Woven Basket

Artist: Glenn Okuma
Culture/People: Hawaiian
Place: Hawaii
Media: Coconut palm frond
Dims: 8.5 x 14.25 x 14.25 in. ( 21.6 x 36.1 x 36.1 cm)
Date:  1999
RTC No. OC0090
Gift of Ralph T. Coe, 2011


This Hawaiian palm frond basket came to the Coe Collection directly from the slopes of the Kilauea volcano, where it had been woven by a craftsman of Hawaiian and Okinawan heritage. It is an example of a traditional gathering basket that is part of an ancient cultural legacy of a people who traversed the vast, abyssal depths of the Pacific Ocean.

Coconut fronds have a central stem called a rachis and as many as 200 leaflets that seem they were designed to be plaited into containers and building material. All across Polynesia and the wider Pacific, pandanus leaves, and coconut fronds are woven into anything from food platters to walls and hats. Depending on the technique, a weaver might take a few minutes to make a disposable container for cooking and eating or much longer time to make an elaborate, decorated item.

The coconut palm, cocos nucifera, is of such vital importance that throughout Polynesia, it is known as the Tree of Life. It is a food, hydration, fuel, medicine, and fiber source. Coconut meat and “water” can remain fresh inside the shell for a long period of time. It is a hardy seed that can drift at sea for months and easily take root on new shores. However, one of its primary means of dispersal was with the Polynesians on their intrepid journeys across the waves of the largest body of water on the planet.

The Polynesian Triangle consists of all the islands bounded by Hawaii in the north, Easter Island in the southeast, and New Zealand in the southwest. These islands, spread over thousands of miles in an enormous body of water, share a common language, art, food, and beliefs. Polynesians are descended from a people called the Lapita, who traveled east from the area of Papua New Guinea around 3,000 years B.P. They carried chickens, taro, and coconuts on their journeys, possibly in baskets similar to the one in the Coe Collection.

A seafaring culture, they were extraordinary navigators with a special rapport with the ocean. Not only did they follow the stars, winds, and wildlife, but they also developed unique maps known as stick charts. These charts are made from plant fibers representing currents and swells, with small shells or stones attached, meant to depict islands. One of these charts is also in the Coe’s collection, linked here

Polynesian migration and settlement of these faraway islands is an outstanding feat. Consider the case of Easter Island, called Te Pito O Te Henua (The Navel of the World), a tiny islet thousands of miles away from the nearest land; it is amazing that they ever discovered it.

Having adapted to centuries of colonialism and environmental problems, Polynesians today continue to connect to their heritage through their traditional art forms, such as basketwork, carving, and tattooing.


Tetiaroa Society, Nature Notes, Coconut Palms, Last Accessed 30-04-2024. https://www.tetiaroasociety.org/nature-notes/coconut-palms

Brooke Thomas, “The Coconut and the Post Colonial Shifting Desires in Relation to the South Pacific Islands”, Oceania in the Age of Global Media, 23:1, Spring 2003.

“Encounters, Page 2- Pacific Voyaging and Discovery”, New Zealand History, Nga Korero a Ipurangi o Aoteaora. Last accessed 29-04-2024. https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/encounters/polynesian-voyaging

“Mata Ki Te Rangi (Los Ojos Que Miran al Cielo), Rapa Nui”, Memoria Chilena, Biblioteca Nacional de Chile, Last Accessed 01-05-2024. https://www.memoriachilena.gob.cl/602/w3-article-3524.html

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