Pacific

Ipu: An abundance of Hawaiian history and culture

 

This was written as an extension of the mana‘o shared by Kumu Auli‘i Mitchell during a Hawaiian knowledge holder session as part of the Pacific Collection Access Project. Kumu Auli‘i (cultural expert) is a kumu of hula, additionally his upbringing and his family’s knowledge surrounding the cultivation of the gourd paid tribute to the significance of ipu and its connection to Hawaiian history and culture.

The gourd, otherwise described as ipu, contains a holistic role within Hawaiian history and culture. Physically, the ipu can be used to carry food and water or store personal items. It can also be used to produce kani (sound) for mele (song) and hula (dance).

Spiritually, the ipu has been used as a significant metaphor in procreation stories.

There are two kinds of gourd species: ipu nui and ipu awa awa. Ipu nui is of the large variety and associated with carrying food or water. Ipu awa awa is of the bitter variety and more suitable for carrying goods or made for use in hula. As one knowledge holder described it - 

The Hawaiian people – we had 42 different uses for the ipu

 

Out of all the Moana Pacific nations, the Hawaiians utilized ipu the most.

Auckland Museum’s Pacific Collection holds a range of ipu made from gourds attributed to Hawai'i.

The largest is an ipu awa awa. The flesh has been cleaned out of a large gourd and dried, thus creating a container. A koko (coconut sennit net) begins from the piko (center) at the base of the ipu, forming a carrier around the outside. It can be suspended from a burden pole and carried across a persons shoulders for the transportation of goods.

Image (right): Ipu awa awa (gourd calabash). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 11394, 3925

The shape and size of an ipu can define its use such as the containment of food and water. A pā ipu is made from the base of a large gourd and portrays the form of a plate. Its low and wide shape show its use for presenting food. 

Image caption: Pā ipu (gourd plate). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 11396

An ipu wai in the Collection is an entire hollowed form with a small circular opening near the top. This particular ipu is ideal for carrying water.

Its former use as a water carrier is evidenced by the water stain on the surface.

Image (right) : Ipu wai (water gourd). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1989.64, 53116

In contrast to this, ipu can also have the ability to produce kani (sound). Ipu hokiokio are small gourd whistles. These young ipu are carefully cultivated for their size. Their body has been hollowed and small holes have been drilled.

Ipu hokiokio (gourd whistle). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1989.64, 53116

A player would use their nose to emit air through the top hole and portray a melody through the use of their fingers over the remaining holes. Ipu hokiokio has been described as an instrument used by lovers to convey romantic messages.

Among these are also the ipu pa`i and the hula ipu heke. The ipu pa`i is a hand held instrument. The`aha (coconut sennit cord) secures the ipu to a dancers wrist while it is being held.

With the other hand, they would pa`i (hit) the side to emit kani (sound) in relation to their mele (song).

Image caption: Ipu pa‘i (gourd drum). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 1985.171, 51824

The hula ipu heke (images below) is a combination of two gourds, one being the heke (head) and the other, on a larger scale, called the ki (body). Both the heke and the ki would be lashed internally with 'aha and ulu (breadfruit) sap to hold them together. Used like a drum, the kani produced from rhythmic beating assists in the mele and movement of hula.

This particular ipu heke features pāhonohono (repairs)and pāwehe (motifs). When the gourd is still green, pāwehe can be applied by cutting away the surface of the skin to create a design. Once the flesh from inside has been removed, dye can be poured into the gourd, seeping through the exposed areas, creating pāwehe.

 

Hula ipu heke (gourd drum). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 11395, 4041

Hula ipu heke (ipu hula). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 11397

There are other qualities that extend the physical use of ipu. The late indigenous Hawaiian scholar and historian, Samuel Mānaiakalani Kamakau (1815-1876) portrays the cosmological role ipu played in the creation story from an excerpt published in ‘Ke Au Okoa.’

“It was thus that Papa gave birth: she gave birth to a gourd, a calabash with its cover, ‘he ‘umeke a he po‘i; Wākea threw the cover up, and it became the sky; then Wākea threw out the inner core, ‘ka haku oloko’, and it became the sun; as he threw it up, the seeds became stars. Wākea saw the whiteness of the soft core, the ‘pala haku’ of the gourd and threw that up, and it became the moon; the white layer, ‘papa ke‘oke‘o, of the gourd Wākea scraped and threw up into space and it became clouds; the juice of the gourd he poured into the clouds, and it became rain. The calabash from the separation of the gourd by Wākea became land and ocean.” (Oct. 14, 21, 1869)

Papa is the earth mother, and Wākea is the sky father. The story of them birthing a gourd and using its contents to create the heavens and the earth illustrates the abundance that ipu has continued to offer today. Whether this is through domestic use, cultural performance or cosmological stories, the ipu has continued to carry the rich history and culture of Hawai'i.

Image caption: Hula ipu heke (gourd drum). Collection of Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, 11397

 

This was written as an extension of the mana‘o shared by Kumu Auli‘i Mitchell during a Hawaiian knowledge holder session as part of the Pacific Collection Access Project. Kumu Auli‘i is a kumu of hula, additionally his upbringing and his family’s knowledge surrounding the cultivation of the gourd paid tribute to the significance of ipu and its connection to Hawaiian history and culture.

We would like to give thanks to the Hawaiian knowledge holders who generously shared their mana'o and sources surrounding the significance of the ipu.


 

Further reading

M.Beckwith, ‘Hawaiian Mythology’. U H Press. 1970.

Jenkins, ‘The Hawaiian Calabash’.Editions limited. 1989.

T.R.Hiroa, ‘Arts and Crafts of Hawaii’. Bishop Museum Press. 1957.

S.M.Kamakau, ‘Tails and Traditions of the People of Old|Nā Mo‘olelo a ka Po‘e Kahiko’. Bishop Museum Press. 1991.

Online Hawaiian Dictionary

Personal comms. Kumu Auli`i Mitchell. 14.03.2018

 

Glossary

Ipu awa awa (gourd calabash)

Koko (coconut sennit net)

Piko (centre)

Pā ipu (gourd plate)

Ipu wae (water gourd)

Kani (sound)

Ipu hokiokio (gourd whistle)

Ipu pa‘i (gourd implement)

Ipu heke (gourd implement)

‘Aha (coconut sennit)

Pa‘i (to hit)

Mele (song)

Heke (head)

Hula (dance)

Ki (body)

Ulu (breadfruit)

Pāhonohono (repairs)

Pāwehe (motifs)