Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

Nainoa Thompson: Learning from Mau, Finding a Way (1980)

Nainoa continues, "Most of all we realized we did not know enough. We needed a teacher. Mau became essential. Mau is one of the few traditional master navigators of the Pacific left. And Mau is the only one who is able to reach beyond his culture to ours.

"I searched for Mau Piailug. Finally, I found him and flew to meet him. Mau is a man of few words, and all he said in answer to my plea was, 'We will see. I will let you know!' For months I heard nothing. Then one day I got a phone call; Mau was going to arrive in Honolulu with his son the next day.

"When Mau arrived here back in 1979, I said, 'Teach me, teach me in the traditional ways.' But Mau knew better. He said, 'You take paper and pencil! You write down! I teach you little bit at a time. I tell you once, and you don't forget.' He had recognized that I could not learn the way he had learned.

"Mau Pialug is from the island of Satawal. It's a mile and a half long and a mile wide. Population 600. Navigation's not about cultural revival, it's about survival. Not enough food can be produced on a small island like that. Their navigators have to go out to sea to catch the fish so they can eat. Mau was not like me, who learned by using both science and tradition. I started at an old age, at about 21. He started at one. He was picked by his grandfather, the master navigator for his people, taken to the tide pools of different parts of the island to sit in the water to sense the subtle changes in the water's movements. To feel the wind. To connect himself to that ocean world at a young age. His grandfather took him out to sail with him at age four. He told me that he would get seasick and when he was seven years old his grandfather would tie his hands and drag him behind the canoe to get rid of that. This was not abuse. This was to get him ready for the task of serving his community as the one who would go out to sea.

"Mau learned to turn the clues from the heaven and ocean world into knowledge by growing up at the side of his grandfather-he had been an apprentice in the traditional way. He had learned to remember many things through chants and would still chant to himself to 'revisit information.'"

"Mau's greatness as a teacher was to recognize that I had to learn differently. I was an adult; I needed to experiment and Mau let me. He never impeded my experimenting and sometimes even joined in.

"You never knew when a lesson started. He would suddenly sit down on the ground and teach me something about the stars. He'd draw a circle in the sand for the heavens; stones or shells would be the stars; coconut fronds were shaped into the form of a canoe; and single fronds represented the swells. He used string to trace the paths of the stars across the heaven or to connect important points.

"The best was going out on my fishing boat with Mau ... every day! I watched what he watched, listened to what he listened, felt what he felt. The hardest for me was to learn to read the ocean swells the way he can. Mau is able to tell so much from the swells-the direction we are traveling, the approach of an island. But this knowledge is hard to transmit. We don't sense things in exactly the same way as the next person does. To help me become sensitive to the movements of the ocean, Mau would steer different courses into the waves, and I would try to get the feel and remember the feel.

"Mau can unlock the signs of the ocean world and can feel his way through the ocean. Mau is so powerful. The first time Mau was in Hawai'i, I was in awe of him-I would just watch him and didn't dare to ask him questions. One night, when we were in Snug Harbor, someone asked him where the Southern Cross was. Mau, without turning around or moving his head, pointed in the direction of a brightly lit street lamp. I was curious and checked it. I ran around the street light and there, just where Mau had pointed, was the Southern Cross. It's like magic; Mau knows where something is without seeing it."

"Year after year he came and took us by the hand. He cares about people, about tradition; he has a vision. His impact will be carried beyond himself. His teaching becomes his legacy, and he will not soon be forgotten."

Finally, in the Spring of 1980, the crew of Hokule'a decided they were prepared- in spirit, in health, and in seamanship-to try once more to "raise the islands" as they had set out to do two years earlier with Eddie. Nainoa was now much better prepared to find the way without instruments. Mau would be there but would only step in if he felt there was serious danger to the canoe or the crew. And this time, there was an escort boat, the Ishka.

The difference on the trip in 1980 was that the round-trip trip was guided by and captained by people from Hawai'i. For our culture to really be alive, we recognized that we had to practice it ourselves. Mau Pialug made a fundamental step. He became, instead of the navigator, our teacher. An incredible feat, considering he could barely speak English. He was the one who came to Hawai'i and made this enormous cultural jump. I believe that the great genius of Mau Pialug is not just in being a navigator, but that he could cross great cultural bridges and help us ... like taking children by the hand ... find our way on the sea. All of this came from a very powerful sense of caring on his part.

At the end of our voyage, Mau told me, 'Everything was there in the ocean for you to learn, but it will take you 20 years to see.' Mau is right. For me to learn all the faces of the ocean, to sense the subtle cues, the slight differences in ocean swells, in the colors of the ocean, the shapes of the clouds and the winds, and to unlock these cues and glean their information in the way Mau can, will take many years more. Initially, I used geometry and analytic mathematics to help me in my quest to navigate the ancient way. However as my 'ocean time' and my time with Mau have grown, I have internalized this knowledge, and my need for mathematics has become less. I come closer and closer to navigating the way the ancients did.