native intelligence: a resource for hawaiian craftmanship and knowledge

Back CameraIn May of 2009, Kapono‘ai Molitau, along with his wife Jenny, opened Native Intelligence in a small space on Market Street in Wailuku. Three years later, bursting at the seams, they relocated to their current location on Main Street at Maluhia Drive. The Molitaus describe Native Intelligence as “more than a traditional retail establishment. The goal of Native Intelligence is to champion cultural traditions, craftsmanship, and good designs while perpetuating Hawaiian values. By showcasing local artisans and creatives who strive to protect and evolve the culture, Native Intelligence is an advocate for both culture and community.”

When I walk inside Native Intelligence, my senses are flooded by the cornucopia of exquisite merchandise that’s attractively displayed within the shop’s walls. This is no kitschy souvenir shop—this store is the real deal, carrying everything from carvings and weaponry, to handcrafted woodwork, Hawaiian surfboards, Ni‘ihau shell lei, and hula implements, to name just a few of the magnificent treasures that await those who are fortunate enough to pay a visit.

“I moved to Maui from O‘ahu fifteen years ago to help open ‘Ulalena,” Kapono‘ai recalls. “Back then, there wasn’t really a place on Maui to source hula implements. So I thought, ‘Let’s create this [store] and see what happens.’ Native Intelligence has become a cultural resource center disguised as a retail store. We wanted to create a place where practitioners feel comfortable showcasing their pieces, as well as talk story. Being able to gather together different knowledge from different resources is really huge for us. If we don’t do it, who will?”

Kapono‘ai says every item for sale at Native Intelligence has a story behind it. “It’s important for us to tell our stories,” he says. “This is how new mele and chants are written. And being raised in the traditional culture taught me that we must always take care of our practitioners and our kupuna, as well as preserve the ancestral wisdom that guides us.”

In addition to owning and operating Native Intelligence, Kapono‘ai teaches grade 8 Hawaiian language at Kamehameha Schools Maui, and oversees the middle school Hawaiian chant program. “It’s much more than just teaching students,” he says. “I’m creating future practitioners.” And, along with hanai sister Sissy Lake-Farm, Kapono‘ai oversees halau hula Na Hanona Kulike O Pi‘ilani. In his spare time, Kapono‘ai makes traditional instruments—every ipu heke (percussion instrument made from gourds) found at Native Intelligence has been created by his own hands.

Right on cue, Pono Murray, artistic director for the Grand Lu‘au at Honua‘ula at the Grand Wailea Resort, stops by to purchase a new ipu heke. “My old one cracked during last night’s performance,” he says ruefully.

Kapono‘ai takes me on a tour of the store, stopping to point out items such as kapa cloth made by Denby Freeland-Cole of Maui; custom printed silk scarves from Punawai in Hilo; apparel from Kealopiko (“A group of three women from Moloka‘i and Maui. They created the company out of the trunk of their vehicle.”); original artwork by Philip Sabado (his shop is behind Native Intelligence); wood creations by Tom Calhoun and Milton Rollins; and a modest selection of interesting looking books. “There’s no longer a bookstore on this side of the island,” Kapono‘ai says. “We’re resource driven, so we carry a very select inventory of books.”

We stop at a glass case where several colorful feather lei are displayed, many of which have been created by Kapono‘ai’s students. “We hold classes here at the store, like feather lei-making,” he explains. “Let’s say you can’t afford the $500 to purchase one. We can sell you the supplies and teach you how to make one. That’s one of the reasons we call ourselves a resource center. If there’s enough interest in something like that, we hold a class.”

Kapano‘ai points out two holua sleds handcrafted by Tom “Pokahu” Stone. “Papa holua was a chiefly game sort of like ‘chicken,’” Kapono‘ai explains. “Chiefs would take their sleds for a 100 yard run down lava, laying down banana leaves for a smooth ride. Today, there’s a grassy hill in ‘Ulupalakua about a mile long that you can ride down. You lie on your stomach head first, like the sport of luge.”

One of the more unique items found at Native Intelligence is a pukaea—a Maori trumpet that’s used by members of the Tuhoe tribe, who reside in a mountainous region of New Zealand to communicate with one another across vast distances. Kapono‘ai explains the horn was made by master craftsman Chaz Doherty out of fossilized timber wood (kauri) found in the swamps, which is wrapped with a coconut fiber called aho that’s been hand twisted into cordage. He says Chaz lives in a location so remote you have to ride an eight-wheel utility terrain vehicle up an extremely steep road to get to his house. Kapono‘ai demonstrates the pukaea, and it sounds like a pu on steroids!

Native Intelligence’s selection of shell lei is impressive. Lovely Ni‘ihau shell lei and earrings have been painstakingly handcrafted by Ku‘ulei Akeo. In another display case are lei kupe‘e from Tahiti. “The difference between kupe‘e in Tahiti and what’s found in Hawai‘i is that here they come out only at night,” Kapono‘ai says. “In Tahiti they come out during the day, and they’re plentiful—like weeds.”

We look at gorgeous koa wood surfboards that have been inlaid with treasure from the sea. “These are made by Jimmy Cooper,” Kapono‘ai says. “He takes semi-rotted pieces of wood and fills the pukas with items found in tidepools. Then he covers everything over with resin.”

Even the store’s retail countertop has a story behind it. “Our koa wood counter was created by wood artist and photographer Mike Neal,” says Kapono‘ai. “It was made with the last fallen koa tree from Pa‘ia. We carry Mike’s beautiful bird photographs, and for each one sold, 25% of the proceeds go to the East Maui Watershed Partnership.”

Visitors looking for something smaller to take back home will find gourmet salts from Moloka‘i salt master Nancy Gove (Pacifica Hawai‘i brand); fragrant soaps made with medicinal herbs and oils from all over the world by The Indigenous Soap Company; and ‘awa from Hawaiian Kava Company. Kapono‘ai tells me the latter is made from ‘awa root that’s pounded into a powdery substance. “You add water, and it turns into a drink called kava that’s used for relaxation,” he says. “There’s a misunderstanding that kava has the same effect on you as alcohol. It actually has a healing effect. When you think about our history, we’re a hard-working people. This drink helps to soothe and relax your muscles after hard work. “‘Awa” means “bitter.” Kava is a bittersweet drink from the gods.”

As one more example of how Native Intelligence serves as a community resource center, Kapono‘ai says preschool students from Punana Leo O Maui often walk to the store with their teachers. “They sit down and read stories and play Hawaiian music. We speak only Hawaiian to them. Where else around town can you listen to the Hawaiian language, the mother tongue of this land, being spoken and perpetuated?”

–heidi pool


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