November 10, 2015

The Indian Arts & Crafts Board: Otellie Loloma

Cast in bronze and resting on a marble base, Hopi-Hoya by Otellie Loloma (Hopi, 1921–93) won two awards at the Second Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition in 1963—first prize in sculpture and wood carving and the Charles de Young Elkus Memorial Award for “the most outstanding piece of Indian arts and crafts which is new in material, technique, or design.”[1] 

261879 loloma hopi-hoya
Otellie Loloma (Hopi, 1921–93), Hopi–Hoya, 1963. Arizona. Cast bronze on a marble base; 47.7 x 11.7 x 10.1 cm. Purchased from the artist in 1963 by representatives of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. NMAI 26/1879

The juried competition received 372 entries that year, and the exhibition's chair, Paul Huldermann, noted that a number of artworks reflected new styles and techniques.[2] Hopi-Hoya, which was purchased directly from the artist by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, depicts a Hopi child with long hair leaning forward with arms crossed behind its back. Later that year, Loloma entered three bronze sculptures and one clay figure into the juried Indian Annual exhibition at the Philbrook Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Muowi (Young Bride), Loloma's terra cotta of a Hopi bride draped in a cotton wedding robe, won first place in the sculpture category. The Philbrook purchased the work for its permanent collection.[3]

Otellie Pasiyava was born in 1921 at Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. As a child she created “doll-like sculptures out of clay” while spending time with her grandmother.[4] In about 1942 she married the painter Charles Loloma (Hopi, 1921–91), who later became a celebrated jewelry artist. Otellie Loloma began formal training in ceramics in 1947 after she received a scholarship and Charles used the G.I. Bill to study at the new School for American Craftsmen, then part of Alfred University in western New York.[5] After finishing the two-year program, the couple returned to Arizona and in 1956 opened a pottery shop in Scottsdale where they marketed a line of ceramic dishes called Lolomaware.[6]

In 1959 Otellie Loloma became one of the first instructors for the Southwestern Indian Art Project at the University of Arizona at Tucson. That project led in 1962 to the establishment of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe, where Loloma was again one of the first faculty members hired. She instructed students in ceramics and painting and occasionally taught dance with textile artist Josephine Myers Wapp (Comanche, 1912–2014).[7] 

Jacquie Stevens (Winnebago, b. 1949), a ceramicist who is well known for her large, asymmetrical vessels, calls Loloma a mentor. Stevens enrolled at the IAIA as a museum studies student until a ceramics course from Loloma changed the direction of her education. She reflects:

It must have been fate that made me take a class taught by Otellie. It was like I returned home; clay became my expression. Otellie taught me that each pot has its own life, personality, character, and form—and that is what set me free. Pottery is like people, every one is different and not perfect. I thought about this and decided it was an important idea. So I developed a new way, an unconventional way, of looking at form.[8]  

Two ceramic artworks by Loloma are represented in the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Headquarters Collection, both purchased in 1965.[9] Her figurative sculpture Desert Bird is both wheel-thrown and hand-built of stoneware. The sculpture is delightfully textural with marks from Loloma's fingers and palms forming the bird’s feathers and wings. She finished the piece by stringing clay and glass beads to its feathers. The other ceramic work, a cylindrical vase of glazed stoneware, was thrown on a wheel. Loloma then incised abstracted figures of people, plants, and rain clouds around the exterior.

259286 loloma—bird

Left: Otellie Loloma (Hopi, 1921–93), Desert Bird, 1965. Arizona. Stoneware; glass, shell, and stone beads; twine; 31.5 x 22.9 x 26.1 cm. NMAI 25/9286. Below: Otellie Loloma (Hopi, 1921–93), vase, 1964. Santa Fe, New Mexico. Incised, glazed stoneware, 16.9 x 15.7 cm. NMAI 25/9245.

259245 loloma

Both: Purchased in 1965 by representatives of the Indian Arts and Crafts Board  from the Department of the Interior Indian Craft Shop, Washington, D.C. Indian Arts and Crafts Board Collection, Department of the Interior, at the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution.

While she acknowledged that Hopi cosmology influenced her work, Loloma revealed that “no one Hopi [person] would probably recognize that they are Hopi figures because I have done it all from my own imagination.”[10] Hopi stories provided inspiration for her work but never sources for duplication. Loloma felt at ease using several ceramic techniques and materials. During a 1968 exhibition of her work in Washington, D.C., actor and art collector Vincent Price noted that Loloma created “beautifully realized sculptures [that reflect] a great awareness of the techniques at her disposal today.”[11] 

A member of the IAIA faculty until her retirement in 1988, Loloma taught generations of Native American artists. Students of Loloma's whose work can be seen in the collections of the National Museum of the American Indian include Peter B. Jones (Onondaga/Seneca, b. 1947), Dan Namingha (Hopi–Tewa, b. 1950), and Robert Tenorio (Santo Domingo, b. 1950). 

After her passing, fellow artist and IAIA instructor James McGrath dedicated a poem to Loloma, one verse of which reads,

I think of her pots,
    of the fullness inside 
    where treasures are held, 
    secure and loved in their silence.[12]

—Anya Montiel

Anya Montiel (Tohono O'odham/Mexican) is a PhD candidate at Yale University and a curatorial research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian. This post is part of a series Anya is writing on the Indian Arts and Crafts Board Headquarters Collection at the museum. 

[1] “Prizes and Awards,” Second Scottsdale National Indian Arts Exhibition (Scottsdale AZ: Executive House, 1963), 3. The memorial award is named for Charles de Young Elkus (1881–1963), a San Francisco lawyer who was a Native rights advocate and a collector of Native arts.

[2] Ibid, 2.

[3] Christina Burke, curator of Native American and non-Western art, Philbrook Museum of Art, email conversation with Anya Montiel, 5 November 2015.

[4] Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, “Women of Cedar, Sweetgrass, and Sage,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 15, no. 1/2 (Spring–Summer 1987), 41.

[5] Later Otellie Loloma also attended Northern Arizona University and the College of Santa Fe.

[6] The couple divorced in 1965.

[7] Loloma and Wapp performed at the White House and at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City with students from the IAIA.

[8] Susan Peterson, “The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by Contemporary American Indian Women,” in Women Artists of the American West, Susan R. Ressler ed. (Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2003), 110.

[9] The National Museum of the American Indian has another work by Loloma in the collection, a watercolor painting that was donated by Charles and Ruth Elkus in the 1950s.

[10] Smith, 41.

[11] Vincent Price, “Introduction,” Three from Santa Fe (Washington DC: Center for Arts of Indian America, 1968).

[12] James McGrath, “A Song for Otellie,” At the Edgelessness of Light: Poems (Santa Fe NM: Sunstone Press, 2005), 38.

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July 17, 2015

The 6th annual Living Earth Festival is on!

YoughtanundThe group Youghtanund demonstrates women’s powwow-style dancing in the Potomac Atrium during the 2015 Living Earth Festival. Photo by Dennis Zotigh, NMAI.

It’s that time of year again: The Living Earth Festival—a signature program of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC—takes place today, Friday, July 17, through Sunday, July 19. This ecologically friendly family festival has something for every age group! This year’s highlights include a ladybug release in the garden outside the museum, Native dance performances, Native foods, artist demonstrations, a wine tasting, gardening workshops, an Indian Summer Showcase Concert by Quetzal Guerrero, a Native chef cooking competition, hands-on  bracelet-making, and a symposium titled On the Table: Creating a Healthy Food Future.

The events begin at 10 am each day and run until 5 pm. Native food chefs Julio and Heliodora Saqui create traditional Mayan dishes in the Akaloa fire pit outside the museum's first floor. Artist demonstrations are being offered by Janie Luster (Houma), who makes unique jewelry and other items from alligator gar scales found in her home state of Louisiana. Also taking part in the festival are artists Stephanie Madere Escude (Tunica–Biloxi); father and daughter artists Juan and Marta Chiac (Maya) from Belize; Peruvian jeweler Evelyn Brooks (Ashaninkas); and Guatemalan weaver Angelica Lopez (Maya).

Information booths have been set up by the InterTribal Buffalo Council, Traditional American Indian Farmer’s Association, Native Seed/SEARCH, and Twisted Cedar Wines. Navajo Community Health Outreach has a poster exhibit of its work. These presentations take place in the Potomac Atrium and outside the Rasmussen Theater on the first floor. 

Visitors ages 5 and up are invited to make ti leaf lei bracelets in the imagiNATIONS Activity Center on the 3rd floor. This hands-on activity is first come, first served basis.

Music and dance take place in the Potomac Atrium on the first floor: The Youghtanund Drum Group from Richmond, Virginia, will perform powwow-style dances and songs each day at 11 am and 2 pm (2:30 on Friday). At 12:30 and 3:30 pm on Friday and Sunday, 12:30 only on Saturday, musicians from the Washington-area Central American group GuateMarimba join Grupo AWAL to present traditional Maya dances.

Each afternoon of the festival, the Cedar Band of Paiute Indians of Utah host a wine tasting of their tribally owned Twisted Cedar Wine. Times vary, but the wine tastings all take place in the Mitsitam Coffee Bar on the first floor. 

On Friday at 2 pm, the Living Earth symposium On the Table: Creating a Healthy Future features speakers Ricardo SalvadorClayton Brascoupe (Tesuque Pueblo), and Robin Kimmerer, and moderator Tim Johnson (Mohawk). The symposium—a lively discussion covering sustainable farming, the impact of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the conservation of heritage seeds, and traditional Indigenous approaches to the environment and harvest—takes place in the museum's Rasmuson Theater. If you can make it to the National Mall, you can watch the symposium live via webcast

On Saturday at 3 pm in the Potomac Atrium, the museum hosts the first of three Indian Summer Showcase concerts for 2015. Quetzal Guerrero and his band bridge Latino and American music styles, including blues, jazz, and hip-hop.

Sunday's highlights include a Native chef cooking competition between Hawaiian chefs Kiamana Chee and Robert Alcain, beginning at noon on the Welcome Plaza outside the museum's main entrance. This year's secret ingredient is cacao, but don't tell anyone. Beginning at 2:30 pm in the Rasmuson Theater, Navajo young people working with Navajo Community Health Outreach will share their tribe’s effort to improve health education and access to healthy foods in the Navajo Nation. Come by and let them know you appreciate the important work they're doing.

—Dennis Zotigh

Dennis Zotigh (Kiowa/San Juan Pueblo/Santee Dakota Indian) is a writer and cultural specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

Events from the Living Earth Festival are webcast live throughout the weekend. Take a look at what's on the schedule or go directly to the museum's Live Webcasts page.

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April 22, 2015

Every day is Earth Day

NMAI from woodland landscape
The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Foreground, lower left: George Rivera (Pojoaque Pueblo), Buffalo Dancer II (detail). Cast bronze, 2nd of an edition of 4. Gift of the Pueblo of Pojoaque, George Rivera, and Glenn Green Galleries. NMAI 26/7920. For the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the Buffalo Dance is an enduring celebration, a prayer for the well-being of all.

The National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., stands out for its evocation of monumental sandstone cliffs and tumbling streams. The grounds that surround the building are a living collection of indigenous plants, and details throughout the museum connect indoor spaces to the natural world. The museum's commitment to the environment, however, goes beyond the building's striking and thoughtful design to engage staff members at all levels—from senior management to cultural interpreters to facilities specialists and kitchen crew.

In 2011, the National Museum of the American Indian became the first Smithsonian museum to achieve LEED status. LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—is the building rating and certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to promote sustainability in building design, construction, operation, and maintenance. LEED measures nine key areas:

  • Sustainable sites
  • Water efficiency
  • Energy and atmosphere
  • Materials and resources
  • Indoor environmental quality
  • Location and linkages
  • Awareness and education
  • Innovation in design
  • Regional priority

The museum has an active sustainability program and a sustainability committee of staff from various units and departments to monitor museum activities, brainstorm ideas to address challenges, and take follow-up actions. To give just one example, the staff works to improve recycling throughout the museum. New signage in English and Spanish helps visitors and staff be more aware of separating recyclables and compostables into the correct bins. The museum recycles more than 60 percent of total waste and this year redirected 35 tons of material from disposal in landfills to reuse via recycling and composting.

In addition to LEED certification, the museum received a 3-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association (GRA) for the award-winning Mitsitam Cafe. The GRA certifies restaurants' environmental friendliness, including waste reduction and recycling, water efficiency, sustainable furnishings and building materials, sustainable foods, energy consumption, disposables, and chemical and pollution reduction efforts. 

The museum seeks to reflect Native values in all its work. One teaching that comes to mind today is to think in terms of seven generations: Our ancestors gave us the world to keep in trust for our children and grandchildren. Happy Earth Day, everyone!

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October 24, 2014

Meet Native America: Daniel S. Collins Sr., Chairman, Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Akwe, my name is Daniel S. Collins Sr., and I am the chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees.  

Chairman Collins
Daniel S. Collins Sr., chairman of the Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees. Photo by Beverly Jensen, courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

Can you share with us your Shinnecock name? 

My mother gave me the name Eagle Feather after birth. 

Where is your community located?

The Shinnecock Indian Reservation is adjacent to the town of Southampton, on Long Island in New York. 

Where are the Shinnecock people originally from? 

The Shinnecock are referred to as the People of the Stony Shores. I believe that the air, land, and sea represent all that our bodies are made of. The air gives life, the land is a solid and forms the body, and water is the cycling process that sustains the body. All of these elements come together along the shore.

In a vision I had back sometime, I saw the waves rolling in onto the stony shores of Shinnecock. Each time the waves would break and begin to roll back out, a man and woman would evolve from the waves onto the shore. When the waves stopped, the shores were outlined as far as the eye could see east to west with beautiful brown-skinned human beings, known today as the Shinnecock, the People of the Stony Shores. Our people were put here by the Creator and have lived and survived here since time immemorial. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share? 

First contact with early settlers sailing in to Conscious Point in 1640. The loss of ten Shinnecock men in the shipwreck of the Circassian in 1876. Most recently, I would have to say, our receiving federal recognition as the 565th Indian Nation, on October 1, 2010. These are just a few historical points, which outline how we have been here and our current-day status. 

How is your tribal government set up? 

Prior to December 2013, the government structure of the Shinnecock Nation consisted of a three-man Board of Trustees. The chairman was decided based upon who received the most votes. In December of 2013, we enacted the ratified Constitution of the Nation and a new Council of Trustees was elected consisting of a seven council members: chairman, vice chairman, treasurer, council secretary, General Council secretary, sachem (male elder), and sunksqua (female elder). The new Council of Trustees afforded the Shinnecock Nation the opportunity to elect two female councilors to serve for the first time in Shinnecock history. 

Shinnecock Nation Council of Trustees 2014
The Shinnecock Indian Nation Council of Trustees, 2014. Left to right, back row: D. Taobi Silva, treasurer; Eugene Cuffee II, sachem; Bradden Smith Sr., vice chairman; Daniel S. Collins Sr., chairman, and Bryan Polite, Council of Trustees secretary. Front row: Nichol Dennis-Banks, General Council secretary; and Lucille Bosley, sunksqua. Photo by Beverly Jensen, courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

The sachem and sunksqua are members of the Council of Elders and provide spiritual guidance and act as peacekeepers. 

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

The last election was held in December. Until then, since 1792 the Shinnecock Nation held trustees elections every April on the first Tuesday. We are currently proposing staggered terms to ensure forward progress of the nation’s business endeavors with the newly elected and remaining trustees each year. 

How often does your tribal council meet? 

The Council of Trustees meets weekly. There is also a monthly meeting between the Council of Trustees and the General Council, which consist of all the enrolled community members. This is done to ensure community involvement and transparency. 

What responsibilities do you have as a Shinnecock leader? 

As a tribal leader, my role is to care for, defend, and protect the well being and safety of all tribal members, as well as all tribal property and assets. I'm also charged with maintaining current programs and resources while seeking additional resources that would improve upon the current process of working towards tribal self-sufficiency with no negative impact to our sovereignty. Public safety and cultural awareness are my major interests. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation? 

First and foremost, the pride of being Shinnecock has always been the strength that guided me through all I have endured growing up until the present. Having the opportunity to move around the world in my younger days allowed for me to become very diverse and open-minded. My career in the military and in both municipal and tribal law enforcement exposed me to many situations involving people from many different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs. Having held multiple leadership roles and positions throughout my entire career has grounded and prepared me well for the position to which I have been elected. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I have been afforded the opportunity to work with many great leaders and mentor figures. My grandfather, Chief Thunderbird, was a great man. He loved his people and culture. He instilled the pride of Shinnecock in all of his family and tribal members. He was a forgiving man and a great educator. He maintained and expressed his passion and pride of Shinnecock through his role as ceremonial chief each year of his adult life at our annual powwow. He is my inspirational and honorable mentor. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

How do you define a historic leader—one that makes the history books? The fact that the Shinnecock people have been here on our traditional lands since time immemorial speaks to our all being descendants of great leaders. I will take this opportunity to honor my father, Avery Dennis Sr., Chief Eagle Eye, for his twenty years of service as a former tribal trustee, and to honor all who served and stood for our great nation. 

Approximately how many members are in your community? 

Total membership of the Shinnecock Indian Nation is approximately 1,600 enrolled members. 

What are the criteria to become a member? 

Criteria for enrollment are outlined in our nation’s Enrollment Ordinance adopted by the General Council, which is in line with the federal recognition process. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

Our people, the Shinnecock, lost the use of our language in the early days. It was deemed inappropriate by the settlers, and our ancestors actually were punished for using our language. After thirty years of research, today we are bringing our language back through language classes, and many of our adults and children who participate are able to speak in complete sentences. It is really inspiring and represents a true testament that we are not going away. We are regaining our strength and place here in our home, the woodlands and stony shores of eastern Long Island—Shinnecock USA. 

What economic enterprises does your nation own? 

The Shinnecock Nation recently initiated the pursuit of cigarette distribution, which would benefit the community by enhancing our education and health programs. We are pursuing several other potential economic endeavors, pending General Council input and approval.  

What annual events does your community sponsor? 

Our nation holds several events annually. For most of them, we extend invitations to our relative tribal nations and local guests. Annually we celebrate a fall Thanksgiving Nunnowa Feast (on the Thursday before national Thanksgiving Day) and a spring tribal gathering referred to as June Meeting (the first Sunday of June). Our main sponsored event is our powwow. For the past 68 years, we have gathered in celebration of the life and pride of Native America. This celebration brings together representatives from over five hundred tribal nations. It takes place on Labor Day weekend on our historic Powwow Grounds. We love our powwow! 

Shinnecock Nation Powwow a
The 67th Annual Shinnecock Powwow, 2013: Members of the Board of Trustees lead the Grand Entry. From left to right: Taobi Silva, Daniel S. Collins Sr., and Eugene Cuffee II. Photo by Beverly Jensen, courtesy of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The Shinnecock Indian Nation is home to the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum. The museum recently opened Wikun Village—an outdoor, traditional Shinnecock village—to offer physical education and the experience of the way we lived historically. The museum is open year round and is a must-see if you ever have a chance to visit. 

How does your nation deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

We understand that the Shinnecock Indian Nation needs to be a neighbor in good faith with the surrounding communities and states, whose friendship we embrace. The U.S. government has a trust responsibility to all Native nations, and we hold them to that. Shinnecock has always been a sovereign nation. As the 565th federally recognized tribe, we honor the government-to-government relationship that has been established with the United States. We trust that the United States will provide the resources and protections as stated in all applicable federal laws, codes, and regulations. We honor all of our Native veterans and especially those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom under the U.S. flag. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community? 

To our youth I say: Be proud of who you are, no matter where you are. Teach others about who you are and your culture and tradition. Have a dream and hold on to it; know that everything is possible and achievable. Respect yourself and your elders; learn from positive mentors and role models in your community and abroad. Always give back to your community by doing your part to develop the generations that follow. Always remember that you are loved and that you matter! 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

I would like to thank you for affording me this honorable opportunity to share with you! Tabutne (thank you). 

Thank you.

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July 01, 2014

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: The cordage that connects it all

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing
Part 7: Outrigger and booms 

Canoe on VW 3
An added beauty of this design is that it all fits on top of my small car. This means you need to lash it together when you arrive at the water, and unlash it to pack it when you leave. And that takes rope. 

Lifeline—that’s a good way to think about cordage generally. Cordage is so fundamental to human activities, it's hard to imagine a world without it. And for the voyaging canoe—both building it and sailing it—rope was absolutely critical. The survival of Polynesians traveling across the Pacific owes as much to rope as to anything else.

Traditional rope of any sort is made of strands of natural fiber, usually plant fiber. Ropes made of animal products are subject to rot, shrinkage in the rain, and other problems. And in Hawai`i there were no large animals anyway besides humans—ew! Plant fibers are of finite length, so the art of rope-making involves binding these fibers together in an overlapping fashion to produce a single strand of the necessary length that will hold together. 

Step one is to identify appropriate plant fibers. You want fibers that are strong, pliable, and durable (that won’t rot easily). The number-one fiber for canoe-lashing throughout the Pacific is coconut fiber. That’s right, coconuts. Now if you’re a temperate-climate reader, a coconut to you is a small, hard, brown ball that you see in the grocery store. Crack it open and the inside is lined with beautiful white flesh. Well, that’s a husked coconut. The outside has already been removed. But it’s this husk that is our focus here.

The coconut husk is made up of fibers that run its length. Pacific Islanders, of course, have identified which varieties of coconut are better for rope-making (longer ones, generally), which ones for drinking, and so forth. But in any case, the fibers are not going to be more than a foot long. And they’re caked with pithy stuff. 

Coconut & Husks 2a-a

Husk close-up 1a-a
Clockwise from left: A partially husked coconut shows the thick, fibrous husk and the nut lodged in the middle. The fibers are intermixed with soft, pithy material that needs to be stripped away for rope-making. Cleaned coconut fibers are ready to be rolled into a strand. 


Coconut fibers clean a

A Refaluwasch (Carolinian) man demonstrates rolling the fibers on his thigh to make a yarn.

So it’s not intuitively obvious that this is good rope-making material. Pacific Islanders learned that if you soak the fibers in fresh or salt water for several weeks, the pithy stuff comes off easily, leaving clean, strong fibers. Now here’s the neat part: These fibers bind very easily to each other, with a little help. All you have to do is roll them together on your thigh, and you get a strand. Keep adding lengths of fiber as you go, and the strand gets longer and longer. 

Once you have enough strands, they can be braided or twisted together to make a rope. And those ropes can be braided or twisted together to make an even larger rope. And so forth and so on. The result is known as coconut sennit or coir, and the best of it is stronger than manila rope. Early Western ships arriving in the Hawaiian Islands would trade for coconut sennit for their ships’ riggings. One of its great advantages is its ability to hold up in salt water, so it’s great for seagoing vessels.


TTPI rope-making a

Top: Refaluwasch men demonstrate twisting yarns into rope at a festival in Palau. Above: Navigator Pedro Yamalmai teachesrope-making to students of Outer Islands High School using exactly the same process. Ulithi, Micronesia; 1972. University of Hawaii at Manoa Library, Trust Territory Photo Archives (N-2703.13). 

How does coconut sennit compare to the natural fiber ropes we use today? Its lightness is an advantage for canoe lashing, as is its durability in water. And it floats!. Most coconut coir rope available today comes from Sri Lanka and is very rough. I bought some on eBay, where it seems to be always available and not expensive, but very poor quality compared to the Pacific Islander samples I have.

According to Marques Hanalei Marzan at the Bishop Museum, twisted rope wasn’t used as often as braided for lashing Hawaiian canoes. And not thin, three-ply sennit as shown in the photos here, but five-, seven-, or nine-ply braid. It would be almost a half an inch in thickness, and flat. And in this case, he says, it was not woven by braiding pre-made strands, but by twisting and braiding the fibers together at the same time.

Once the rope was made, you’d have to clean it up. There would be all those ends of individual fibers poking out. So before you were finished with the process of rope-making, you would have to trim your rope and make it look good. Without scissors.

This kind of braided rope was stronger than twisted rope, and a lot thicker. And the flatter surface wouldn’t be as bulky. The spaces between the rounds of lashing would fit more tightly, whereas a round, twisted rope would leave a lot of space in between the cordage.

P-Harvard Two Ropes a
Two types of Hawaiian braided rope in the collection of the Peabody Museum at Harvard: five-ply in the foreground, three-ply in the background. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

I’m told that there are more than 300 known uses for different parts of the coconut plant, and cordage is certainly a major one. Because coconut palms were so important to Pacific Island cultures, they were pretty widely cultivated and available. But there were other fibers that could be used when coconut was not at hand, or not the best choice, or if you were in a pinch and needed something right then. One of these is the bark of the hau tree—the same tree that Hawaiians used for making the boom—‘iako—of their canoes. Peel the bark from the tree, strip the outer bark (which can also be used, in a pinch) from your peelings, rip the inner bark into strips, twist or braid them together, and away you go.

Ukiuki 1 a

To me a less probable source is the native plant ukiuki. The fibrous leaves are maybe 18 inches long. But tough, apparently! You use the entire leaf. It was especially good for house-building.

The real king of Hawaiian fibers is olonā. Olonā is the strongest plant fiber known to humankind and just happens to be a native Hawaiian plant. Olonā cordage is especially good for making fishing lines and nets, for binding two-piece fishhooks, and for making the netting for the great feather cloaks (ahuula) of the Hawaiian chiefs. But since it is not involved in canoe-building, I won't elaborate on it here.

You know how in all those cowboy movies, when someone is tied up, the rescuer goes and simply cuts the rope off? Well, even in 19th-century America, making rope was a time-consuming process. My research suggests that while a machine for twisting yarns into ropes was invented in 1780, machines for twisting fibers into yarns didn’t come about until 1850. So I figure rope was not exactly cheap, and cowboys probably took care of what they had. They would have bothered to untie the man’s hands and save the rope, not cut it off! 

Rope is simply too valuable, and too useful, to waste. And for lashing together a voyaging canoe, you needed an enormous quantity of it, as we will see in the next installment. 

Douglas Herman, NMAI

Doug Herman, senior geographer at the National Museum of the American Indian and a specialist on the cultural knowledge of Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands, is also blogging about the round-the-world voyage of the Holule'a for the Smithsonian.

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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You have shared such an informative post!!The simplest things of life are the most special that are also made unique and useful. I love the making of Hawaiian braided rope that looks simply stunning and creative. Thanks for sharing!!

the rope which made up from coconut tree is very very strong and cheap in cost, most of Indian villagers use this rope widely