Meet Gordon “Umi” Umialiloalahanauokalakaua King Kai
Master Crafter. Hawaiian Implements, Hawaiian Weapons.
We spent an afternoon with Umi Kai, asking him a few questions as he laid out his work: beautifully crafted niko ‘oki- an L-shaped utility knife with a single shark’s tooth as a blade. He chuckled when we called him a practitioner. “It’s just a lifestyle,” he tells us, “there’s no practicing, just doing- just living Hawaiian.”
The year is 1967 and the sun is high over Waikīkī Beach. A young Umi, in Highschool and filled with curiosity, is searching for something among the hustle and bustle of Waikīkī. A man sits on a bench selling exactly what Umi needs: shark teeth. Here marks the beginning of Umi’s crafting journey, or rather what we calls “simply a way of life.”
Umi crafted his first weapon 58 years ago: a leiomanō or “lei of the shark” made of wood from a mango tree and ringed with shark teeth. Here’s a few things he shared with us about his passion for crafting, his process, and how his love for na mea Hawai’i, things of Hawai’i, extends to his family and his day to day in life.
Tell Us About Yourself:
“I was born and raised in Kaimuki, Oʻahu. I am a proud father of 4 children and grandfather to 14 grandchildren.” A snippet from his bio tells us “Umi Kai has always had a deep curiosity for nā mea Hawaiʻi and nā mea kaua, things of Hawaiʻi and things of war. He isn’t the only artist in the family- Janice Leinaʻala Noweo Kai, his wife of 48 years, is a skilled weaver. Umi and his wife are a part of a small group of Native Hawaiian artists trying to perpetuate the craft of making tools and weapons that were once essential to survival.”
When did you find yourself interested in your practice?
1967. I saw a Hawaiian weapon and wanted to make it- but couldn’t find any way to make it or anyone to teach me. So I looked closely at the weapon and tried my best to copy it. I found a man, Tulbert George, in Waikīkī Beach selling shark teeth for 10 cents. First he said no (Umi chuckles). But I told him what I was making - he sold me the teeth. He also asked me to teach him how to make the weapon too.
Is there anyone in particular who helped you hone your skills?
My Mother, Father, Uncles, Aunties. In terms of mentors, Wright Bowman Sr, my Hānai Father Kahauanu Lake, Patrick Horimoto, Raymond Nakama, Richard Paglinawan, Hokulani Holt-Padilla, David Parker, Calvin Hoe.These are the mentors that helped me broaden my horizon.
On making his first leiomanō, or lei of the shark, Umi says this: “They remind me of my mistakes, so I won’t make them again.”
There’s an understanding that the first item you have to give away. I say, keep your first item as a reminder of what you did to learn from it. I used to make 2 items at a time. I’d compare the two to see where I can improve. That’s why learning from my mistakes is important.
You make a lot of Pasifika replicas (implement, weapons, etc). Why do you believe this is important?
Making replicas is important to me because it increases the knowledge for me. Making items teaches you more than just the item itself. To learn to make cordage, I had to learn the types of woods. I had to learn what kind of teeth are better for cutting. At the end of the day, you need to know what everything you make is going to be used for. And almost everything has a function.
What knowledge or lessons do you hope to share with haumana (students) and the next generation of practitioners?
- Functionality. Function will dictate the materials to be used and the design. Hard to make anything properly if you don't know and understand its function.
- Observation. Observe the obvious and the not so obvious. What are my hands doing and where or how are they positioned.
- Balance. Balance your energy, flexibility and strength. Everyone has both Kū and Hina energies, balancing them to maximize your efforts.
- Don't ask me obvious questions. Think and ask yourself the question, sometimes twice, and you'll discover the answer yourself.
Do you have any advice for a starting practitioner?
There are 2 philosophies. One is Hoʻomau- to persevere. Don't give up. Second one is Nalu. Nalu means wave or surf. The connotation, or the kaona, is to never fight with the currents. When my students hear me say Nalu, they know it means to go with the flow. You can always to do things different, or adapt differently, just as long as you hoʻomau, persevere.
Join Us As We Welcome Umi at Kīpuka:
Niho ʻOki w/Umi Kai
4:30pm-6:30pm | Tuesday 6/22
Kīpuka at Ward Centre - 1200 Ala Moana Blvd. Suite 270
$35/haumana for DIY kit costs
Umi Kai is Currently President of ʻAha Kāne; Olohe Lua of Pa Kui A Lua; Kupuna of Hale Mua o Kualii; Member of Nalehua Kumakua.
Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award 2021
Ho’okahiko Award from Duke’s Waikiki 2019
Na Mamo Makamae o ka Po’e Hawai’I ( Living Treasure of the Hawaiian People) Awardee 2019
Living Treasure 2018 by Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawai’i
MAMo Awardee 2017 by the PA’I Foundation
Educator of the Year 2016 by Native Hawaiian Education Association
Fellowship Award 2015 by Native Arts and Culture Foundation
Masters Program 1998 by Hawai’i State Culture and the Arts