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paintbrush and founder of a society of ocean navigators. Herb set his own course, beginning with the single choice to become an artist, sometimes contrary to the advice of others, including his father and art-world trends, which he defied with characteristic determination. In so doing he became a peerless and popular success. But that’s not the end of the story. Born in 1928 and raised in Hilo and Waipi‘o Valley, Herb moved to Chicago to study art, to Honolulu when his spirit called him back to Hawai‘i, and back home to Hawai‘i Island’s Kealakekua before he made his final passage on March 8, 2011.

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etting sail in the weather and sea conditions of home port, we begin our journeys in life. As we stretch out across the vast seas of experience, our course is adjusted with input from sources that reveal themselves along the way: changing winds, inspirations, desires and even messages from the spirit world, voices of the ancestors. Such was the course of Herb Kawainui Kāne, a Hawaiian hapa haole, mainland-educated, larger-than-life icon—cultural interpreter, reflector of beauty, visual storyteller, re-creator of ancient life scenes, initiator of a cultural renaissance, wielder of a magic


A canoe navigator of ancient Hawai’i, aboard a sailing canoe at sunset, the stars of the northern constellation of the Big Dipper in the darkening sky. He wears a pendant of polished pearl shell, a metaphor for “star” because of its luster. Suspended by a necklace of finely braided hair of ancestors, it is treasured for its mana. Over an underwrap of tapa he wears a fine mat, fastened around his waist with braided sennit (coconut fiber). As protection against the chill of the coming night he may need the waterproofed wrap, the dyed tapa now slung over his shoulder. His tattoos— waves, birds, and star—symbolize his wisdom in using the way-finding keys of the navigator—tools for reading dominant wave patterns, the flight paths of migrating birds, and positions of the stars. The secondary element in the design is a voyaging canoe under sail. A third element is a ki’i aumakua (ancestral spirit image) holding another pearl shell, symbolizing the navigator holding fast to his guiding star. The images of aumakua were not portraits, but physical resting places for benevolent ancestral spirits whose invisible presence and helpful power could be invoked by chants and solicited by acts of respect.

The Life

The Navigator

September-October 2011