Cover Story

E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Kū images
Image: Linny Morris, Courtesy Bishop Museum

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Wed, Sep 27


Cover image for Sep 22, 2010

E Ku Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Ku images / In June, the three last great Ku images remaining in the world reunited for the first time in more than 150 years at the Bishop Museum. It was the completion of a journey that began thousands of miles away in London’s British Museum and Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum, finally returning to Honolulu for the opening of E Ku Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility and the Ku images. Now, as the Bishop Museum prepares for the closing of this historic exhibition on Oct. 4, emotions over their departure are rising. Some believe Ku should never have returned in the first place, others feel the images must never leave and still others believe that the bringing together of the three images for a brief time offers a more important lesson about spiritual ownership, and the roles and responsibilities of Hawaiian people.

It began in 2008, when Noelle Kahanu, project manager for the Bishop Museum, returned from a symposium in Paris on representations of Polynesian culture. Kahanu began asking Hawaiian leaders how they felt about bringing Ku home, knowing he would leave again.

“If we had an opportunity to bring these images together,” she says now, “even if for a short time, was that better than never being able to bring them back at all?”

Leading museums, including the Peabody, were hesitant. Previous exhibitions of the cultural artifacts of indigenous people have resulted in those people reclaiming and demanding repatriation of the objects. Officials were also concerned about Ku’s return–more specifically, his eventual departure–causing pain.

In a letter to the Peabody’s Dan Monroe, Kahanu acknowledges the museums’ hesitations.

“I can understand your hesitancy with regard to the loan of such an iconic and important image. I can also understand your concern that Ku’s arrival not be a cause for further discord in an already fractured community. But, what would it mean to the Hawaiian community? To see these Ku standing side by side? To bring them together is to bring ourselves and our community together. They are what connects us in a tangible, visceral way, to our past, for they are the embodiment of the imagination, artistry, and skill of our ancestors. They survived the overthrow of their religion, they survived colonialism, war and destruction, they survived ignorance, racism and marginalism. His return would mean his being enveloped once again in his elements, standing alongside his brethren.”

The rebirth of Ku

Ku is known throughout the Pacific as the god of warfare, procreation and prosperity. He was the primary god of male endeavors–fishing, canoe-building, war, gathering. He and his wife, Hina, suggested a compelling balance in Hawaiian life and religion; Ku means to “stand up” and Hina means “fallen down.” Their powerful duality is one of the key dynamics in Hawaiian religion.

Hawaiians worshipped Ku as one of the four major gods, along with Kanaloa, Kane and Lono. The 600-to-800-pound wood carvings were built for specific temples of worship and were once found on islands throughout the Pacific.

“There were a multitude of Ku gods, varying from large temple images, to smaller wooden and wicker forms that were carried into battle,” says Kahanu. “Oral history suggests that there were many forms of Ku, possibly over 200, but historians and scholars are still uncertain about the exact age of the last remaining three.

“What we can say for certain is that they were not carved after the fall of the temple religion in 1819,” she says. “After that, the images had no function. The religion ended, and just imagine that all of those carvers, those for whom that was their life’s work, all of a sudden their livelihood was taken from them. Remember, these Ku images were not about art, they were about religious function.”

The most famous form of Ku is the fishing shrine, but other images of Ku can be found in woven baskets, in natural phenomena, in fish form like the shark or in bird form like the Hawaiian hawk. He was the principal male deity, and for every male endeavor, a Ku god was associated.

“It’s important to ask, ‘Why have these Ku images become so iconic?’” says Kahanu. “Clear evidence suggests that they were on platforms until the 1840s. Why, for two decades after the fall of the Hawaiian religion, were they treated differently? Why were they not destroyed and why did the rules not apply to them? What does that say about Ku? There is something that resonates with Native Hawaiian people, 200 hundred years later.”

Today, Ku images continue to be worshipped, sometimes in the form of a blood-red sunset, sometimes in the form of a double rainbow or in the form of a handmade image carved from ‘ulu. “It’s the idea that, no matter how far from home you are, there is still that essence that forever remains,” says Kahanu. “These images are back. And people feel that mana, that sense of belonging. And just because they are leaving, doesn’t mean the mana leaves with them.”


Keawe Kaholokula was one of the Native Hawaiian leaders chosen to bring Ku home. “Having these images reunite is not only a dream for Bishop Museum but for the majority of the Native Hawaiian community,” says Kaholokula. “Ku is one of the four major gods in the Hawaiian belief system and most people think he is only the god of war. But Ku is many things. He represents everything that is masculine–to stand up straight, to be assertive–and there is a great absence of Ku nowadays. He allows us to behave in a way that is more consistent with our culture.”

Witnessing small miracles and symbolic references to Ku during his journey to London and Salem prepared Kaholokula for the intense emotional meeting. “We saw double rainbows, a blood-red sun, and we were constantly reminded of Ku during our trip. But when we arrived to the British Museum we found out Ku was in a warehouse. It was sad to see him laying down, he was not erect as I suspected. It was as if he was waiting to come home.”

Whether the images left the Hawaiian Islands by the hands of missionaries, Hawaiian chiefs or merchants is unclear, but Kahanu believes it is their departure that kept them from being ultimately destroyed. “The fact that they survived at all is a miracle,” she says. “If they hadn’t left, they wouldn’t have survived.”

Surveyors like William Ellis reported that most of the idols were destroyed during the overthrow of the Hawaiian religion. “All have been destroyed, except for three.”

Says Kahanu, “In 1822 the last left for Salem. These are the last of the great Ku images.”

“One of my favorite stories of Ku is the one with his wife, Hina,” says Ty Kawika Tengan, associate professor in ethnic studies and anthropology at the University of Hawaii. “There was a great famine, and Ku said to Hina, ‘It is breadfruit that will save the people.’ He dove in to the ground and Hina wept. Her tears watered the ‘ulu, which saved the people. Ku is carved from ‘ulu.”

Tengan is the principal humanities scholar and consultant for the museum exhibit, and he believes the bringing together of the three images has specific meaning and timing.

“The inspiration that has come with the return of these images, brought together by men who carried out the tasks, is significant,” he says. “Ku means to stand, to be present. And I ask the questions, ‘Where are the men? Why are our Ku absent?’ Returning Ku is a way to let us assert ourselves, asserting with grace and humility yes, but finding a way back to Ku. We need more balance.”

Tom Kaulukukui, who is also a community consultant for the Ku project, says, “Our females are strong. The rule of nature is that when the males die out in some species, some females become males, making males irrelevant. Perhaps because we were colonized, it disrupted community, it disarmed the warriors and priests, it defined ourselves right out of balance.”

Kaulukukui, a Vietnam veteran, retired judge and community leader understands the roles and responsibilities of Hawaiian men and hopes that the return of Ku will awaken some of Ku’s characteristics in Hawaiian men.

“We need daring, aggressive warriors. We need to find out what it means to be a man. Fatherhood, that’s kanaka. Defending your home, family, community, that’s kanaka. To fight for your country, that’s a change from kane to kanaka.”

While many Native Hawaiians echo the thinking behind Ku’s arrival, some are fearful of awaking him. “His homecoming has caused great emotions,” says Kaholokula. “Some of the questions we are being asked are things like, ‘Should we awaken Ku? Can we control the energy? How will we say hello…we remember you but do you remember us?’”

“I think that the reputation that precedes Ku today is that he is the god of war, that he was associated with human sacrifice,” says Kahanu. “The negative aspects of warfare, aggression, all of these things, are why everybody says, ‘Ku God of War.’ The reality is that while we may now know the names of some 20 different forms of Ku, there may have been over 200. In other words, Ku represented male endeavors: fishing, farming, gathering, canoe carving, medicine, healing. These were not negative, they were positive or benign. So this exhibit is a real opportunity to explore Ku in all of his manifestations. The fear comes in when you don’t know for absolutely certain who they are.”

“What are we awakening?” asks Tengan. “Old gods? We were taught to fear our own past. These images are images of us. How can we get to that place, to stand in the presence of our ancestors? To stand for what is right, what is pono?”


People are asking, what now? What about them going home? Kahanu views the departure as building trust; it’s a longterm relationship with the institutions who felt that the coming home of Ku, temporarily, was a good thing.

“The pain that’s felt in the community is the anticipation in the difficulty of seeing them leave again. But this exhibition is a foundation for future partnerships. How many people get to travel to London or anywhere outside of Polynesia to see Polynesian treasures like this? If we can accomplish this departure successfully, almost anything is possible.”

The museum and its collection of consultants know that the closing of the exhibition is delicate. “We certainly don’t want to foster a situation where we’re encouraging people to petition,” Kahanu says. “For me personally, I say that if these images hadn’t left, they wouldn’t be here today. Because everything else is gone. We negotiated in good faith with the understanding that it was better to bring them together in honor of the bicentennial of unification than to never have brought them together at all. The desire is to want to focus on the closing of the exhibit, rather than enjoying it while it’s here.

“I’ve been here for 12 years,” Kahanu continues, “and I’ve never seen an exhibit with this kind of impact. People are moved to tears, and that’s as good as it gets. Through objects, people are transformed, or at least reach an understanding not only about culture but about themselves. This exhibit is a loan of national and international proportions, and if we can do this successfully, the sky’s the limit. There’s so much riding on this.”

“Ku dialogues”, Mon, 9/27 6-8 pm in the Atrium, free,