Canoe Building


Canoe Life

Polynesian Migrations

The Pacific Arts Festival in 1992 was the joining of Pacific island nations every four years to celebrate the visual and performing arts. It was selected to be held in Rarotonga in 1992. The prime minister of this historic island said, "let's dedicate it to our historic voyaging ancestors" and he asked that each island group bring a model of their canoes to display. And somebody said, "no, we will sail our canoes." And you know Polynesians, how they are! That challenged everybody else. So they decided to build their canoes. They called Hawai'i and asked for assistance and it was a great opportunity for us to pay back - in a small way - the kindness we found all through the south pacific. They took care of Hokule'a like it was their own. It also gave us the opportunity to move into a new area - education. We recognized the importance of education in the revival of our culture. In the end, seventeen canoes participated. We asked that each canoe bring a stone from their native lands. It was the beginning of a sharing of knowledge which has now become Pacific-wide. I want you to know that when they were planning the Pacific Arts Festival two festivals before this, they did not invite Hawai'i because they thought that the Hawai'ians had sold out their culture to tourism.

It took five years to build a voyaging canoe out of native materials. Hokule'a is made mostly of modern materials. We started in our koa forests and ended up finding that in the last 80 to a 100 years, 90% of our koa trees have been cut down. The ecosystems which once supported this healthy forest is in trouble. We could not find a single koa tree that was big enough and healthy enough to build one hull of a canoe.

We went elsewhere; we went to Alaska. We knew trees from the Pacific Northwest drifted to Hawai'i, and our ancestors cherished them. We asked the Alaskan native Indians, people we didn't know, "Can we have two trees to build a canoe?" They didn't know us, but they responded immediately without hesitation and said yes. You tell us what you need. So we told them the specifications. And they said they would search. And they did, six weeks into the most remote parts of their forests. And then they called us up and said, we have the trees of your specifications. We're not going to cut them down unless you come up here and tell us it's okay. Because we believe that our people are connected to the natural environment, that the trees and the forests are family to our people. And we're not going to take the life of a family member unless we know this is what you want. So we flew up to Alaska. We got a helicopter from Ketchikan and went west 80 miles to this remote forest. This was exactly what we wanted in our dimensions. When they asked us, shall we cut these trees down, I told them no ... we can't do that. Everybody got real quiet. I couldn't explain myself. We went back on the helicopter, no one talked. We flew back to Honolulu. The trees remained in the forest. Something was wrong. I didn't know what it was. I talked to Auntie Aggie Cope. I talked to John Dominis Holt, our elders who were on the Board supporting this project to build the canoe called Hawai'i Loa. Why did I not cut the trees down? It was because for us to take the trees out of Alaska, to some degree, we're walking away from the pain and the destruction of our forests. We could not take the life form of another tree unless we dealt with that abuse in our own homeland. The answer was clear. Our elders told us, you know what the answers are and it's very simple. To deal with the abuse you need to renew it. The only answer before you cut down somebody else's trees is to plant your own. We started programs at Kamehameha Schools, and now we've now planted over 11,000 koa seedlings. So that in 100 years, the next two generations, we'll have maybe forests of voyaging canoes.

Then we went back to Alaska, and we cut the trees down. The Alaskan people are very interesting. They said, you take these trees. It is a gift to you, but do not ask us how much it cost. And do not ever bring them back. Because then it's not a gift. We estimate the cost to be about a third of a million. They cut them down, they took them out of the forest, they shipped them to Hawai'i. Consider these trees. This is in the Bishop Museum. These trees were -- one was 218 feet tall, 418 years old, weighed 100,000 pounds. Now what do we do? This was what the project was about. It was finding a focus, a vision of building a voyaging canoe that people could feel was special enough to bring all their resources together. Because we knew for us to do this like in ancient times, it would take the effort of a healthy community to build a voyaging canoe. We brought in the best --Wright Bowman, Jr., whom I consider the best canoe builder in Hawai'i. His job was to pull a 4,000-pound hull out of a 100,000-pound tree. We needed 10 lauhala sails. We asked our weavers to help us build our sails, our native weavers, and they told us, "No, we're not going to do that because the job is too big, and if we make a mistake, maybe you'll die." They didn't want to be responsible; that's the old way. We asked them to please try. And after about a month of coaxing, they said "Yes, we will try." These two ladies, Mrs. Nunes and Mrs. Akana, made the first sail big enough for a voyaging canoe, probably in 600 years. The thing that impressed me most was that it took them 13 months. We estimate about 280,000 weaves for the sail. When you take up the panels and put it up against the light, you can barely see a pinhole through it. These two ladies had reached what we felt we were searching for the most - - that is pursuit of excellence in our people, in our traditions, in our heritage. And it's because of the great concern they had for our well-being that they put in so much care into weaving those sails.

The building of Hawai'i Loa brought together people -- we estimate half-a-million man hours were spent building the canoe. No metal parts, three miles of lashing. In the end it was a journey of people coming together because they shared a common vision, common values. They worked together for something they believed was special, not just to themselves but to their whole community.

We then sailed and trained for two years. We sailed 2,000 miles in Hawai'i before we left. We made huge mistakes. We took the canoe out and sailed it. Our first day we almost got run over by a container ship outside of Waikiki because we couldn't turn it around. We recognized we made some big mistakes in our computer design and took it back out of the water. There was an imbalance between the hull design and our sails. The only answer was to turn the canoe around. We took all the three miles of lashings off, relashed it, sailed it backwards, it worked perfect.

The voyage in 1995 was not just about Hokule'a , but rather the children of Hokule'a -- Hawai'i Loa, another canoe called Makali'i, two canoes from Tahiti, two from Rarotonga, and Te Aurere from Aotearoa. We all sailed to a place called, Taputapuatea in Raiatea ... a place of great teaching in navigation, the most appropriate place to start this voyage that would take these canoes to the Marquesas. Some, believe it is the homeland to the first people to come to Hawai'i..

We trained navigators for five years. Recognizing that for our culture to be strong, if navigators are an important part of that, then we have to build strength in our numbers. These are the six canoes that made the voyage from the Marquesas to Hawai'i, over 2,200 miles of open ocean. Five of them, navigated by navigators from their own islands, trained to sail them in the ancient way. These colors that you see here correspond to the routes that they sailed. We put transponders to locate positions of the canoes for documentation and safety. We staggered the departures from the Marquesas, so that each canoe was by itself. If we were all together, one canoe would be leading, everybody else would be following. So everybody sailed on their own. If you look at these tracks, it's interesting to note that the navigational system works. But what's more interesting, to me, is that the process of education can work to accelerate learning when you combine tradition and science, and when you have people who are motivated -- compassionate enough to work hard and commit themselves to a difficult task as this is.

I think this is a very powerful image of Te Aurere sailing off Honolulu; she was joined on that day by the five other Polynesian voyaging canoes that had made the journey from Nukuhiva to Hawai'i with her:

This slide to me is about fulfillment of dreams. Not just dreams, but powerful beliefs that what you're doing is important, it's worth the commitment -- that even though you're committing to the risk of maybe even death. I dedicate this to Hector Busby ... his vision, and his commitment to his people. I've seen the struggle. This is not an easy thing to do. And I honor him with this simple little image of our home and his canoe in our waters.

We took our two canoes to Seattle on a Matson ship. Hokulea went south to educate. There are more Hawai'ians living away from Hawai'i than are living here. And they've made those choices because of many reasons. But you talk to these people. Their heart and their spirit is in a place that they always call home. Their house, their residence may be here. But their home is in Hawai'i. We couldn't bring the 185,000 people back to Hawai'i, but we could take our canoes there. Hokule~a sailed down this coast to do what you are doing today. To connect. To build better relationships, to share ideas.

Hawai'i Loa went to Seattle and then went north to Alaska, to an island right over here called Shelikof. We visited 20 different Native Alaskan villages. We took Hawai'i Loa there on this 1,000-mile journey up the coast to thank them, and to let them, more importantly, know that we did not abuse the gift that they gave us when they cut down those trees. The only way we could do that was to take the canoe to them. We weren't giving it back. We were showing to them what was already theirs. It was an incredible voyage.

Alaska is rich in resources. It has 500 times more land than we have in Hawai'i, and half the population. The people are very healthy because they still can sustain themselves within the resources of the place that they live in. I thought the people were very different. They come from a different place, speak a different language. And from my, I guess, ignorance thought, that we were very different people. I was wrong. These people share the same kinds of concerns and hopes and aspirations as we do. They believe that it is very important for the health of their people, to rebuild their culture, to rebuild their traditions.. The canoe coming there was again a vehicle to connect people. And this slide is of an Indian girl when one of our crew members, Brad Cooper, gave her an ipu. It symbolizes the kind of powerful exchanges that take place when people are a part of things that are special. Those are special.