The first time I saw coconut weaving was in the Polynesian Club in Kapolei High School, where they race to see who can make the fastest basket. In this club, I felt that I belonged. My mom is Micronesian, but we were never around that family a lot and I didn’t know what it meant to be Micronesian. I didn’t really know what it meant to be Hawaiian either. It’s something I was struggling with.
After high school, my mom sent me to Micronesia, and it was one of the best things I ever did. Micronesia is a whole different world! The culture there is so laid-back. Everyone’s farming their own land. And at funerals or weddings or big parties, everyone would come with pigs or food carried in coconut baskets. The baskets looked so perfect and so nice. I thought, “Ho! I want to learn how to do that.”
Later, I got a Polynesian dance contract to go to Guam. The people there are really good at weaving coconut. There’s a village right on the beach, and every day, Chamorro people would demonstrate to tourists how to weave headbands or fish toys. I’d never tried to weave before—I thought it was so awesome, but I was too scared to ask. But by the time I left Guam, I learned how to make all the little stuff.
When the contract was done, I came back to Hawai‘i and was without a job. I thought, “How can I make money quick? Something that I would love to do?” I love Polynesian dancing, but at that time, nothing had come up. Then, I noticed every beach park had something in common: coconut trees. I cut down a few leaves and started playing around. I tried making hats first. My first hundred were so ugly that I was too ashamed to sell them.
Eventually, I started getting a lot of encouraging comments. People would say, “I remember doing this! But now I don’t because I’m too old to climb the tree,” or, “My grandma used to do that, but she never taught me.” Hearing these stories from people encouraged me to keep trying, because I liked to see the joy in their faces when they see that I’m doing something they used to love.
Old men would come up to me and say, “I’ll give you some tips.” After their lessons, my hats came out perfect every time. They taught me what kind of trees to look for, which leaves on the tree you want, how to prepare them, which way to weave it.
I want to have an opportunity to go out and teach everyone weaving because I want it to come back and be a normal occurrence. I have so much pride in keeping the culture alive—this is what it means to be Hawaiian and to be an islander. You used to depend on things like this. Me, I’m in love with everything about island culture. If someone can teach me other islander things, I’m always down. And I’m always ready to teach someone how to make hats or baskets.
Jordan Koko Kroger is an O‘ahu-born coconut-frond weaver who lives in Māʻili. Kroger gathers leaves by hand to weave everyday items like hats and headbands. Follow him on Instagram @naulanalauniu.