1985-1987 The Voyage of Rediscovery
Nainoa Thompson: Recollections of the Voyage of Rediscovery, with Crew Lists
Ben Finney: The Voyage of Rediscovery and its Significance
Carlos Andrade: Aotearoa to Samoa: One Memorable Stormy Night with Mau and a Song
Herb Kawainui Kāne: The Seekers: A Story of Hōkūle‘a’s 1985 Visit to Taputapuātea

The Seekers

Herb Kawainui Kāne

(published in Mānoa, A Pacific Journal of International Writing, Vol. 5, No. 1, Summer 1993)

Taputapuatea, Rai‘atea, c. 1985. KS Archives

This is a true story, although the names of some fo the people have been changed.

"By the way," my old friend Henry asked as he stirred his coffee, "have you heard anything from two Hawaiian grandmothers who recently visited me in Mo'orea?"

"No." I could sense a story coming. "Should I have?"

In the fall of 1982, Henry Rittmeister had come to Hawai'i on some business, and taken the opportunity to visit friends. While in Kona, he called me, and we met for a long lunch. We had not seen each other since his retirement to the South Pacific two years earlier, so it was a good excuse not to do any work that day. He and Ahu'ura, his Tahitian wife, had moved from Kona to the little island of Mo'orea, near Tahiti, and a life of voluntary simplicity. A chat with Henry was always entertaining, enriched by many years of experience as a hotel manager in the Pacific.

"These ladies-they had a message for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, something about the sailing canoe, Hokule'a. They felt it was important. The message is from some people they met on Ra'iatea and Mo'orea. Knowing of your involvement with the Society, I gave them your phone number. Are there any plans to sail the canoe to Tahiti again?"

"None whatsoever. But what's the message?" I asked.

"I don't know, exactly, but I'll tell you what I can. I happened to be at the Mo'orea air strip one morning, when the station manager asked me to speak with two ladies from Hawai'i who knew neither French nor Tahitian and apparently were in some difficulty. He led me to two Hawaiian ladies, standing in the hot sunlight, clutching their bags, and looking as wilted as the flower leis upon their lauhala hats.

"There was nothing exceptional about them, just two Hawaiian grandmothers. You see them everywhere in Honolulu. One was plump, the other more slender, but they were obviously sisters. Both seemed very confused, as if they had just stepped out of a Honolulu supermarket to find themselves on a strange island thousands of miles away. I got them out of the sun and gave them my attention.

"They said that they had flown to Tahiti on the previous afternoon, and must now find an old man on some island 'to the sunset' from Tahiti, as they put it-a 'tutu man' who would resemble their own dead grandfather. They had both seen him in dreams. He seemed to be without arms or legs. And he seemed to be calling to them.

"They were also searching for something they called 'the heart of the drum,' and there was also something about a mountain and a rainbow, but they had no idea what any of it meant.

"The plump one, Nalani, showed me a drawing she had made. One afternoon, still sleepy after a nap, she put some water on the stove for tea and sat down at her kitchen table. Crayons and paper had been left on the table by a grandchild, and she began doodling. The crayon seemed to move by itself, drawing a vertical rectangle which resembled an ancient temple drum which she had seen at Bishop Museum. Then it drew a figure of a man, a simplified "stick" figure similar to the petroglyphs carved on the rocks here in Kona. The figure seemed to be leaping upwards, away from the drum. Then she drew the concentric arches of a rainbow, and what appeared to be a mountain.

"On another day, after a nap, the same thing happened. She picked up a pencil and it wrote 'Kahiki,' Hawaiian for 'Tahiti,' and 'kaulana a ka la,' 'the resting place of the sun.' The sisters discussed all these signs-they speak very little Hawaiian, by the way-but could make nothing of them. They took their questions to someone who suggested that the answers to everything might be found somewhere 'to the sunset from Tahiti.' Neither had ever been away from Hawai'i, but a travel agent told them how to get passports, and sold them tickets.

"When they landed in Tahiti, they saw Mo'orea in the sunset. Not knowing where to find a hotel, they sat all night in the airport and took the morning plane to Mo'orea, paying far too much to a sharp agent because they didn't know how to change their money to francs. Now they were on Mo'orea, with no hotel reservations. The rates would have been beyond their means in any case, so I invited them home.

"Our home became their base of operations for twenty-eight days."

"Your little house, Henry? With no electricity, no television, no refrigerator?"

"Primitive by Honolulu standards, to be sure. They kept looking for light switches, that sort of thing. But they rather enjoyed it-said that it was just like 'the olden days' back in their 'small kid time.' They were amused by little things, like discovering an occasional morning egg in one of their shoes out on the porch-my chickens do that, you know."

"Ahu'ura must have taken a dim view of the situation," I remarked. Henry's Tahitian wife was a hospitable and gracious lady, but I knew she must have limits.

"Aside from reminding me that I'm no longer a hotel manager, she did not complain; and, as luck would have it, they were away much of the time. But she was skeptical about their story. You know how it is with some Hawaiians and Tahitians who have little knowledge of their own history and traditions, yet love to romanticize the past and invent all sorts of nonsense. My wife has no patience with the self-styled kahunas and their monkeyshines.

"She suggested that if the ladies wanted to investigate Mo'orea or the leeward islands farther west, I might introduce them to those who were most familiar with these islands-the cultural society known as the Pu'u Ario'i. These people are dedicated to preserving their culture. They have splendid programs in the native arts. They produce beautifully costumed performances of traditional dances involving many children; and they do this not for tourists, but for themselves. On Mo'orea they have a place for meetings and craftswork-thatch-roofed pavilions, open on the sides for the breeze, in a pleasant park-like setting shaded by trees and palms.

"I arranged to take the sisters there for an evening meeting. Therese, wife of your friend Tom Cummings on Ra'iatea, happened to be visiting us, and she served as a translator. I helped a little." Henry's native tongue is German; but as a youth, after literally walking out of Hitler's Germany in disgust; he had become articulate in French, Tahitian, and English.

"It was a lovely night, illuminated by the moon and several kerosene lamps; but the meeting turned into something of an inquisition. The people were openly skeptical of the sisters' story, and some of their questions were not exactly friendly. In the lamplight the stern face of the chief interrogator presented a devilish appearance as he probed for contradictions in their statements. Though the sisters were soon moved to tears, they were steadfast.

"Nalani's drawing of the drum brought a response from two brothers from Easter Island, now living on Mo'orea. Both are fine wood carvers. They said that for some time, they had been talking about making a great drum. Then some of the local men, who had been listening silently in the darkness, remarked that they had also been discussing the idea of making a tall temple drum, one that might have a great voice. There were questions about Hawaiian temple drums which the sisters could not answer. The talk about drums became a subject of conversational interest, and the people became more friendly.

"The sisters were emphatic about finding their 'tutu man' who might tell them what their trip was all about. Tehani, a young woman who spoke some English, offered to take them around the island the next day. Someone else offered the use of a truck. There was some good-natured laughter when another asked-in Tahitian that would not be translated-if the quest of two elderly Hawaiian ladies throughout the Tahitian islands for an old man might indicate early impotence among Hawaiian men. Several in the group decided to ride along in the truck just to see what might happen.

"They didn't find their 'tutu man,' but, as they passed one of the river valleys, Nalani glanced inland and saw a mountain shaped much like the one in her drawing. They turned inland, and followed a road that led through the valley and up the slope of the mountain. At the end of the road, they followed a footpath that led to a marae, the rock platform of an ancient temple. Lured by a mist of rain and a beckoning rainbow farther up the slope, the sisters decided that they must climb higher, even though there was no trail.

"Can you picture it? City-dwelling Hawaiian grandmothers, for whom a trip to a shopping mall is major exercise, scrambling up a mountain, followed by gasping Mo'oreans. The slender one, Kawena, plowed ahead through long grass and brush. Then it happened.

"Kawena seized a bush to help herself up the steep slope. As she pulled the branches down, a broad rock face was revealed. On the rock was what appeared to be a petroglyph-an outline of a tall drum, and the figure of a man leaping upwards away from it.

"Having seen Nalani's drawing, the Mo'oreans now gave the sisters their full attention. All agreed that the search for the old man must continue. Tehani would guide them, taking them to the islands farther to the west-first to Ra'iatea because of the legendary Hawaiian connection to that island. As you know, Ra'iatea-anciently named Havai'i-was the homeland of adventurers who sailed to Hawaii many centuries ago and founded the dynasty of ruling chiefs of the Hawaiian Islands. Tehani accepted donations for her airfare, and the three flew to Ra'iatea.

"They hired a car and drove to the great rock platform of the marae of Taputapuatea , the seat of power from whence-according to your Hawaiian legends-the conquering priest Pa'ao had sailed north to the new Hawai'i. Tehani explained to the Hawaiian ladies that this had been the Vatican of their remote ancestors. Other Hawaiians had made a pilgrimage to this place-those who came on Hokule'a in 1976.

They arrived at the marae in a light rain, a misting rain that moved ahead of them on the path. High above, coconut fronds were shaken by a wind they did not feel. At the marae they met some local people who had heard of their arrival and wanted a word with them.

"Which is why I must tell you this story, Herb, because of your past involvement with the voyaging canoe replica, Hokule'a. The sisters meant to call you when they returned to Hawaii. They said that the people at Taputapuatea , as well as the Pu'u Ario'i on Mo'orea, gave them a message to pass on to, as they put it, 'the Hokule'a guys.'

"I'll await their call," I said.

"Of course. Well, after they had searched in vain for their 'tutu man' on Ra'iatea, they went on to nearby Huahine. Lovely little island, and steeped in antiquity-so many ancient marae. Tehani wanted to visit a great uncle on Huahine. He had been ill, and she hadn't seen him in years. He could tell them about the old men of his island.

"They landed at the little airport and caught a ride to the old man's house. He was sitting in the shade of his porch. The sisters couldn't see him clearly until they reached the steps. Then they both stopped and began to weep. One said, 'You look just like our own tutu!'

"The old man said a few words in Tahitian. 'What did he say?' the sisters asked, and Tehani answered, 'He said, "So here you are."'

"'But we saw you in dreams with no arms or legs,' they wept. The old man replied that he had recently suffered some paralysis from a stroke, but was recovering the use of his limbs.

"Then came the other questions. What did it all mean-the heart of the drum? Is there really a drum? Where is it? Why were they searching for it? He beckoned them up the steps.

"He told them about a great drum that had been made by the ancestors long ago. But, as Tehani translated, it all came out in the present tense, as if he had been there. Perhaps he spoke in the same manner that he had heard the story from his grandfather, and his grandfather had heard it earlier, and so on back through the generations.

"You know how the past merges with the present in the telling of some Polynesian legends. Whether something happened a thousand years ago or yesterday makes no difference; the Polynesian is merely the living edge of that great body of ancestral spirits-all the countless lives that have been lived before. The events of their lives are part of his life; he feels that he has participated. So it was with the drum.

"The drum, it seems to me, symbolizes the collective power of the People, power that has been lost. As you know, the old Polynesians believed that temple drums were invested with great power; when struck, their voices could summon powerful spirits.

"According to the old man, a thief from under another sky-a metaphor for foreigners, I believe-stole the heart from it, then leaped away. The drum could no longer be sounded. People drifted apart, lost contact with each other, became powerless, aimless. It was said that the drum was hidden away in a mountain.

"When the sisters asked why they were searching, the old man replied that a people who do not search for what they have lost will become a lost people. There will be many other searchers, he predicted. Polynesians are moving about as never before. In just the last few years he has seen people from New Zealand and the Cook Islands, from Easter Island, from the Marquesas, from Tonga and Samoa. The Hawaiians came in Hokule'a, and now many Hawaiians are visiting the South Pacific, and growing numbers of South Pacific Polynesians are visiting Hawai'i. And a canoe is being built in Tahiti that will be sailed to New Zealand. All are searching.

"Only when a great many people are searching will the heart of the drum be found. There will be a great expectation, and people will be listening-not deafened as they have been. And there will be a great turmoil in the heavens, and a heaping of clouds, and blazing lightning. And lightning will strike the mountain, and the drum will sound.

"And when the drum sounds, everyone who is of Polynesian ancestry, wherever they may be in the world, will hear it, and become one people again."

A few days later, just before his return to Tahiti, Henry phoned me from Honolulu to say goodbye and to inquire once more if I had heard anything from the two sisters. I had not.

"They may not wish to disturb you," he said, " but they said they had something important to tell 'the Hokule'a guys,' before another voyage is made."

"Henry, Hokule'a has already made two voyages to Tahiti, as you know. There are no plans for another."

"So be it. I neglected to get their addresses before they returned to Honolulu, but I remember the slender one, Kawena, saying that she works as a waitress at the Tiki Tops restaurant in Kaneohe. If you do hear from them, you might remind them to write to Ahu'ura to thank her for her hospitality. They said they would write, but you know how Polynesians are about writing letters."

"Thanks, Henry, but I'll let it rest. I don't know quite what to make of it-their story."

"Bothers you?"

"Bothers me."

Several months later I found myself driving through Kane'ohe. I had flown to O'ahu that morning to keep a business appointment on the North Shore, and was returning to Honolulu along the windward side of O'ahu . Waiting at a stop light, I noticed the Tiki Tops sign across the intersection. "What the hell," I thought. I turned into the parking lot.

It was a busy place and several waitresses were scurrying about. One had Hawaiian features, and the cashier confirmed that her name was Kawena. I ordered coffee at the counter, and, when she had a free moment, the cashier directed her to me.

"Oh, you're Mister Kane," she said. "I saw your picture somewhere. My sister and I want to talk to you. I'm almost pau with my shift, and I'll call her to come over."

She showed me to a booth. I looked at a newspaper while I waited, and in about twenty minutes her sister arrived. The restaurant was now almost deserted.

I went over their entire story with them, and heard it as Henry had told it to me.

"He wrote down your phone number in Kona, but when we got back we couldn't find the paper," Kawena said. "When Tehani took us to Taputapuatea , the big marae, the people there asked us to talk to the Hokule'a guys. They said that in the olden days, when the last canoe left, the chief of the canoe-Maui was his name -turned back and put a kapu on the place. Tapu, they call it.

"Only one thing can lift the kapu. A canoe must come from Hawai'i, and it must come into the lagoon through the narrow pass in the reef right outside the temple-Teavamoa, they call the pass. When Hokule'a came to Ra'iatea before, in 1976, it was brought through the main ship passage outside the town of Uturoa. Wrong place. The people were unhappy, but nobody had told the Hokule'a guys any different; and the guy who took them through, he was from Tahiti, and he didn't know how important it was to come in through Teavamoa Pass.

"When we returned to Mo'orea, we met again with the Pu'u Ario'i folks. They have this old kupuna man they look up to, and he said the same as the folks at Taputapuatea . When Hokule'a comes again, it should sail right in at Taputapuatea and lift the kapu. He said that the kapu is a curse for Mo'orea. All canoes that tried to sail from Mo'orea to Taputapuatea have failed. It has been this way for hundreds of years; and not until a canoe from Hawai'i sails in through the pass at Taputapuatea can the curse be lifted.

"So will you tell the Hokule'a guys, please? When Hokule'a comes again?"

"I'll pass it on," I replied, "but there's no plan to sail Hokule'a to Tahiti again. She's already made two trips, one in '76 and one in '80."

"We'll have to go to Tahiti again," Nalani said. "We don't know when, or what this all means, but the old man on Huahine said we would make another trip, maybe more. And the old kupuna man at Mo'orea was sure that Hokule'a would come again, in just a couple years, but he said he would be dead by then. When Hokule'a comes, he will die."

Two years later, I was agreeably surprised when Nainoa Thompson called to tell me that another voyage with Hokule'a was being planned. I had withdrawn from active participation in the Polynesian Voyaging Society after moving from Honolulu to Kona, because of the difficulty and expense of attending board meetings in Honolulu; but I regularly received minutes of meetings, and occasionally enjoyed a phone conversation with those who now were caring for the voyaging canoe. This new voyage would be the most ambitious of all-a campaign covering approximately 16,000 miles. The double-canoe would call at the Tuamotus, the Tahitian group, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, and Samoa; returning through the Cook Islands and Tahiti to Hawai'i. It would be navigated entirely without instruments.

I sent a memo to Myron Thompson, the Society's president, informing him of the request from the Pu'u Ario'i of Ra'iatea and Mo'orea.

Before the canoe departed from South Kona in 1985, I drove to the little fishing village of Miloli'i, where it was moored, to have a look at it and chat with some of the crew. Hokule'a was anchored in a sunny little cove, its bows facing the sea. Bobbing restlessly on the gentle, sparkling swell, it seemed to be taut, alive, impatient, eager to get going. I silently wished it bon voyage.

A month later, Hokule'a arrived in Tahiti, once again navigated entirely without instruments by Nainoa. Any remaining skepticism about the adequacy of Polynesian navigation was now thoroughly silenced.

While at Tahiti, Nainoa and the captain, Gordon Pi'ianai'a, were visited by a delegation from the Pu'u Ario'i with an invitation to bring the canoe to Mo'orea. A feast and ceremonies were planned. Mo'orea was not on the itinerary, but to decline the invitation would appear ungracious; moreover, cultural exchange was a purpose of the voyage. Gordon accepted the invitation.

He had met some of the Pu'u Ario'i on Mo'orea five years earlier, during the previous voyage of Hokule'a. Their senior kupuna, the leading elder, had honored Gordon with a Tahitian name, Tamatoa, and had predicted that both Gordon and Hokule'a would someday return-a prediction which, at the time, seemed highly unlikely.

Hokule'a was welcomed to Mo'orea with a formal oration that lasted perhaps thirty minutes. Historian Abraham Pi'ianai'a, Gordon's father, having joined the crew at Tahiti, was able to respond with correct protocol, modifying his impeccable Hawaiian slightly so that it could be understood by Tahitian ears. His response drew a tremendous ovation.

Gordon noticed that the old man he had met five years earlier was not among the Pu'u Ario'i.

The Hawaiians were overwhelmed with hospitality; and a special request was formally presented to them: when they reached Ra'iatea, would they please sail into the lagoon through the pass outside of Taputapuatea ? This had been the wish of their senior elder, that a canoe from Hawai'i land at Taputapuatea and lift the curse which Mo'orea canoe navigators had suffered for centuries. Unfortunately, that elder could not make the plea himself. True to his own prediction, he had died on the day that Hokule'a had landed at Tahiti.

The day after leaving Mo'orea, the canoe reached Huahine, 140 miles to the west.

On the following morning, a departure from Huahine was made for Ra'iatea. Writer Bob Krauss of the Honolulu Advertiser was aboard, and he noted something unusual. Other departures had been made in fine sunny weather, but this one was made on a dark morning, with heavy clouds hanging low over the peaks of Huahine. Bob took special notice of a great rainbow that seemed to move directly ahead of the canoe.

Navigator Nainoa Thompson was concerned about the approach of cirrus, which often precedes bad weather, and a dark squall moving rapidly out of the east; but, knowing that Ra'iatea was only a few hours away, he decided to continue onward. The squall passed by to starboard without striking the canoe. Ra'iatea could not be seen, the horizon being completely obscured by low clouds and a light screen of rain which moved ahead of the canoe.

The sun, rising dead astern, projected a huge double rainbow on the screen of rain ahead. Nainoa saw that his course lay directly toward the center of the rainbow.

The steersman, feeling no pressure on the steering paddle, lifted it out of the water. With its two sails set in balanced trim, Hokule'a will steer itself in light winds, and this seemed to be one of those moments. He kept an eye on the heading, expecting to drop the steering paddle back into the water the moment the canoe veered off course. But the canoe did not change course. It was steering itself, holding the correct course to Ra'iatea, following the rainbow.

To Nainoa, everything in nature seemed to be moving in a majestic westward procession-the wind, the squall, the clouds and rain ahead, the rising sun, the gigantic rainbow, and the canoe.

The steering paddle was lashed down on deck. All aboard were curious to see how long the canoe would hold its bearing without human intervention. Obscured by rain, Ra'iatea remained invisible; still the canoe continued to hold its correct bearing, sailing itself directly toward the center of the rainbow.

Soon it was observed that the canoe was not just sailing in the general direction of Ra'iatea, but directly toward the estimated location of Taputapuatea on the island's southeast coast. That, said crewman John Kruse later, was when everyone started getting "chicken skin." To Gordon Pi'ianai'a, dutifully attentive to the canoe as its captain, Hokule'a seemed to pick up speed as it neared its destination, but with no increase in wind velocity.

When the dark, blurred shape of Ra'iatea began to materialize, there was some discussion about a course change based on the sighting of a certain motu, one of the tiny palm-tufted coral islets which stand upon fringing reefs and are often used as landmarks in locating a passage through a reef into a lagoon. But it was decided that the correct course was still dead ahead-into the center of the rainbow.

And so Hokule'a sailed itself to within only a few hundred yards from Teavamoa, the opening in the reef outside of Taputapuatea. Human control was required only for the approach into the narrow pass.

"That entire day seemed beyond our control," Gordon recalls. "As far as I know, we did not tell anyone when we would leave Huahine, yet upon our arrival at Teavamoa Pass and the Taputapuatea Marae we were greeted by members of Te Pu'u Ario'i and people of Ra'iatea."

Hokule‘a in Tahiti, 1986. KS Archives

My friends, Tom and Therese Cummings, were then residing on Ra'iatea. In a letter, he wrote: "When we heard that people were gathering in expectation of the canoe's arrival, we took an outboard through the lagoon and waited just inside the pass. Therese was the first to see the blurred shape of the canoe approaching through a curtain of light rain. Then suddenly it was through the pass, and into the calm water of the lagoon. "

The anchors were set. Ashore, descendants of ancient adventurers who had left Ra'iatea centuries ago were greeted with song by descendants of those who had remained.

When I heard the news, I thought that the sisters would be pleased to know about it. I found Nalani's phone number and placed a call. The voice of a young woman answered.

"Aunty Nalani not here," she said.

When I asked about Kawena, the voice said "She gone, too. They both went South Pacific, someplace."