Polynesian Culture of Wood - West Wind Hardwood

Few people who follow our newsletter do not already know that Jan and I spent some weeks traveling to Australia and back.  To break the 25 hour (in total) flight, we spent 3-nights in Auckland.  On the return home, we broke the trip up in Honolulu.  Of course, nothing was more natural than to pursue ‘all things wood’ in the Polynesian Triangle.  This triangle is a region of the Pacific Ocean with three island groups at its corners:  Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand.


Kia ora (Greetings) – Our arrival to Auckland at 5 am – Very few people wondering the corridor.

Having been to neither island before, there was much to absorb in 3-days.  We tested the waters of many attractions, trying to get a cultural sense without attending the larger touristy indigenous centres.

Aukland War Memorial Museum

We spent many hours at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.  Auckland Museum holds the largest and most valuable collection of Māori tāonga (treasures) in the world. These taonga are the ancestral representations of all the major tribes of Aotearoa (New Zealand) or Land of the Long White Cloud.  The taonga provide descendants with tangible links to their ancestral landscapes, their history and the people that came before them.

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Auckland War Memorial Museum – by Jan Nielsen – December 2015

Not only fierce warriors (using pukana or the protruding tongue – a form of intimidation and a distraction to their enemies) but the Māori were skilled craftsmen and great navigators.  Te Toki ā Tāpiri, one of the last great war canoes used in battle and carved from a giant totara tree, takes pride of place. Built around 1836, it is 25 metres long and carried a maximum of 100 people.   War canoes were traditionally used as coastal raiding vessels.  Fully manned, they could reach speeds of 15 miles per hour.  As with many Māori objects, their canoes were intricately carved.

The totara tree is a conifer reaching 120 feet high (30+ metres) with a diameter of up to 7 feet through. It was prized because of the remarkable qualities of its timber.  The heartwood being very durable; readily split and shaped.  Often these canoes were hollowed out from a single Totara log; being chosen long before it was felled.  The Māori also used the wood for large carvings and framing for whare (housing).

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Te Toki ā Tāpiri – By Jan Nielsen – December 2015

Built in 1875-1878; Hotunui (meeting house) officially opened in September 19, 1878 to celebrate the wedding between Marutūāhu rangatira Wirope Hotereni Taipari and Mereana Mokomoko, daughter of Ngāti Awa Chief Apanui Hamaiwaho.  Moved to Auckland in 1915; officially dedicated in November 29, 1929, the House of Hotunui – a meeting house for tribal assemblies and for the entertainment of guests, is now the centrepiece in the Auckland Museum’s Māori Court.

A full description of the opening dedication for the meeting house is in the Auckland Star, 29 November 1929, Page 8.  Part of it reads: This morning’s ceremony was really the Maori part of the opening of Auckland’s splendid memorial, and it was most fitting that our native friends should carry out things in their own way. Of late years they have been looking more and more to the museum as the natural treasure house for their heirlooms; they realise that in the museum’s safe keeping the remains of their art and culture are not lost, but preserved for both Maori and pakeha. “Haeremai!”


Jan and I had the opportunity to view the restoration work used in the preservation process of the Hotunui and learn about the traditional skills and methods.  Traditional Māori buildings were made from the natural materials of the land, including walls and roofs covered with bark and the split trunks of the punga (tree) fern.


Tree ferns growing in the sunken scoria quarry to the rear of the Auckland Domain Winter Garden

Inside lighting used to be from fires on the floor, causing the paua (similar to abalone) shell eyes of the carved figures, representing ancestors, to glimmer in the flickering light. There is a tradition of oral history.  Tribal history, traditions and ancient stories passed down, from generation to generation; elders teaching the next generation tribal lore, etiquette and genealogy.   Imagine the effects of the undulating shadows; the fantastical elements and imagery evoked by the spoken words; the sense of the larger-than-self enigmatic world.


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The interior walls are decorated by poupou (wall posts) depicting ancestors.  The characters depict ancestral figures with facial tattooing, rolling eyes and protruding tongues, the legs in a flexed dancing or fighting position. The rafters are decorated in swirling red, black and white designs.  Traditional Māori carvings do not represent human forms realistically.  They believed they should not tamper with the same form possessed by the gods.  Thus, carved human figures are highly stylized art forms. The architecture and design elements of a meeting house are filled with symbolism. The house itself represents the body of a man, his head directly underneath the tekoteko (man-like carving at gable peaks). The first rafter represents his extended arms with his fingers spreading out at the ends; the rafters inside the building the rib cage.  Thus, it is a very common Māori custom to speak to a building as a person; giving it a personal name.


Inside the Hotunui – barefoot in respect. Photo by Jan Nielsen – December 2015

The museum maintained the wharenui (large house) in keeping with the best of museological practice of the times. However, in the 1990s, it was recognised that painting conducted in the 1950s was inappropriate to the authenticity and a restoration programme commenced at that time to reinstate Hotunui to its original scheme.

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In December 2012 Auckland Museum published a 20 year strategic and capital investment plan called Future Museum. The document is available on the museum’s website as an e-book. Future Museum will guide a process of transformational change at Tamaki Paenga Hira – Auckland War Memorial Museum. It sets out a framework for how the museum will embrace He Korahi Māori (a Māori dimension), honour the collections and War Memorial role, fulfil the potential of the museum building, expand online and offsite engagement, remain sustainable and be a museum for all people and all cultures.

Honolulu, Hawaii & ʻIolani Palace


The Wally World of Pineapple – Photo by Jan Nielsen – January 2015

And then there was Honolulu on our return home.  This was our first time ever to Hawaii and such a wood culture there to behold and enjoy.  Although we didn’t visit the Polynesian Cultural Centre on our whirlwind round-the-island road trip, we did a quick stop at the Dole Plantation – the Wally World of Pineapple.


Japa M. at work on the Dole Plantation – January 2016 – Photo by Jan Nielsen

Japa had had many options of wood species including koa but our choice were these two carvings made of Hau wood.  The deciding factor was when he said in olden times, it was more revered than koa.


Bought at the Dole Plantation – directly from Japa – January 2016 – Photos by Jan Nielsen

It was so highly valued that permission to cut it was required of the village chief.  Seeds and cuttings of hau were brought by early Polynesian voyagers to Hawai`i Nei, and planted by the settlers to yield a light-weight tough white wood with a brown heart. Today the “hau bush” (Hibiscus tiliaceus) is termed an invasive plant, as it has taken over some areas where acres are covered high with hau, at the same time creating windbreaks and stabilizing the soil.


Outrigger Waikiki Beach Resort Lobby – Photo by Jan Nielsen – January 2016

Like traditional boatbuilders from the beginning, the naturally curved branches of this plant’s softwood were used to make canoe outriggers.  It is easy to plane and turns well; regarded as a high quality furniture wood.


Iolani Palace – January 2016 – Photo by Jan Nielsen

The next day we visited the Iolani Palace, the official residence of Hawaii’s monarchy.  Meticulously restored to its former grandeur, this National Historic Landmark in downtown Honolulu tells of a time when their Majesties, King Kalakaua, who built the palace in 1882, and his sister and successor, Queen Liliʻuokalani, walked its celebrated halls.

How ignorant I was of our southern neighbour’s history and it was extremely surprising to learn of the overthrow of the monarchy; how troops of the newly formed Provisional Government took control and imprisoned Queen Lil Liliʻuokalani for nine months carefully inventorying its contents and selling whatever furniture and furnishings were not suitable for government operations at public auctions.  We all have sad, regretfully events in our history.  Here is one of those moments.

ʻIolani Palace features architecture seen nowhere else in the world. This unique style is known as American Florentine. On the first floor a grand hall faces a staircase of koa wood. The blue room included a large 1848 a koa wood piano where Liliʻuokalani played her compositions for guests. Beyond beautifully carved sliding doors in the Blue Room is the State Dining Room. Here portraits of German, French, Russian and British rulers and leaders hang above three massive sideboards which, like many of the furnishings in the Palace, were specially made in Boston, Massachusetts by the A.H. Davenport Company.  In all, 225 pieces of furniture were ordered from during construction of the new Palace. The four bedrooms on the second floor were each decorated with similar pieces of furniture, in different woods and upholstery fabrics. The King’s Bedroom was decorated in light blue with ebony and gilt furniture. The Queen’s Bedroom furniture was in red with furniture of mahogany and gilt. Furnishings for the other bedrooms were made of walnut (central bedroom) and cherry (front bedroom), having drapery and upholstery fabric in lemon yellow and olive green respectively.

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Palace objects sold and dispersed at public auction have been recovered from 36 states and 4 foreign countries.  The quest to find original Palace furnishings continues.  Contact the Collections Manager if you think you may have original furniture or articles from the Palace or have any information on their whereabouts.

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Douglas-fir Flooring in the Iolani Palace – January 2016 – Photos by Jan Nielsen

This surprised the heck out of us; to see Douglas-fir flooring in this sumptuous environment.  They were in need of serious refinishing but then they do take much abuse.


Aloha Tower – January 2016 – Photo by Jan Nielsen

1 Comment

  1. This is a wonderful site and great history! I am wondering what the the lemon yellow wood is in kitchen and rooms in the basement of the Iolani Palace? It is spectacular and makes the dark basement so much brighter! Thanks, Bob Hedges Turner and Custom Items

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