The art and science of Polynesian voyaging had gone unpracticed for nearly six centuries.
Then, in 1973, three intrepid men – artist Herb Kawainui K?ne, anthropologist Ben Finney, and sailor Charles Tommy Holmes – founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society in the hope of breathing life into the 2,000-year-old practice.
Throughout Hawai’i today, there are various endeavors that are dedicated to conserving and sharing of traditional knowledge, and people eager to keep the wisdom for the next generation.
Nainoa Thompson is among the first to participate in long distance ocean voyaging. After graduating from high school in 1975, he began to learn about voyaging from Pius “Mau” Piailug, master navigator from Satawal, Yap State, Micronesia, who played a pivotal role in the way-finding navigation resurgence in Hawai’i.
One particular H?k?le‘a, which is a traditional Hawaiian canoe, traveled for over three years on a voyage that made its way to New York City earlier this month. Thompson, who is the president of the Voyaging Society, served as captain for the New York leg of the voyage.
Under the guidance of many kapuna, Thompson began learning more about his Hawaiian culture and voyaging, allowing him to embark on a solo voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti in 1980.
“Voyaging is the pinnacle of understanding our connection to the earth and nature,” he said. “Navigation is a way, a tool, to help young people have a clear vision of values, service to community, preparation for training that is applicable to navigate their own lives.”
In 2007, Mau Piailug inducted five Native Hawaiians, including Thompson, and eleven Micronesian navigators into Pwo, the ninth degree of 15 in the Weriyeng School of Navigation of Micronesia. These navigators were given the responsibility to continue sharing those teachings.
These voyagers travel through the global waterscape by using traditional knowledge, including ocean waves, the stars, wind patterns, and other marine life.
“The ocean gathers up and takes your emotions,” Thompson said. “When I'm on the ocean, I surrender my intellectual mind and let myself commit to how peaceful, calm and how ferocious it can be. If you don't commit to it, it’s foolish to go.” “The biggest fear is loss of life. You overcome this by being informed and conducting an enormous amount of research. You have to be honest about what nature can do and what the canoe can handle. Evaluate the risks. It's all about the preparation.”
From continent to continent, they are risking their lives to keep not only their traditions alive, but also those of the communities they meet through cultural exchange. Before every landing, the crew members ask for permission from the original people of the land. On May 14, the H?k?le‘a navigated its way to the Washington, D.C. area, where the Piscataway Indian Nation welcomed them.
The arrival to New York City was a pivotal part of the journey. Apart from being home to the largest indigenous population in the United States, New York City is also home to the United Nations. On June 8, World Oceans Day, they presented a collection of declarations from countries that they have visited throughout the world, which express their commitments to the ocean. It is a promise they made to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in Samoa in 2014 when he boarded the H?k?le‘a.
The arrival of the H?k?le‘a on June 5 was followed by traditional ceremonies and gathering of various nations from the tri-state area. Courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society and Oiwi TV.
The H?k?le‘a arrived June 5 at the North Cove Marina in Battery Park in New York City. Representatives from New York tribes, including the original people of Manahatta, the Lenni Lenape, Shinnecock Indian Nation from Long Island, Ramapough Lenape Nation, Moraviantown Delaware Nation, Unkechaug, Mohegan, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy participated in the opening ceremonies.
The Hui Kipaepae of New York led a traditional awa ceremony and various hula halau (groups) from New York and Hawai’i also celebrated the arrival of H?k?le‘a.
On June 9, veteran crew members of the H?k?le‘a hosted a panel where they shared their experiences during a Q&A session.
The H?k?le‘a voyage, or as Thompson calls it “a voyage of revolutionary change,” will certainly not end once they reach their destination in Boston. Their teachings, lessons and stories will continue to be shared long after this H?k?le‘a voyage. We hope to see the H?k?le‘a and all its talented crew members safely sail the oceans again.
Genesis Tuyuc (Maya Kaqchikel), born and raised in New York City, is a fiction writer, filmmaker and community organizer. She is an alumnus of New York University, where she studied Linguistics and Creative Writing.