Issue 14.6: Dec. 2011 / Jan. 2012

Birthing Bowls

Story by Alan D. McNarie

Photos by Elyse Butler and Matt Mallams 


In his woodworking shop in lower Puna, Malulani Konanui sits thumbing through an album of photographs. In some ways it looks like a catalog for an art show: It contains a hundred pictures of bowls, urns and chalices, each one exquisitely crafted from local woods such as koa and kamani. But there is one feature of this album that makes it quite unlike an art show catalog: Alongside each photo of Konanui’s creations is a photo of an infant—for Konanui makes what he calls pola hanau, or birth bowls.


He points to one image of a newborn. “This one’s mother called me from the hospital,” he marvels. “She told me, ‘I just gave birth two hours ago. Can you complete my bowl?’ Of all the bowls that I made, there were two moms who remembered to call me from the hospital. They were in recovery, and with their weak and sedated voices, they said, ‘Please complete my son’s bowl.’ Talk about aloha!”


Konanui, a stocky ex-policeman with a thatch of grizzled hair, didn’t get that sort of aloha from his own birth parents. He was a war baby; his father was a GI who came through the Islands during World War II and fell in love with a Hawaiian woman. The couple got married—Konanui found their wedding certificate decades later— and soon had a baby on the way. But then Konanui’s father—who came from the South where most states had laws on the books forbidding mixed-race marriages— went home. Konanui’s mother gave birth to him in Malulani Hospital on Maui and abandoned him.


Then came an extraordinary turn of good luck. A woman named Luke Konanui was visiting relatives in Maui with her daughter-in-law, and the pair stopped by the hospital. Luke Konanui was 43 years old at the time; her husband, Kawika, was in his early 60s. “I guess when she saw me at the hospital, she say, ‘No more mama, no more fada. No aloha,’” Konanui muses.


Mrs. Konanui decided to take the baby home. In those days, telephone lines hadn’t yet reached the Konanui home in ‘Opihikao, lower Puna, so she had to make the decision without consulting her husband. Malu later heard an account of his first moment on the Big Island from his sister-in-law.


“My dad, he didn’t even know. They came off the plane carrying me. And Papa go, ‘What is this?’ And Mom say, ‘This is our baby.’ Papa had that stunned look.” Luke and Kawika had already raised one set of children to adulthood. But they took their hanai (adopted) son into the family as if he were one of their own, named him after the hospital where Luke had found him and raised him in the traditional Hawaiian way. “My father always said, ‘If you do things with your heart, you don’t have to worry what other people think, because it will always be pono [good],’” Malu recalls. “I’m one of the blessed ones. I had a good family and I had a lot of love, so now I’m giving back.”


Hawaiians have always made wooden calabashes. An ancient Hawaiian calabash, made by hand with stone tools, was an enormous investment of time, a labor of love. But when Malu was a child, a new way of making bowls was taking hold: turning them on an electric lathe. His father Kawika would occasionally take a log up to the Kulani prison camp, and a prisoner learning the lathe technology would give the Konanuis finished bowls in exchange. Malu still has a couple of those bowls. By the standards of Island woodcrafters today, they’re crude things, rough and thick. But their history has made them family treasures.


Malu himself didn’t take up woodturning until he retired from the Hilo police force and an old friend named Bert Osamu Tagawa introduced him to it. It quickly became a passion. It’s an exacting craft and a dangerous one if you don’t know what you’re doing—or even if you do know but you let your attention lapse. A turner shapes his art by pressing a steel gouge against a block of wood that’s rotating between 6,000 and 9,000 times per minute. Make a tiny mistake and the result could be a shattered bowl or flying pieces of sharpened tempered steel—or both. “I’ve had a few where I’ve lost it,” Konanui recalls. “The bowls came loose and went flying across the room, and man, they can be deadly.”


The basic shape of a piece can appear within seconds. But preparing for those few seconds and finishing a piece after them can take months. “You’ve got to block [the wood] with a chainsaw,” explains Konanui. “You’ve got to rough it. You’ve got to dry it. The drying process takes six months to a year. With koa you’ve got to leave it for a year. After you dry it you’ve got to recut it to the shape you want because of the warpage.” After the bowl comes off the lathe, there is more work. “You’ve got to sand it, going through at least seven different grits. You’ve got to put on the finish, which is either sealant wax or oil. And you’ve got to engrave it with the trademark.”


When, in 1997, he decided to make a bowl as a birth gift for his niece Peggy Konanui Tokunaga, he had an epiphany. “It wasn’t only the beauty of the bowl that mattered but the feeling, or mana‘o, of the bowl,” he says. He began thinking about how his actions could affect the bowl’s symbolism and how it could become “family and an heirloom.” That’s when he became, as he calls it, a “spiritual woodturner” and created his first pola hanau.


At the time he didn’t know that his invention was linked to an ancient Hawaiian tradition. He was well aware, though, that when you’re doing something new in a culture, tradition shapes how you do it. In Hawaiian culture, for example, there’s usually a protocol for approaching an elder or teacher when you want something from them. “A woman … I made one and then she got hapai [pregnant] again, and she didn’t come to me because she said, ‘I didn’t know what the protocol was.’ I know she loved her second child, but she didn’t know what for do. She felt bad and I felt bad. I had to create a protocol.”


The protocol he settled upon was simple: If you want a pola hanau, you should ask him. And, he instructs, “You must understand that I want the bowl to be a spiritual gift.” Much of the time, the expecting mother’s best friend approaches him to sponsor a pola hanau. Sometimes it’s the expecting parents themselves.


Malu finishes a pola hanau on the day the baby is born, “birthing the bowl on the day of childbirth,” as he puts it. “They all know that I need to complete the bowl within twenty-four hours of birth. All these babies had aloha from the beginning.” He recently finished his two-hundredth bowl.


Over the years, Malu’s built up a loyal clientele including some local celebrities: Kirk Matthews of KHON2, for instance, has sponsored bowls for the babies of reporters Trini Kaopuiki, Tannya Joaquin and Kathy Muneno. Muneno and her husband, famed navigator Nainoa Thompson, were blessed with twins and got two bowls. (“I always make the twins’ bowls from the same log,” notes Konanui.)


Most who receive Malu’s bowls, though, are not famous—and some he doesn’t even know. “Every once in a while, I make a piece that I like and don’t have an order for it,” Konanui says. “So I call the hospital and I ask, ‘Are there any new mothers?’ And the people at the hospital know me, they know what I do, so I ask them, ‘Would they appreciate a bowl like this?’ I donate it to the hospital so the bowl can hanai the child like I was hanaied on Maui.”


Over the years, he’s seen his creations evolve into more than heirlooms: They’ve become catalysts for the rediscovery of older Hawaiian traditions. Peggy Tokunaga, the niece who received the first pola hanau, became interested in Hawaiian birthing traditions and, researching them on the computer one day, came across the Konanui name in an old treatise by anthropologists Laura Green and Martha Beckwith. In 1914 Beckwith was documenting Hawaiian customs related to birth and infancy and journeyed with Malu’s hanai grandfather, David Marshal Konanui, to a sacred hill called Pu‘u Loa in what is now Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park. The elder Konanui, born in Kahului in 1859, told Beckwith that Hawaiians brought their babies’ dried piko, or umbilical cords, to Pu‘u Loa and left them overnight to gain their children the blessing of that place.


His curiosity piqued, Malu did some more digging. He found a cultural history written in 1959 for the national park, quoting traditions related by David to his son Sam Konanui—including the fact that Hawaiians kept the piko in ‘umeke, wooden calabashes, until they could be taken to Pu‘u Loa. Then he learned that some of the recipients of his pola hanau were following the tradition his grandfather had described. “They were keeping the piko in the bowl,” says Malu. “So it went from becoming a simple heirloom to becoming a sanctuary for the piko.” One woman told him of pressing the piko in a family Bible, then transferring the cord to the pola hanau.


That knowledge caused Konanui’s woodturning style to evolve. Modern Island woodworkers pride themselves on turning out bowls with walls as thin as possible— often only millimeters thick—both for the aesthetics and for the artistic challenge of doing so. Konanui had been doing the same but when he learned about the piko, he began designing his bowls more traditionally, with wider bases and thicker walls, so a stray breeze couldn’t knock them over. A thin-walled bowl, he says, is “good for art, but if you start using it as a spiritual bowl it’s going to get handled. You’ve got to make it sturdier.”


Kaniela Akaka, Jr., a well-known cultural authority on the Big Island, shared another Hawaiian tradition with Konanui. “Akaka told me about the story of the bowl of light,” says Malu. “When a baby is born, it’s like a bowl of light. When you commit a sin, it’s like putting a stone in the bowl. Too many stones and the light goes out.”


Konanui shares these stories and traditions with the people who receive his bowls. He hopes that the creation of pola hanau will become a lasting tradition carried on by his family. For now the bowls have become a symbol of the same aloha and unconditional love that decades ago inspired a stranger to embrace an abandoned baby on Maui.