Story by Catharine Lo
Photo by Ann Cecil
Almost two decades ago, Butch Helemano had a dream, literally, that he would teach classes in Hawaiian culture. Over the years, the vision of the master carver has come to pass in quiet steps: He offered free language instruction at the Pupukea rec center; he educated divers about marine conservation at Shark’s Cove. Then two years ago, when the Office of Hawaiian Affairs took over the management of Waimea Valley, Helemano began to teach in the valley, a place he has known and nurtured for years. Each Sunday he now finds himself surrounded by students under a towering hala tree, teaching them the art of woodcarving. Butch’s tutorial is one of the offerings of Ka ‘Aha Hui Na‘auao, a group that offers free eight- to twelveweek classes in traditional knowledge.
Eighteen students are working at mini sawhorses arranged in a circle. Their teacher, clad in a red tank top and black shorts with a bandana wrapped around his forehead to keep the sweat from his eyes, moves from student to student, checking their work.
“I’ve been carving for forty-five years, and it’s always a learning process,” says Helemano. Besides carving sacred images, he teaches classes on how to make fishing tools, stone bowls, war weapons and thatch houses, or hale.
One of Helemano’s students is Debi Bukala, who lives in the hills above Waimea Valley. “It’s a different culture for those of us brought up with everything made for us,” says the retired flight attendant, who also took Helemano’s Hawaiian language class. “It’s wonderful to be able to make the things we need. Worst-case scenario: A hurricane comes through and wipes out my house. If I know how to make one of those,” she says, pointing to the hale behind her, “I’ll be okay.”
The students listen intently as Helemano gives them instructions about the ki‘i sculptures the class is learning to carve. “You’re not making a fence post or a bed frame. You’re carving features,” he says, explaining why careful attention to detail and finesse is necessary. “That, in essence, is the difference between a butcher and a sculptor.”