The Last Statues of Kū

Image by John Hook

Image by John Hook, illustration by David H. Kalama, Jr.

In 2010, the three remaining statues of Kū, the Hawaiian god of war, stood at Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the last in the world of their kind. Two had traveled across the ocean, on loan from the British Museum in London and the Peabody Essex Museum in Boston, to join the third at Bishop Museum’s newly renovated Hawaiian Hall. Three years past the statues’ homecoming, the two since shipped back to their permanent homes in London and Boston, a community remains engaged in a dialogue regarding art, religion, and reverence for history. If there existed such a thing as a Nation of Hawai‘i, the Kū ki‘i (statues) that reside abroad would be amongst its national treasures. Their return may be inevitable.


You have probably seen Kūkailimoku, also known as Kū, the war god, the snatcher of kingdoms. He is usually depicted with his arms to his side, knees bent for battle in a cubist, angular carving. His head is roughly the same proportion as his body, with an animalistic grimace, flared nostrils, and huge eyes. “Ours and the other two that visited are carved from ulu [breadfruit],” Noelle Kahanu, project manager of Bishop Museum, tells me. “There is a fourth that has survived that is twenty-nine inches, also with the British Museum. The others are all around seventy-seven to seventy-nine inches.”

It takes lots of work to bring two 800-pound war gods from Britain and Boston to Honolulu. “The Bishop is the repository of much of Hawaiian history, of our ali‘i. It’s just miraculous that this even happened,” says Kahanu. As she speaks, I notice that her office has become the unofficial storage for the 2010 Kū exhibit, despite the end of its run three years ago: a four-foot cardboard cut out of the statue that returned to the British Museum is stacked against the door, posters of the event line her walls, and all the press materials are within reach, as if the statues will be back next week. What Kahanu describes as miraculous was in fact the result of hard work by her office, the staffs of several institutions, funders, and a Hawaiian community united by shared history.

The ambitious idea of bringing statues to Honolulu from abroad was raised in a presentation by Kahanu at an exhibit of Oceanic art in Paris in 2008. “At first, the other museums weren’t convinced that the community would be supportive of the exhibit,” she says. “Another museum director had come here in previous years and seen discussions in which the community was certainly not unified.”

Kahanu assuaged these concerns by meeting with numerous Hawaiian scholars, historians, artists, and advocates. With soft skills and eloquent letters, she pressed for the exhibit. “Were you to seriously consider this request,” she wrote, “women would prepare wauke and pound kapa for his malo, men would craft chants in his honor. It would mean sending Hawaiians to Salem, so that they may ready Kū for his trip, making clear to him that his return would only be temporary. It would mean readying Hawaiians at dockside, chanting his arrival. It would mean his being enveloped once again in his elements, standing alongside his brethren. But what would it mean to the Hawaiian community? … They survived the overthrow of their religion, they survived colonialism, war and destruction, they survived ignorance, racism and marginalism. When gathered, in solidarity, these Kū remind us that the essence forever remains.”

Kū is as ubiquitous as he was centuries ago. But whereas David has become shorthand for cultural sophistication, Kū has become humiliated in parody, thoroughly emasculated culturally as bug-eyed and wigged-out design.

The letters worked. Bishop Museum settled on the title E Kū Ana Ka Paia: Unification, Responsibility, and the Kū Images for the exhibit and, with much fanfare, opened Hawaiian Hall in the summer of 2010 for a variety of groups, halau, and curious individuals. The Kū ki‘i were joined by other artifacts and items that once represented the Kingdom and culture of pre-contact Hawai‘i. Kahanu made good on her letter as well. The statues were lovingly dressed for the season of Kū, with malo made by women with roots in Wai‘anae: Maile Andrade, Dalani Tanahy, and others. Discussions were had in the halls of the museum. The statues also inspired the work of several artists: David H. Kalama, Jr. spent fifty-four days drawing the statues in high contrast with charcoal; Solomon Enos and Meleanna Meyer worked on a large painting of a figurative being representational and reverent of the ki‘i.

“The return of the statues was difficult, but we had to respect that they were loaned to us,” Kahanu says. “At the Peabody Essex, he is a major component of their exhibit—celebrated. At the British Museum, there are no plans for him, though that one is beautiful. Unlike the others, his back is fully carved in what I think look like French braids. One woman came to the exhibit with a similar hairstyle. She told me, ‘My grandmother called this the hair of kings. I didn’t know what she meant at the time.’”

Ku sketches - FLUX Hawaii


The importance of Kū in the context of Hawaiian history cannot be overstated. As part of a pantheon of Hawaiian gods including Lono, Kanaloa, and Kāne, Kū’s origin harkens to the Māori homeland of Hawaiki, and representations of him are vestiges of a state religion and a complex political economy that developed in Hawai‘i over a thousand years. In A Shark Going Inland is My Chief, author Patrick Vinton Kirch, local haole and Berkeley professor of archaeology, deftly blends academic discussions of artifacts with the work of native Hawaiian scholars and the transcribed mo‘olelo (stories) of old Hawai‘i. This approach is fairly new. Historically, the oral histories of indigenous peoples, which acknowledge human emotions, passions, and ambitions, have rarely been taken as truth. By accepting that both the academy and the oral historians have veracity, Kirch and his numerous colleagues (many of whom have worked in the halls of Bishop Museum) have attempted to draft a record of the settling, populating, and development of the Hawaiian islands prior to Western contact.

As Kirch describes, “[B]y the early seventeenth century on Hawai‘i and Maui, newly innovated cults of Kū and Lono (the Hawaiian variants of Tu and Rongo) had become central to the power strategies of ‘Umi [a king of Hawai‘i Island] and Kiha-a-Pi‘ilani [a king of Maui], and their successors.” A rigid hierarchical system was in place. “Kū became the deity of human sacrifice, representing the king’s divine right to exercise force. The red-feathered image of Kūkailimoku (Kū, the Snatcher of Kingdoms) became the personal deity of the king. … This was the power strategy of materialization, of pomp and circumstance and ritualized display, all of which served further to widen the social chasm between the king, his nobles, and the common people.”

After initial Western contact, it took mere decades for the Hawaiian political system to fall apart. Captain Cook encountered this complex political structure, and by misjudging it, died at its hands. Hawaiians fared similarly. As had been experienced by other indigenous peoples, populations were decimated by disease, and endogenous political systems were bastardized by capitalism. This experience now goes by many names: colonialism, tragedy, progress, inevitability, and history.

From accounts of the 1820s, hundreds of statues like these were burned. The only way these three survived is because they left.

Kū, the god of war, had a heyday in those years of first contact, used by Kamehameha the Great as part of his strategy of unifying the islands. In Kamehameha’s final years, he retired to the ancient royal compound of Kamakahonu on the island of his birth, Hawai‘i Island, to practice the religion that supported his use of violence as a form of state power, which granted him rights as a god-king. When he died in 1819, the feathered gods died with him. A year later, in part as a result of massive population loss, all temple images of Kū and Lono were ordered to be burned by Ka‘ahumanu, the King’s favored consort.

It was into this traumatized, spiritual vacuum that the first missionaries in leaky ships arrived from Boston in March of 1820. The Thurstons, Binghams, and other missionary families were aghast at the sight of the various depictions of Kū ki‘i that were left, emblematic violations of God’s second commandment, that one about false idols. That Kū ki‘i were replete with carved genitals and what could be interpreted as horns made it all the worse; traditional Christian depictions of the lord have never been sexual or morally ambiguous. For missionaries and the newly converted monarchy, part of the systematic soul-saving throughout the archipelago meant but one thing for the remains of centuries of delicately carved images, the work of thousands of artisans and believers: They had to go.

“We aren’t sure how they were secreted away,” says Kahanu. To violate an order from an ali‘i in that era could mean death. The historical record is sparse. One captain’s record indicates he got a statue as a gift from a chief, which then ended up at the British Museum in 1839. The statue in Boston just mysteriously showed up in 1846. Bishop Museum’s ki‘i returned after it was likely taken as a curiosity by a missionary, a member of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). “We do know some things about them, that they were carved between 1820 to 1840. It’s possible that there were thousands of them throughout the islands,” says Kahanu. “From accounts of the 1820s, hundreds of statues like these were burned. The only way these three survived is because they left.”


The themes of emasculation, and of addressing it, were big in Hawai‘i in 2010. The E Kū Ana Ka Paia exhibit coincided with the Hale Mua, a series of events for Hawaiian men regarding health, leadership, and what it means to be an indigenous man in 21st century Hawai‘i. Widely respected tattoo artist and cultural practitioner Keone Nunes was one of hundreds who participated. “It was a very important event for all of us, because it caused a self-examination,” he says in retrospect of the exhibit.

When discussing the ki‘i, Nunes asks the sorts of questions that he answers with his art. “As Hawaiian men, how do we define ourselves in this place we call home? How do we look at the things, the items, that are important to us? Or that were important to our kūpuna? Is it even important to be Hawaiian, to perpetuate culture, thoughts, and emotion that have become part and parcel of the idea of what these items are and what they can do with us?” There is something specific that Nunes and others wish to do with Kū. Of the three surviving large statues, the ki‘i at Bishop Museum is the only one that has been emasculated. “We don’t know if it was missionaries, vandals, or what,” says Kahanu. Basically, someone chiseled the war god’s penis off prior to 1895, when Bishop Museum acquired it. Nunes has thoughts on how to rectify the indignity. “The argument has been, ‘It’s part of antiquity, and what’s done is done,’” he says. “But that devalues our history, our culture. Is that statue not as valuable as say, Michelangelo’s David? There was never a second thought as to whether they were going to fix that statue when somebody took a sledgehammer to it,” Nunes says, referring to an incident in 1991 when a deranged man attacked the statue. “We are no less than any other culture, so why should we settle for the antiquity argument? It was contemporary human hands that did the damage. Our hands should fix it.”

“Bringing them back signifies what is pono, what is appropriate, and who we are as Hawai‘i now.” – Keone Nunes

A Freudian psychologist would have a field day discerning the symbolism inherent in replacing the ule on a statue of Kū: the reclamation of masculinity for indigenous men, evolved conceptions of sexuality and divinity, the feminist poetic trope of the male sex organ as an instrument of violence. To re-carve and replace a portion of the statue would be simple enough, but most of us would want to attend the unveiling party. Protocol would likely require a commemoration with hula, chant, and reverence not unlike the celebrations held on these islands several hundred years ago, long before the West attached shame to celebrations of anatomy.

Kū is as ubiquitous as he was centuries ago. But whereas David has become shorthand for cultural sophistication, Kū has become humiliated in parody, thoroughly emasculated culturally as bug-eyed and wigged-out design. “Out of all the things associated with Hawai‘i artistically, many people have been drawn to the Kū images not only for their size and rarity, but their stylization,” says Nunes. “If you go just about anywhere, there’s a tiki bar influenced by it, which gives us an idea and realization of the breadth and scope of these statues, not only for Hawaiians, but for the world. I don’t agree with the caricatures, but realize that they are iconic.”

Nunes highlights what Kū has become in the intervening years since the mass burning of his depictions: kitsch. In my own thorough online research, I couldn’t help but laugh at a Spongebob Squarepants scene where the obnoxious Squidward is serenaded by versions of Kū as he floats down a lazy river. Or the versions of Kū that once populated Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room alongside animatronic birds and saccharine drinks. Perhaps this sort of kitsch hasn’t offended Hawaiians the way other indigenous cultural appropriation has, in part because there are very few Polynesian polytheistic practitioners around. To deconstruct all the design motifs of exoticism would require numerous doctoral dissertations in several languages. Nearly two hundred years after his use as a form of state power, if you want your very own god of war, you can find him at a variety of convenience stores strategically placed for tourist consumption; Kū’s on cups, keychains, and bottle openers. A tag on a bottle opener I found in Waikīkī says, “Ku: GOD OF MONEY (made in China).”

There is an irony in knowing what Kū has gone through over the last two centuries, that advocating for the return of the god of war and conquest is, in a way, an act of peace and reconciliation. Modern versions of Kū’s state authority are prevalent in Hawai‘i: security checkpoints, a hierarchy based on the gods of money, and military bases that abound throughout the islands. What he means today is completely different. “I don’t know of any exhibit that has had that much of an impact on people,” says Nunes. “A lot of people reacted with fright by the statues. But after a while, they were familiar, like family. I realized that I would see them again. I was actually one of the few people that had the opportunity to see them before they arrived. I knew the impact they had on me, and that the impact on Hawai‘i would be ten-fold. There’s nothing that can rectify the atrocities that any indigenous peoples have suffered. But bringing them back signifies what is pono, what is appropriate, and who we are as Hawai‘i now.”

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