Learning about Hokule’a

While we were traveling, there was one subject that kept coming up: Hokule’a. I had never heard of it before coming to Hawai’i, but it was everywhere on the islands. In this post I’ll share some of what I learned in our travels.

Hokule’a is an ocean-going canoe that was built by members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and lots of volunteers in the 1970s during the Hawaiian Renaissance, a resurgence of cultural practices and language and Native Hawai’ian pride. (There’s lots of information about the Polynesian Voyaging Society and their previous projects at this web site, and information about their current project here.)

Hokule’a is the Hawai’ian name for the star also called Arcturus, which you can find by arcing over from the handle of the Big Dipper; it’s part of the constellation The Herdsman. It’s very bright and noticeable, and has a reddish hue to it–even a non-astronomer person like me can find it! Here’s a link about its place in Anglo-European and other cosmologies. In Hawai’ian star knowledge, Hokule’a is the “Star of Gladness” or “Star of Joy,” an important guide for those traveling on the Pacific Ocean. In the planetarium and on O’ahu, looking at the sky at night, we were able to spot it pretty easily.

At the Bishop Museum’s planetarium show, the astronomers told a story of using the planetarium to help the navigators of Hokule’a learn about the night sky in Hawai’i, and across the Pacific Ocean; their first navigator, a man from Satawal (an island in Micronesia) named Pius Mau Piailug, or “Papa Mau,” knew the traditional methods of way-finding that had been passed down for generations. I loved that the project involved multiple ways of knowing–traditional, using oral stories and maps drawn on the ground, and western, using the latest technology in simulating the night sky. Both were useful and respected.

canoe replica at Imiloa

Replica of a double-hulled canoe, Imiloa Astronomy Center

The traditions of wayfinding through the Pacific were almost lost due to colonialism–as evidenced by the Hokule’a crew having to go outside Hawai’i to find a navigator. We learned from Craig Santos Perez, a poet from Guam/Guahan, that his ancestors’ canoes had all been burned by Spanish invaders so that the islanders could not leave. (He writes about this event and its aftermath in From Unincorporated Territory: Saina.) But in 1976, Hokule’a, a canoe of traditional design, sailed from Hawai’I to Tahiti and back again, the crew using the old ways of navigating, just as Pacific Islanders had been doing for hundreds of years before colonization.

This achievement in and of itself is fantastic and wonderful and exciting and inspiring. But when people revive an important piece of their culture, it’s not just about that one piece; all sorts of other things come along with it. Hokule’a brought with it the revival and resurgence of Native language and cultural practices, research into traditional methods of things like ship-building and carving and plant-growing and harvesting, the creation of new songs and learning of old chants, and the creation of new connections among people across the Pacific Islands as well as within Hawai’i. Hokule’a created a resurgence of pride and hope.

The story I heard repeatedly was that, after the first voyage of Hokule’a, Native Hawai’ians (and other indigenous Pacific Island people) knew that their ancestors, their kupuna, were not backward, primitive, savage people. They didn’t just reach Hawai’i by accident, by luck (as had been theorized). They were navigators and ocean voyagers with a sophisticated understanding of the sea and the land, and they knew what they were doing. They had developed technologies and fields of knowledge that enabled them to do something we still see as astounding. And their kupuna crossed the ocean again and again. As a film at the Bishop Museum put it, the Pacific Ocean was not a void that separated the people of the various islands from each other, but a path that connected all of them to each other. It was the means by which they traveled to each other.

canoe exhibit at Bishop

Pacific Island canoes, exhibit at the Bishop Museum

Hokule’a has traveled many times now, all over the Pacific; she is sailing, right now, all over the world. (More on that below.)

I became fascinated by Hokule’a, and at every island felt like the canoe “talked” to me in unexpected ways. The Hawai’ian Airlines in-flight magazine Hana Hou ran a cover story on Hokule’a while we were there. At the Airbnb place we rented on Maui, one man living in the house had sailed with Hokule’a and told us stories of how he and other crew members lived and traveled on the ocean. When we were invited to a family reunion on Maui, the band played a song that had been written by a crew member on Hokule’a on one of its journeys. (Here’s a version of it sung by Iz.)

On the big island, the woman who took care of the Airbnb place we rented was the daughter of a pastor who had blessed the canoe and the crew at the beginning and end of their journey. Her nephew is a canoe-carver who has worked with the Hokule’a crew, and in that same family, I met the daughter of one of the navigators who is on Hokule’a right now.

I kept getting reminders, little proddings to learn more, find out more, listen more. Everywhere we went, if I brought up Hokule’a, people knew where it was that day, and where it was going next. I plan to keep learning, and keep following where she is. Hokule’a is leading me forward.

Here’s a web site where you can track Hokule’a’s World Wide Voyage, her current project to bring awareness to the health of Mother Earth. (And here’s a film about that project.) On this journey, she is accompanied by Hikianalia, a second canoe outfitted with equipment the crew is using to make measurements and track data about the health of the ocean and air and the creatures that live in them. Young crew members and apprentice navigators are being trained on this journey, and will take over on its last leg.

Hokule’a is writing a new future, one in which the next generation practices and passes down the art of way-finding… and so many other important ways of understanding our place in the universe.


One thought on “Learning about Hokule’a

  1. Mahalo for your mention of EarthSky. I have always had interest in Hawaiian and Polynesian mythology and starlore. Unfortunately, only distant Ohana (to be honest, just a hui for me… My wife has second cousin [?] and family friends) in the Islands. You are lucky to live there!

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