In life there are journeys, and there are epic journeys. In the 41-year history of the Hokule’a, Native Hawaiians have sailed the traditional-style canoe (called wa’a) throughout the Pacific Ocean many times, going as far as French Polynesia, Rapa Nui and even Vancouver, British Columbia. But in May 2014, Hokule’a set out on an unprecedented three-year voyage to circumnavigate the globe, creating a “lei of hope” in a message to “malama honua,” or care for the Earth.
On Saturday June 17, Hokule’a returned triumphant, greeted by tens of thousands of people, including a contingent of Native youth from the mainland, mostly from California Indian nations.
“This experience has been so amazing, and I’m so happy and grateful I could be here,” said Tristin Pena, 15, Kumeyaay, and 2017 Miss Kumeyaay Nation.
Trinity Galindo, 17, from the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, echoed this sense of amazement.
“It was a really big opportunity to be there, like a history moment,” she told ICMN. “I’m so honored to be part of it.”
Trinity and Tristin were among a delegation of youth ambassadors organized by Native Like Water/Intertribal Youth, a San Diego–based organization that runs educational programs for Native youth rooted in indigenous cultural awareness with a focus on science, wellness and academic excellence. Attending the ceremony for Hokule’a’s return is also in keeping with Native Like Youth’s mission to connect young Native people with ocean-based cultures and activities.
Hokule’a was born as a symbol of Hawaiian cultural revival during the mid-1970s, as part of a study to prove that pre-European Polynesian people possessed the navigational skills required to intentionally populate the uninhabited Hawaiian Islands, instead of accidentally drifting there, as scholars had previously argued. The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded in 1973 to build the wa’a.
The debate has long since been settled; since her creation the double-hulled canoe has been navigated only by the knowledge provided by the wind, stars, animals and other natural elements. Hokule’a has served as a metaphorical—and literal—vessel for educating Native Hawaiian youth about ancient Polynesian sailing techniques and culture.
At Hokule’a’s helm is celebrated Polynesian Voyaging Society President Nainoa Thompson, who has received numerous awards for reviving Native Hawaiians’ ancient sailing techniques.
“Nainoa said that his elders told him that you can’t protect something that you don’t understand,” said NLW’s executive director Marc Chavez to ICMN, referring to Thompson’s speech at the ceremony. “So if you’re looking to help protect the Earth, you must voyage around it first.”
Hokule’a traveled more than 40,000 nautical miles, making stops in dozens of places including Tahiti, Bali, the Galapagos Islands, Brazil, Mauritius, the Caribbean, South Africa and as far north as Nova Scotia. A year ago Hokule’a made port in New York City, greeted with fanfare and ceremony by the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, Shinnecock and Ramapough Lenape Nations.
The youth delegation also participated in the World Youth Congress, sponsored by Peace Child International/Hawaii, an annual event held around the world since 1999. This year’s conference was held in conjunction with the Hokule’a homecoming celebration.
Chavez said that the voyagers went to all these communities around the world to connect their struggles, and that’s what the lei of hope represents.
“It’s unprecedented when we think of climatic change, or a proper analysis,” Chavez said. “We have scientists who will speak in general terms about what’s happening to the planet, but how many of them have circumnavigated the planet to get a pulse, a testimony, or reaction, and have it be led by an indigenous craft, and indigenous science? The grassroots are at the base of it all.”
Chavez believes that to “protect something you don’t understand” begins with understanding oneself.
“The problems that face the world today are not political, or economic,” he said. “The solutions to the problems we have right now are cultural. We are quick to criticize the polluting of water, yet many of us individually are polluting ourselves. If we want to understand or protect Mother Earth, we must first start with ourselves.”
The concept of wellness is, after all, one of the central tenets of Native Like Water’s work with youth. And for indigenous people, wellness is inseparable from the maintenance of culture. The message was not lost on the youth delegation.
“Hokule’a is important because it proves that we as Natives of a land still have a way to incorporate our ancestral knowledge into day-to-day life,” said Marc Chavez’s son Amon Chavez (Purépecha/Mexican), 17, marveling at how much traditional culture has been preserved by Native Hawaiians. “It proves that beyond all odds [Native Hawaiians] had not only a system of navigation and trade, and social hierarchies … but also that they were more advanced than most Western civilizations.”
Charlene Worrell, an adult chaperone from the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation, saw a valuable example for American Indian youth in the ways Native Hawaiians practice culture.
“They are doing not just preservation, but revitalization,” Worrell said. “By revitalizing they want it to be a living practice, it’s present and here today. It was very empowering for our youth to see.”