Piʻilani was a famous high chief of Maui. He was a grandson of Kahekili and great-grandson of Kekaulike. He was responsible for paving the highway for West Maui as a means to connect the famous bays of Honokōwai, Honokeana, Honokahua, Honolua, and Honokōhau. Upon his unification of East Maui and West Maui, and subsequently, the islands of Kahoʻolawe, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi, all the “bays” of those places fell under his rule and thus the famous saying, “The Bays of Piʻilani.”
As a way to honor Piʻilani, Rick San Nicolas fashioned a cape for the great chief. His mother’s ʻohana, the Saffery (from Edmund and Naehu) family of Lāhaina, ʻOlowalu and Kula, is from Maui. The cape is nine feet in width at its widest point and about six feet in length. His cape is patterned after one in the British Museum made from the feathers of the ʻiʻiwi, mamo, and ʻōʻō birds. According to San Nicolas, the circular shapes are traditional motifs from Maui and Kauaʻi. He said that there are thousands of feather bundles that were tied by hand to a netting of the replica. He started last year and just finished in April 2022.
A desire to make this cape arose out of it being a challenge to himself. He has a great fondness for feather work. San Nicolas began making feather lei then advanced to making feather standards, helmets, and the feathered god, Kūkāʻilimoku. Although self-taught, he acknowledged the counsel of feather art expert, Mary Lou Kekuewa. Perhaps his feather-making talent was also inherited and passed to him by an ancestral guide. With the help of these kūpuna, he finished his first cloak in 2004. In 2013, the replica of Kamehameha’s cape and the sash of Līloa were completed. How amazing is the craftsmanship of the hands!
San Nicolas’s capes will be on display at Bailey House in Wailuku in October. They will be displayed along with portraits of people wrapped in the capes. The models were photographed by Kauila Kawelo who captured the pride, humility, and dignity of each individual. San Nicolas stated, “You could see the change in their faces as they were wrapped in a cloak. Some cried. Some smiled. True transformation!” The genesis of this project, named “The ʻAhuʻula Project” or TAP, began when Rick was in residency at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park.
It is said that “Maui is the best.” If that is true, one can see the inherited trait of excellence in a descendant of The Bays of Piʻilani, namely, Rick San Nicolas. He is teaching and perpetuating the art of feather cloak making at his home in California and on Zoom. He will be on Maui in October. Therefore, let us wrap ourselves in the honorable cloaks of our ancestors. May the name, Piʻilani, live on.