The Art of Feathers

featherwork big island lei culture

At his peaceful inn on Hawaiʻi Island, Kilohana Domingo makes traditional feather lei.

Text by Lisa Yamada
Images by Jonas Maon

On a tranquil morning near the southernmost tip of Hawai‘i Island, Kilohana Domingo sits perched quietly on the sunshine-yellow lanai at Kalaekilohana Inn and Retreat. His fingers move slowly and deliberately, delicately weaving brightly colored green and yellow feathers one by one until a rope-like necklace is formed.  “On a good day, if I complete an inch an hour, that’s good,” says Domingo. “But I don’t always have an hour to sit still. The biggest component in featherwork is patience.”

featherwork big island lei culture

Meticulously gathered and sewn, feathers were fashioned into capes, hair ornaments, lei, or kahili (feathered standards used to indicate rank) by ancient Hawaiians. Implements made from feathers were considered sacred and reserved for royalty, who believed that power, or mana, was imbued into the plumes of the creatures who carried them high into the heavens. “But today, we use feathers as a way of acknowledging someone you think highly of or giving them as a special gift for an accomplishment,” says Domingo. “And people keep them for years.”

Domingo first learned the art of featherwork while attending Kamehameha Schools in Honolulu. At Kalaekilohana, a charming four-room, full-service inn that he and husband Kenny Joyce opened in 2005, he regularly holds feather-making workshops for interested guests. “Instead of just coming here to visit, guests actually get to see how to make something uniquely Hawaiian,” says Domingo. A few years after opening, Domingo and Joyce were recognized by the state for their perpetuation of cultural activities at their inn. “But we are, in a lot of ways, culturally passive,” says Joyce. “It’s sort of culture by osmosis. People will ask or not ask, but the nice thing is that folks are not afraid to ask.” “Then they’ll say, ‘What are the feather dusters doing there?’” says Domingo with a laugh, referring to the kahili.

kalaekilohana inn and retreat lei culture

With its peaceful stillness, Kalaekilohana is perhaps the best place to learn featherwork, which requires one to be free from stress. “A lei will tell you if you’re stressed out or if you’re rushing,” says Domingo, who once rushed to complete a lei for a rancher in Kona, only to have all the feathers fall out once it was done. “I enjoy the meditative process, the grounding of working with feathers. It puts me in a certain space.”

For more information about Kalaekilohana Inn and Retreat, where guests can take part in feather workshops, visit kau-hawaii.com. For more information about Domingo’s periodic feather lei demonstrations for the public at Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park visitor center, visit nps.gov/havo/planyourvisit/cultural-programs.htm.

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