Aka’s Voyage for Red Feathers

Collected by E.S. Craighill Handy

A man named Aka wished to get feathers to make a feather headdress for his daughter. Aka was not a chief. He gathered a crew for his canoe and told his relatives to prepare food for the voyage. He then looked about for some one to guide him, and finally s elected two boys. He chose them because he had seen that, when the children were sailing boats, the boats of these two boys always went straight to the desired place.

They set out, and after they had gone a little way, the boys said to Aka, “There is land ahead. What land is it?”

“It is Motani,” replied Aka.

“What can be gotten there?” inquired the boys.

“Meie (a species of herb used for perfume),” replied Aka. “I have been there before and gathered the herb for my daughter.”

After they had sailed on for a long time, the boys said again, “There is land ahead. What land is it?”

“It is Moutona,” said Aka.

“What can be gotten there?” asked the boys.

Aka replied, “Mouomatito no te tahia (a species of grass which was plaited and used in a game played by girls). I have been there before and gathered the grass for my daughter.”

By this time the boys were anxious to go back, for the birds Aka wanted to get were tapu to their families.

They sailed on for a long time and again there was the same questioning. The boys said, “There is land ahead. What land is it?”

Aka replied, “It is Kau kau o meia.”

“What can be gotten there?” the boys asked.

“Pehe no te tahi (string figures),” Aka said. “I have been there before and gotten the pehe.” (According to the informant Aka had landed there on a previous voyage, made cord from the fiber of banana stumps, and learned or invented pehe. This is another s tory.)

They sailed on as before, and again the boys said, “There is land ahead. What is that land?”

“It is Oautona (Aotona or Rarotonga),” Aka replied.

The boys asked, “What can be gotten there?”

“Huukua (red bird feathers),” Aka replied. “We will land there.”

The place, which they first sighted, was the place where the birds were, but the boys said, “We must go over to the other side of the island or we shall be heard.”

The island was really uninhabited, but the boys did not want Aka to land where the birds were, because the birds were tapu to them. When the voyagers had beached the canoe, the boys ran away from the others and went to the valley, in which the birds lived . They built a house there, which had a hole in the top but was closed on the sides. They then got in the house and scraped coconut meat. When they had a pile of scraped coconut, they kindled fire by rubbing two sticks together, and threw the coconut on t he fire. The birds smelled the burning coconut and came flying in from all directions to see what it was. They circled about, and then plunged down through the hole in the roof. When the house was almost full, the boys closed the hole in the roof. One of the boys then went to Aka and told him to come on with him. Aka entered the house and picked the feathers from the living birds, letting them go after they were picked. They could not fly, because they had no wing feathers. When Aka had enough feathers, h e divided them among his crew for payment. Then they sailed home.


The story of Aka is from E.S. Craighill. Handy’s Marquesan Legends (Honolulu: Bishop Museum 1930, 130-131). The story is from Puamau on the island of Hiva Oa. Fuller, more detailed variants of this story of Aka’s voyage to Aotona [Rarotonga] are found in Von den Steinem’s Marquesan Myths, translated by Marta Langridge:

At the death feast for the chief Puakauooa in Ta‘aoa (a valley on the southern coast of Hiva Oa), Aka and other heroes looked for flowers and fruits to make garlands for the women at the feast. They found tiare (gardenia), pua (flower), koute (hibiscus), puanetae, faa (pandanus fruit), hinano (pandanus flower), inou (a kind of lilac), katiu (a small cucumber), and hukou (a fruit); but Aka wasn’t satisfied with these flowers because they wilted in the hot sun.

His two sons-in-law, Utunui and Pepeu, tell him: “Kula (red feathers) make the best ornaments.”

When Aka asked, “Where can we get kula?” the two sons-in-law replied, “In Aotona; our father Mahaitivi knows how to get there.” Then Utunui and Pepeu went to their father’s house at Poitopa [above Atuona on Hiva Oa] and asked him for directions. The fathe r told them the voyage is long and difficult and they must prepare lots of food--raw and cooked ma (fermented breadfruit), coconuts, raw and cooked taro, raw and cooked kape (dry land taro).

The father and two sons argued over how long the voyage would take; the father saying seven months, and Utunui twelve. Utunui recited the twelve months: Pohe, Iti, Aoa-Manu, Mataiki, Ehua, Uaua, Uahaa-metao, Takuua, Veo, Nana, Tuhua, Napea. (These are nam es of the stars or constellations that served as guides to the months and seasons of breadfruit; in the Isles of Hiva, as in Hawai‘i, the names of the stars and months and their order vary considerably according to different informants.)

The father then explained that in Aotona, the voyagers would find the birds Matakia and Vaefati, who were his inoa (“name friends; those with whom one has exchanged names, so that each has claim to the wife and property of the other).

The two boys returned to Aka and told him to build and provision a canoe as directed by their father had told them, and find paddlers. 140 men are found to man the double-hulled canoe and the voyagers leave. The first island they saw was Mohutane (a small island south of Hiva Oa). Utunui asked the inhabitants what they use to make garlands. “Meie bark,” was the reply. Aka said, “No good.”

Then they arrive at Fatu Hiva (south of Mohutane). Utunui asked the inhabitants what they use to make garlands. “Auona, a fragrant bouquet” is the reply. Aka said, “Not for my daughter. It wilts in the sun.”

The canoe landed at the following islands of the Hiva group and learned what the people of each island used for garlands:

Tahuata (north of Fatuiva): garlands are made from Kiita (?);

Fatu Huka (north of Hiva Oa): garlands are made from feathers from the gannet and cape pigeon.

Ua Huka (northwest of Fauuku): garlands are made from tiare (gardenia)

Ua Pou (southwest of Ua Huka): garlands are made from pua (flower)

Nuku Hiva (north of Ua Pou): garlands are made from red eka (a dye)

Eiao (northwest of Nuku Hiva): garlands are made from fao blossoms.

None of the isles of Hiva had the red feathers Aka and his sons-in-law were seeking. From Eiao, the canoe travelled west onto the open ocean. The star Iti appeared, “the star of the heavy sea, the star of the wind.” (This star marks the approach of the st ormy months of the southern hemisphere winter, which begins in May.)

The star Iti said, “Whose canoe?”

Pepeu and Utunui said, “It belongs to us.”

Iti said, “Who are you?”

They responded: “We are Pepeu and Utunui, Mahaitivi’s boys. We are going to Aotona.”

The stars said, “Go on,” and they travelled on.

(Four more stars appear – Tuhua, Takuua, Veo, Mahina – and the same dialogue takes place.)

The voyage was so long, food and water ran out. One hundred of the paddlers died; forty men remained. The voyagers finally reached Fitinui, then Aotona. The chief Feafea welcomed them. After a nights rest, they built a house using coconut leaves lashing it together with hau bark cordage. They erected the posts, put up the crossbeam and rafters, arranged the coconut leaves, then thatched the roof with grass. They laid stakes along the wall and made a door. The next morning the men picked, peeled and grated coconut; then grated it and roasted it inside the house. The smell attracted a large flock of kula bird.

Two odd-looking birds approached to see if anyone is in the house – Matakika, a bird with an ulcerous face; Vaekoki, a lame bird; Then two birds came and mated. In each case no one in the house laughed, so each bird went back and reported the house was dese rted.

When the flock entered the house, Aka shut the door, and his men caught the birds and plucked their red feathers, filling 40 baskets for the forty survivors; Aka told them to fill 100 more for the children and the wives of the 100 men who had died; so the men filled the remaining 100 baskets. Then they let the birds go.

The next morning, the men prepared food for the voyage home, loaded the canoe with the food and the baskets of feathers, and departed. They paddled for a long time, as long as the period of a large breadfruit harvest, then landed at Ta‘aoa (on Hiva Oa, th eir home island). The women on land saw that only a few men were returning; they lamented the men who were missing. Aka brought the baskets ashore and gave them to the women whose husbands had not survived.

Then Aka went to his house with his wife and daughter and two sons-in-law. The next day, Aka and his wife made a girdle of kula feathers for their daughter, the wife of both Utunui and Pepeu. Utunui and Pepeu kept their baskets of feathers. Fao came down and bought Utunui’s and Pepeu’s feathers and made a garland for himself. Others made the feathers into garlands, head ornaments (paekua) and girdles for women and men.

[According to Rarotongan oral tradition, a red-feathered bird called the kura once lived on Rarotonga island. It was associated with summer: “Summer comes, the kura is flying about.” The kura became extinct after guns were introduced to the islands by Westerners.

A red-feathered bird called a kula was also known in historical times in Fiji. Its red feathers were valued for ornamenting mats and headdresses. The feathers were traded with the Tongans, who then traded them with the Samoans. In the Society Islands Capt ain Cook traded red feathers he had obtained in Tonga.]

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