AMERICAN WOMEN'S HISTORY INITIATIVE

Hawai’i’s Women Canoe Carvers

In Hawai’i, the art of carving outrigger canoes has traditionally been a male pursuit. Many women have captained and paddled the canoes, but few have learned to build them—an undertaking that requires carving a vessel of 25 feet or more out of a massive tree trunk. In an effort to bring a new wave of women into the trade, the Smithsonian recently organized a canoe carving workshop in Hilo, Hawai’i, as part of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival celebrating Hawaiian culture.


(Dino Morrow Photography)
(Dino Morrow Photography)

In Hawai'i, the art of carving outrigger canoes has traditionally been a male pursuit. Many women have captained and paddled the canoes, but few have learned to build them—an undertaking that requires carving a vessel of 25 feet or more out of a massive tree trunk.

In an effort to bring a new wave of women into the trade, the Smithsonian recently organized a canoe carving workshop in Hilo, Hawai'i, as part of the annual Merrie Monarch Festival celebrating Hawaiian culture.

Alexis Ching Womens Canoe Carving
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Over five days, 22 women—aged 17 to 65—learned the techniques of outrigger canoe carving from one of Hawai'i’s master canoe carvers, Ray Bumatay, and his apprentice Alexis Ching. Ching (second from left) is one of only two known female canoe carver apprentices in the Pacific.

Smithsonian Merrie Monarch Womens Canoe Carving Program
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The women students carved a replica of the historic outrigger canoe Hawai'i’s Queen Kapi'olani gifted to the Smithsonian in 1888. Part of the collection of the National Museum of Natural History, it is the oldest documented existing Hawaiian canoe in the world.

Smithsonian Merrie Monarch Womens Canoe Carving Program
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In addition to the replica, the women worked on two larger outrigger canoes to practice different phases of construction. “It’s the first time that most of these ladies have touched a chainsaw,” Ching said.

Smithsonian Merrie Monarch Womens Canoe Carving Program
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Kālewa Correa, Curator of Hawaiʻi and Pacific America at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, organized the event with a grant from the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative. "I was really stoked to run a program that could foster a next generation of women carvers in Hawai'i, "he said. “The interest and energy are there.”

Smithsonian Merrie Monarch Womens Canoe Carving Program
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Six of the women students will continue to work on the replica canoe weekly throughout the summer. The finished canoe will be donated to a local charter school.

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