Starting at the bottom
Our Kumu lauhala (weaving teachers) at this year's Lauhala gathering in Kona, Hawaii.
Aloha! This week, I’m in Kona and Honolulu, Hawaii attending a weaving gathering called Ka Ulu Lauhala O Kona and other work related meetings (I still have to pinch myself every time I say or write this). I’ve been dreaming of attending this lauhala gathering for a few years, so naturally, I’m excited to be in the company of such experienced and caring weavers. This trip isn’t directly related to the Million Stars project, however, because the focus of this travel and workshops is about investing in my own skills and arts development, it ends up giving back to all my pursuits, including the Million Stars project. Coming to Hawaii to learn ulana lauhala (pandanus weaving) and be a student means I am energised and nurtured by things that I value and love dearly – weaving, culture and community. It’s a big deal for me to be here. I almost didn’t come because our eldest teenager isn’t well – poor dude got a staph infection on his right leg and and his excema is flaring up. Family life is full on and busy, kids are missing us and there is always work to do and bills to pay off and things that compete for our energy and time. And then there’s guilt, because I’m choosing to step away for some time, with my husband (who’s writing his parent’s incredible story of their life and work in the Baptist Church in Australia), to challenge myself and grow as a practising weaver and artist.
So here I am, feeing all kinds of emotion, at the end of an incredible and intense few days of learning and weaving with Kumu (teachers), Kupuna lauhala (Master weavers of pandanus leaf) and haumana (students) who have been meeting at this lauhala (pandanus leaf) gathering for the last 21 years. It was founded by Aunty Elizabeth Maluihi Lee who felt that the art of weaving was disappearing and that it was her responsibility to “perpetuate this art” and pass it on so that it wouldn’t be lost. Some have been coming for the entire 21 years to learn and have graduated to be kumu. Every year, students dedicated to ‘lauhala weaving’ make the journey to Kona from other islands of the Hawaiian Kingdom with a few, like me, who make the long journey from other continents.
Learning to weave bracelets, coasters and a book mark, which can all be woven smaller or larger. Bought some new tools for preparing pandanus and weaving with it.
Hawaii is another place, like Rarotonga, where people easily embrace me as a local. But then when they discover I’m not Indigenous to here, interesting things happen. First they’re fascinated by my accent. Equally, it’s a spin out for me to be on a Pacific Island and find everything familiar about Island life, and then there’s an American accent which feels so foreign to me. Anyway. We’re a diverse lot, so I’m loving being immersed in this culture and learning more about their history and story. Then there’s the realisation that I’m from another beautiful island nation, with a rich history of weaving and siapo (tapa making) yet I live on the biggest island in the Pacific, Australia, and I’m prepared to travel to learn Hawaiian lauhala. Who does that? Lots of people, I suspect? But then again, maybe not.
Aside from the financial cost to be here, I knew that I was going to get my ‘socks rocked off’ (is that even a saying or am I making that up? lol) because I believed I was going to meet some AMAZING kumu and lauhala kaumana and learn some incredible things about weaving and ultimately, myself. My belief in timing, my strength in who I am as a Samoan-Australian (more on that in another blog) and a daughter of the Moana and Pasifika way, I knew deep down that this is a journey that I need to take. It’s not just about the weaving for me. Learning to ulana lauhala (weave pandanus) Hawaiian style, is about connecting deeply with and strengthening my own identity as a Samoan-Australian, I’m just doing it in a round about way – kind of like the stunning weaving patterns in the piko papale (woven hats, unique to Kona, Hawaii). The weaving is what holds all of this learning, all the dynamics and expressions of Native identity and belonging, all the diversity and foundations through chants, land, and ocean together. Here in Hawaii, even Rarotonga and earlier in Samoa, I see so much beauty and strength and pride in their culture, that it helps me to love on my own people and culture even more. I’ve been told this is a popular dynamic – to go abroad and be fed. I feel a connection to this place, like I did in Rarotonga. I don’t feel it with all islands, but it’s definitely here. I can’t explain it, it just is and I’m sure more will unravel and reveal itself as I continue to journey to Hawaii and across the Pacific over the next few years. Maybe there’s some lessons that I need to learn in different places and I’m just following my gut feeling.
One of my concerns when I got here was that I was enrolled in a weaving class that was too easy for me. My kumu and I almost moved me to another class so that I could be challenged a bit more, but something told me to stay. And my kumu felt similar, that I should give her class a try. And I’m so glad I did.
I learnt the importance of being a student and not being the teacher. Learning from Donna Brown, my Kumu, I remembered that it doesn’t matter how much you know about weaving, there is always new stuff to learn and that starting at the beginning is ALWAYS the BEST thing to do. In fact, it is essential if you want to go far and develop wholistically. I remember feeling relieved when I started weaving with Donna. It felt so good to be guided and cared for by a kumu like her. On day three, when Donna took us out to a near by pandanus tree, to collect, clean, de-thorn and then prepare our leaves for stripping to weave with, I was crying with so much joy on the inside. My face was still hurting at the end of the day, from smiling so much. I’ve been wanting to learn this for so long, because we weave with laufala in Samoa, so I was pumped and so happy. It is definitely the highlight of my learning here. I can now say that I have woven something from lauhala that I have prepared and cut on my own – something my kumu, Donna, really wanted for us. Beautiful connections and memories have been made and I will forever be connected to Donna as my first and most loving kumu. She’s also a marine biologist and loves the ocean, which I shared our daughter, much to her delight (our baby girl has considered being a marine biologist too!).
With our Kumu lauhala, Donna Brown (centre) and fellow weaving student, Carol Douglas.
Starting at the bottom doesn’t really feel like that. It feels more like starting in the middle and being cushioned by those who have gone before you and those who are waiting for you to be their next student. I am grateful for this experience of trusting in my Kumu and in my gut feeling, that I need to start where everyone else has and work my way up.
I think back to the One Million Stars project and how it feels like I’m starting in the middle as well. I have all those amazing experiences with Master weavers and fellow weavers from across the Pacific and all those who know the healing and fulfilling nature of weaving a star for this project. And then there are the kumu or ‘teachers’ that are waiting to cross my path to help build this project of one million woven stars into a beautiful global statement of ending violence and being light and love in the world. It feels like a cushion and rainbow of light, everything is mixed and the lines are a bit blurred of who is a student and who is a teacher. I love knowing that a good way to live in the world, is to be both – student and teacher.
I will take back what I have learnt here in Hawaii and share it with my weaving sisters, at the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle and with other weavers I grow with. I will also acknowledge where I have learnt these processes which is important for me. There’s so much exchange going on, it helps to remember where things come from and how they contribute to the making of different things. It’s about showing alofa (Samoan for love) for where things come from as well. I know I won’t get it right some times, (I’ve already done so) but I will keep trying.
I think to all those I have taught to weave a star, and how they are teaching others in different parts of the world and I feel happy. The star doesn’t belong to one culture, it belongs to many which is why it is such a powerful symbol for this movement of ending all forms of violence in our world. This is our world, our conversation to participate in and we are all responsible for teaching and learning how to be light, love and courage in the world.
With my best friend, and partner in awesomeness, Mark Yettica-Paulson in Kona, Hawaii. Making time to do what we both love (while I'm weaving, he's writing his parent's incredible biography) and to support each other is precious. Feeling grateful and restored!