By Shannon Wianecki
When master Hawaiian feather worker Shad Kane received a commission to repair two royal standards, he didn’t know the job would spark a journey to a spiritual homeland. In order to recreate a historic pair of kāhili (feathered staffs), Kane ended up travelling to Midway Atoll, a tiny slip of land in the very centre of the Pacific.
Midway lies 2,100km northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands, within the Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument. On 26 August 2016, President Obama quadrupled the remote US monument, expanding it from 362,000sqkm to more than 1.5 million square kilometres – twice the size of Texas. It’s now the largest nature reserve on Earth. It’s also a feather worker’s paradise.
Kane specializes in kāhili, the tall staffs topped with resplendent feathers that accompanied royalty in ancient Hawai‘i. The two he was under instruction to clean originally belonged to Queen Liliuokalani, who ruled Hawaii until the monarchy ended in 1893, and were festooned with thousands of white albatross feathers, ebony frigate bird feathers and plumes from white- and red-tailed tropicbirds.
Unfortunately the feathers were too old to handle and disintegrated as soon as he started work. Kane agreed to create new kāhili using traditional methods and feathers from the same species, since Hawaiian ali‘i (royals) prized seabird feathers as symbols of strength and endurance.
“The birds that flew the longest distances and the highest elevations were considered to have the highest mana [spiritual power],” Kane explained. While ancient feather workers also made kāhili out of red and yellow feathers plucked from native forest birds, those were for the lesser ranking chiefs. “Migratory seabirds were reserved for the highest ranks.”