Issue 20.2: April/May 2017
Native Intelligence: Hawai‘i Island

The Bone Carver

Story by Katie Young Yamanaka. Photos by Megan Spelman.

Most mornings you’ll find master carver Dean Kaahanui down by the stream. The waters of Keanu‘i‘omanō run behind his property in Waimea. It’s there that he begins each day, serenading the birds with the first thing he learned to carve: a bamboo nose flute. It’s his way of honoring his ancestors and asking for their blessings and inspiration for a good day’s work.

Between sunrise and sunset Kaahanui will carve twenty to thirty pieces. But you won’t find his work in just any Island gallery. In fact, there’s only one place to purchase his carvings: at the annual Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, which runs concurrently with the renowned hula festival. Kaahanui spends an entire year preparing for the fair, carving thousands of pieces of jewelry, instruments and art to bring to the four-day event—each based on a different mo‘olelo (story) and ranging in price from $20 to $3,000. Sharks, honu (turtles) and pueo (owls), the ‘aumākua(guardians) of many Native Hawaiian families, are customer favorites. Others are one-of-a-kind creations, like the bone sword he’ll bring this year depicting the fearsome huaka‘i pō (night marchers) of Hawaiian legend. The sword is tipped with the bill of a swordfish on one end and a marlin on the other.

Kaahanui is game to carve just about anything he can get his hands on: cow bone, whale teeth, boar tusks, stone, coral and local woods such as monkeypod, koa and milo. Many of the materials he carves are given to him by friends or family members: a log buried for years beneath a store in Miloli‘i, a whale jawbone that washed ashore, a prized piece of black coral that Kaahanui says once belonged to Duke Kahanamoku. The ideas come to him in much the same way as the materials. “Some designs I put on paper,” Kaahanui explains. “Others come to my mind while I sleep.”

Even though he has carved thousands of pieces over the years, Kaahanui says he can still recall where every tree, bone or stone came from. It is part of the legacy he intends to pass down through generations of his own family. “Carving is a way of life,” he says. “It’s not a hobby. It’s a part of me.”