hand, there are island groups who have never stopped their traditional uses of tapa and these countries continue in its manufacture. In Hawai’i, where language and arts are being recovered there are some cultural practitioners who are once again beating out the bark of the wauke plant, otherwise known as the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). Beating this plant or others similar to it produce tapa, or kapa as it is called in Hawaiian. Island cultures of Tonga, Samoa, and Fiji have managed to continue producing tapa even in the midst of colonization and cultural disruption. It is from these southern Polynesian nations that much of the traditional knowledge is gleaned to make Hawaiian kapa. The practice of both traditional and contemporary designs and techniques was passed down through the generations and is coming alive again in its vibrant legacy.