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He Moku, He Kanaka: Celebrating Our Pacific Seafaring Heritage

Eia Hawai‘i, he moku, he kanaka
He kanaka Hawai‘i e
Here is Hawai‘i, an island, a man
Hawai‘i is a man, indeed 

Some things only live on in the stories of our grandparents. Centuries-old knowledge is replaced with new skills and technologies; masters struggle to find apprentices; once-common activities are slowly abandoned. Change happens without warning, and all we are left with are recollections from our ancestors that we can imagine but fear we will never experience for ourselves. And yet sometimes all it takes is the right person at the right moment to envision a different reality and dare to bring it to life.

“He reminded us that we are part of a shared Pacific heritage and have a responsibility to each other to help strengthen and move our cultures forward into the future.”

In mid-twentieth century Hawaiʻi, such was the case for ho‘okele wa‘a, traditional non instrument canoe navigation. It had not been seen or done in generations. All that remained were the stories of great seafarers like Pa‘ao, Mo‘ikeha, La‘amaikahiki, and Kaha‘i. Men who knew how to read the skies and seas. Men who could “pull up” islands from the depths of the ocean. Men whose travels connected the people of the Pacific as one family.

But these men were long gone, as were their canoes and their wisdom. Or were they? Little did we know that the right conditions for wa‘a consciousness to reawaken were on the horizon. What we lacked was a teacher, when Micronesian master navigator Pius “Mau” Piailug appeared to fill the void.

Mau not only trained the next generation of Polynesian navigators in the technical aspects of wayfinding; he taught much deeper lessons about identity and purpose. He reminded us that we are part of a shared Pacific heritage and have a responsibility to each other to help strengthen and move our cultures forward into the future. He showed us that the ocean does not separate our islands, but instead brings us closer together. And he understood the delicate nature of transmitting knowledge. A single break in the chain, and all could be lost once more. Therein lies the importance of students who one day become the teachers; of people like Nainoa Thompson who are now mentoring a new wave of passionate young apprentices and challenging everyone to create their own spaces to “think wa‘a”—to care for our resources and the people we call family.

As our wa‘a and crews embark on a journey to spread the message of Malama Honua, they represent an island nation and a people—he moku, he kanaka—that is much larger than Hawai‘i or Polynesia alone. They represent our collective identity as the people of Oceania.

Tonight, our students join together in song to honor some of the most celebrated voyagers and canoes of the last millennium, including those of today. And while Hokule‘a prepares to leave the Pacific for the first time, her companion vessel, Hikianalia, will soon be returning home to inspire a new generation of Hawaiian leaders to step forward. Leaders who will give voice to our contemporary experiences and breathe life into the next set of stories all but forgotten.