'Apapane in Hawaiian Culture

Written by Ashlyn Ku‘uleialoha Weaver 

The ‘Apapane (Himatione sanguinea) is one of the more common endemic honeycreepers on the Hawaiian Islands. Listen for their delicate tunes as you hike Hawai‘i’s mountainous regions and look for their small scarlet flocks flying to and from blooming ‘ōhia lehua trees (Metrosideros polymorpha). The ancient Hawaiians sometimes chanted about the ‘Apapane bird and other honeycreepers. In the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, the ‘Apapane was one of the many honeycreeper birds that were created during the “dawn-of-time,” and this made it a kinolau (body spirit) for many Hawaiian deities. Ancient Hawaiians told many stories of subordinate deities, immaculate gods and even relatives taking the forms of birds like the ‘Apapane.

The ‘Apapane is also known within Hawaiian culture for its scarlet feathers. Much like those of the ‘I‘iwi bird, ‘Apapane feathers were incorporated into various feather work crafts to adorn Hawaiian ali‘i. To learn more about Hawaiian feather work, see our ‘I‘iwi in Hawaiian Culture article.

La‘ieikawai’s Story

In this famous Hawaiian love story, Hawaiian honeycreepers are guardians of the Paliuli chiefess, La‘ieikawai. The ‘Apapane is one of the honeycreepers that does her bidding.

In the romantic story of La‘ieikawai, as told by S.N. Hale‘ole, La‘ieikawai is a beautiful chiefess who is served upon and resides on the wings of supernatural Hawaiian honeycreepers. La‘ieikawai’s house is thatched with the royal yellow feathers of the ōʻō bird and she is attended to by i‘iwipolena. While living amongst the honeycreepers, she catches the eye of a handsome Kauai chief, Kauakahialii. He sends a servant to invite her to his dwelling and La‘ieikawai responds, "When rings the note of the ōʻō bird, I am not in that sound, or the ʻalalā (Hawaiian crow), I am not in that sound; when rings the note of the ‘elepaio then am I making ready to descend; when the note of the ‘apapane sounds, then I am without the door of my house; if you hear the note of the i‘iwipolena, then I am without your ward's house; seek me, you two, and find me without. That is your wards chance to meet me." La‘ieikawai’s suitor listens to the birdcalls for announcement of the beauty’s arrival. The first night she does not come but on the second night, after the ‘apapane’s song rings at dawn, La‘ieikawai appears at Kauakahialii’s door, resting on the wings of her birds.

About the author: Ashlyn is a Hawaiian Studies graduate from the University of Hawai'i-Maui College. She is currently studying Education and Ethnic Studies at the University of California-Sacramento. While pursuing her degree, Ashlyn volunteers her time researching Hawaiian cultural practices and stories for conservation in Hawaii. Her overall goal is to teach the next generation what Hawaiian history consists of, why our environment and ecosystems are amazing, and why our culture is beautiful.