Feather identification at Te Manawa Museum

By Gavin Reedy, Iwi Development Officer, National Services Te Paerangi

Whiria te muka harakeke

Whiria te muka tangata

Puritia nga taonga a oo taatou tipuna

Hei taonga maa ngaa uri whakatipu

(Plait the flax fibres, plait the fibres of mankind)

‘The feathers are telling me their story’, was a thoughtful quote from Hokimate Harwood who presented a Feather Identification workshop at Te Manawa Museum, Palmerston North, on 23 March 2015. The workshop was for those working directly with kakahu huruhuru, whether in their museum collections or in whanau, iwi, hapu, or community collections, who wished to learn how to identify feathers in their kakahu.

This workshop was a collaboration between National Services Te Paerangi, Te Manawa Museum and Te Manawa Museum Society, and was led by Te Papa’s Bicultural Science Researcher, Hokimate Harwood.

Hokimate explained to the group that the workshop was to be pitched from a scientific view, the subject being taxonomy, bird anatomy, feather anatomy, and microscopic structures of New Zealand bird feathers. She showed slides of native New Zealand bird feathers: iridescent tui, bright orange kaka, shaded browns of kiwi, shiny black of huia, brilliant contrasts of kereru, and other native birds. The workshop had a scientific slant but the connection between the prized bird feathers and the finished item was easy for us to see, and we got an understanding of the value of native birds to Māori as well as the versatile use of resources of native and, later, introduced species.

kaka feathers

North Island Kaka, Nestor meridionalis septentrionalis, collected 24 Apr 1988, Waiterimu, near Ohinewai, Waikato., New Zealand. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (OR.024148/1)

It was not an easy task to harvest the feathers; it took many months of patient work. Some birds only offer up minute quantities, which adds to their intrinsic value. It wasn’t hard to see why the feathers elevate the korowai, cloaks and kakahu from articles of clothing to prized taonga.

The arrival of Pākehā in New Zealand brought new types of birds. Chicken and peacock, for instance, gave new vibrant colors which, Hokimate said, were quickly utilised in the weaving process. Māori were innovative; they were in a changing world.

We viewed some slides of kakahu that had been made with a mixture of these new types of feathers, giving a kaleidoscope of colors. To Māori the new feathers were colourful, versatile, and bright. Chicken feathers soon become the most widely used in weaving, and turkey feathers replaced huia as headdress feathers as huia bird numbers were in decline, soon to be extinct. One of the kakahu we viewed had 6 bird feather varieties in its makeup.


Huia, Heteralocha acutirostris, collected no data, New Zealand. Purchased 1949. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (OR.000096)

Hokimate gave an interesting talk on the materials used to weave the structure of the kakahu. They were crafted with the leaves of flax (phormium tenax), from muka, or the inner fiber of the harakeke, or flax broad leaf, an intricate process that weaves together vertical and horizontal wefts.

Ngā tohu o nga kairaranga – hidden signs of the weavers

It is within these wefts that the code of the weaver can be found. Weavers strategically placed feathers or other materials, like wool, in their weaving. They would weave a bright orange kaka feather in a kahukiwi (kiwi feather cloak) to indicate their signature. I thought of it as mana strategically placed. Hokimate said that the weaver places a piece of themselves into the cloak.

I’ve been in the Far North on workshop duties with Te Papa conservator Rangi Te Kanawa, where at one marae there were 10 or so cloaks laid out for Rangi to assess. She pointed out three – two woven by her mother, Diggeress Te Kanawa, and one that her grandmother, Rangimarie Hetet, had made many years ago. Rangi was asked, how did she know? How could she be certain of this? She counted down so many vertical wefts and then counted in so many horizontal wefts and lifted the feathers up. Underneath were her mother’s signature feathers, woven into the kahukiwi many years ago. I thought how that incident reinforced the workshop information from Hokimate, and really indicated an esoteric aspect to this kaupapa, the hidden messages within.

We also had a session examining feathers under a microscope, which really caught the attention of the group, weavers and museum workers alike. This magnification broke the feathers down to their basic structures and gave insight into the many variations within bird species and feathers.

A neat, hands-on session followed where we examined a number of kahukiwi from Te Manawa and Whanganui Regional Museum. The weavers enjoyed matching the workshop information with the real thing, and it was really neat to find some hidden signatures within the kakahu.

feather conservation group crop

Feather identification workshop group

This was a very informative workshop and had wide interest, evident by the attendance of Awhina Twomey and staff from Puni Tiaki Taonga o Whanganui (Whanganui Regional Museum) and others from as far as Otaki, along with Kaumatua Rangi Fitzgerald and the Highbury Weavers roopu, and the Manawatu Museum Society with Associate Professor Kerry Taylor.

A big mihi to Te Manawa staff Donna Takitimu, Cindy Lillburn and Director Andy Lowe, and to Hokimate Harwood – thank you for a most interesting workshop.

Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa


Kupu Māori – vocabulary

Aroha – love, concern, affection, compassion

Mana – authority, status, influence, prestige

Matauranga Māori – Māori knowledge base

Muka – prepared fibre of flax

Tikanga – customs, habits.

Kawa – etiquette

Huruhuru – feathers

Karakia – prayers

Kairaranga – caller

Kakahu – item of clothing

Taonga – anything that is highly prized

Tapu – under restriction, ceremonial or otherwise.

Tipuna – ancestors

Whakaaro – thoughts