story by Julia Steele
photos by Monte Costa
Sam Kama is six. Going fishing with his father. Asks for a basket. “Climb the niu, the coconut tree,” says his dad. “Get a frond. You’ll make a basket.” It takes six-year-old Sam three tries to get to the top of the fifteen-foot tree. He loses his footing, slides down, cuts up his chest. But he gets the frond. He makes the basket.
Sam is fourteen. The kupuna are calling every weekend. “Can we borrow Sammy boy? We get one lu‘au. We like him weave for us.” Sam runs, hides, dives in the ocean. His dad calls him back with one authoritative whistle. Sam weaves in the manner his father has taught him, becoming an expert now but convinced he’s cursed. “Ho‘omanawanui,” the kupuna tell him. “Be patient.”
Sam is eighteen. On a patrol boat on the Mekong Delta, fighting a war thousands of miles from home. He harvests coconut fronds as he goes up river, makes baskets, hats. When he takes the leaves in his hands, he is back on the beach in Wai‘anae. He fights three years, in a coconut hat instead of a helmet.
Sam is thirty-eight. Traveling Europe with coconut fronds. In a pub in Amsterdam, he quickly and deftly weaves a rose and then a butterfly to go with it, hands it to a fetching Dutch girl. “What does that mean?” she asks. “You make my heart flutter,” Sam replies—a Makaha beach boy halfway around the world.
Sam is forty-seven. On the Big Island, weaving at the Mauna Lani Hotel. A group of kupuna show up. They look at his baskets.
“We haven’t seen that style in forty, fifty years,” they say. “That’s the Kama baskets.”
“Yeah, I know that,” says Sam.
“What’s your name, boy?”