The Polynesian Voyaging Society was founded in 1973 for scientific inquiry into our history and heritage: How did the Polynesians discover and settle small islands in ten million square miles of ocean, geographically the largest “nation” on earth? How did they navigate without instruments, guiding themselves across ocean distances of 2500 miles? In 1973-1975, we built a replica of an ancient double-hulled voyaging canoe to conduct an experimental voyage from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in order answer these questions. The canoe was designed by founder Herb Kawainui Kāne and named Hōkūle‘a, Star of Gladness.
On March 8th, 1975, at the sacred place called Hakipu‘u-Kualoa, in Kāne‘ohe Bay, O‘ahu, Hōkūle‘a was launched. The launching was one of many events that marked a generation of renewal for the Hawaiian people: renewal of pride in our language, stories, chants, dance, art, and many other expressions of traditional culture. This same era saw the end of abuse to the Island of Kaho’olawe, its return to the people of Hawai’i (1994), and the beginning of its healing.
Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 was a tremendous success. The Tahitians have great traditions and genealogies of ancestral canoes and navigators. What they didn’t have at the time was a voyaging canoe. When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor, over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared and also a renewal of the spirit of who we are today.
On that first voyage, we were facing cultural extinction. There was no navigator from our culture left. The Voyaging Society looked beyond Polynesia to find a traditional navigator to guide Hōkūle‘a: Mau Piailug, a navigator from a small island called Satawal, in Micronesia. He agreed to come to Hawai‘i and guide Hōkūle‘a to Tahiti. Without him, our voyaging would never have taken place. Mau was the only traditional navigator who was willing and able to reach beyond his culture to ours.
In 1978 Hōkūle‘a set out for Tahiti again. The heavily loaded canoe capsized in stormy seas off of Moloka‘i. The next day, crew member Eddie Aikau left on a surfboard to get help. Crew member Kiki Hugho remembers, “We were hours away from losing people. Hypothermia, exposure, exhaustion. When he paddled away, I really thought he was going to make it and we weren’t.” But the crew was rescued; Eddie was lost at sea. After the tragedy, Nainoa Thompson recalls, “we could have quit. But Eddie had this dream about finding islands the way our ancestors did and if we quit, he wouldn’t have his dream fulfilled. He was saying to me, ‘Raise Hawaiki from the sea.’”
In 1979, Mau returned to Hawai’i to train Nainoa to navigate Hōkūle‘a and to guide us in recovering our voyaging heritage. In 1980, Nainoa replicated Mau’s 1976 voyage; he also navigated Hōkūle‘a from Tahiti back to Hawai’i, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in 600 years. Mau sailed both to and from Tahiti to support Nainoa.
After the first two voyages to Tahiti, Hōkūle‘a continued to sail in the wake of our ancestors, including a two-year voyage to Aotearoa (1985-1987) and a voyage to Rapa Nui (1999), one of the most isolated islands on earth, at the far southeastern corner of the Polynesian Triangle.
With each of her voyages in her first twenty-five years, Hōkūle‘a brought revelations of how our ancestors navigated across open ocean, found islands, and settled Polynesia. (For a list of voyages and links see Holokai: Our Voyages.)
During the generation of renewal, from Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage, we recognized the key role of education in the revival and perpetuation of Hawaiian and Polynesian traditions. The 1992 voyage to Rarotonga was called No Nā Mamo (“For the Children”), a Voyage for Education. We worked with teachers to develop curriculum for schools to support the teaching of Hawaiian language and culture and to pass on voyaging traditions to the next generation in Hawai‘i. We also trained other Polynesians in non-instrument navigation and voyaging to spread the revival to other island groups. (Related links: Education & Resources.)
In ancient times, building and sailing voyaging canoes required the labor and arts of the entire community, everyone working together—some collecting materials in the forest, others weaving the sails, carving the hulls, lashing the parts together, preparing food for the voyage, or performing rituals to protect the crew at sea. In 1991, in order to recreate this kind of community based on traditional culture, we embarked on building another voyaging canoe. Unlike Hōkūle‘a, which was built mainly of modern materials, the new canoe would be built out of native material. The canoe was named Hawai‘iloa, after one of the legendary discoverers of Hawai‘i.
What we discovered, however, was that building such a canoe was no longer possible. In the last eighty to a hundred years, ninety percent of our koa trees, the traditional materials for canoe hulls, had been cut down. The ecosystem that once supported healthy forests was in trouble. We couldn’t find a single koa tree big enough and healthy enough to provide a hull.
What saved the project was a gift of logs from native Alaskans, who donated two giant Sitka spruce logs for the hulls of the canoe. Hawai‘iloa was built under the leadership of master canoe-builder Wright Bowman, Jr. She was launched in 1994 and sailed with Hōkūle‘a and other canoes to Nukuhiva in the Marquesas in 1995.
Soon after that voyage, ”), with the realization that we not only had to rebuild community, but restore and maintain a healthy natural environment to perpetuate Hawaiian culture, the Voyaging Society joined with Queen’s Health Systems to establish Mālama Hawai’i (“to care for and protect Hawai’i”). Mālama Hawai‘i developed into a coalition of community organizations taking responsibility to strengthen what we value about Hawai’i: its beauty, its mana, its unique environment and native culture, its multi-ethnic community.
The voyage home from Rapanui allowed us to begin to articulate what home is and how we want to envision it and care for it.
Following Rapa Nui, in 2003 and 2004, Hōkūle’a made two voyages to Papahānaumokuākea (Northwestern Hawaiian Islands), to examine the cultural and biological wonders of these unique and remote islands, whose coral reefs represents what the reefs of the main Hawaiian islands must have been like formerly before overfishing and sediments and pollution from land development began to damage them.
Called “Navigating Change,” the Papahānaumokuākea voyage was the foundation of an educational partnership of cultural and environmental organizations and state and federal agencies sharing a collective vision for creating a healthier future for Hawai‘i and for our planet. This collaborative multi-agency effort aims to change the way we live by creating an awareness of the ecological problems we face and making them relevant to the decisions that confront us in our daily lives.
From her first voyage in 1975, the need to cross cultures to recover what has been lost was apparent: without Mau, voyaging traditions in Hawai‘i could not have been revived. Time after time, Mau returned to Hawai‘i to nurture the seeds of navigation and voyaging he planted.
The cross-cultural lesson was clear again when Native Alaskans gifted the two logs for the building of Hawai’iloa to support the revival of Native Hawaiian voyaging traditions.
In 2007, Hōkūle‘a sailed to Satawal to thank Mau for his years of dedication to teaching the arts of navigation and voyaging throughout the Pacific. Along with Hōkūle‘a was the voyaging canoe Alingano Maisu, built as a gift for Mau by Nā Kalai Wa‘a Moku o Hawai‘i, under the leadership of navigators Clay and Shorty Bertelmann, two students of Mau.
On Satawal, Mau conducted a pwo ceremony to initiate his Hawaiian and Polynesian students into the ranks of navigators.
Mau passed away three years later in 2010, but his legacy is alive in ‘Ohana Wa‘a, a family of canoe builders and voyagers with organizations on all the major Hawaiian Islands and throughout Polynesia.
After Satawal, Hōkūle‘a sailed on to Japan, in order to have the canoe shipped back home. The voyage to Japan once again took Hōkūle‘a outside the boundary of her Polynesian culture. There was some uncertainty before the voyage about what this new experience would be like. We were delighted to find that there were core values that were shared between Hawai’i and Japan, and that the crews were welcomed warmly wherever they went. They were able to both teach about our voyaging traditions and learn about the traditions of Japan.
The Micronesia-Japan voyage has led us to believe that Hōkūle‘a should continue to both revisit places it has been to in order to reaffirm old friendships and explore new places in order to build bridges and spread the values the canoe symbolizes–perpetuating culture and traditions, caring for and protecting the environment, caring for children, honoring elders and ancestry, healing what has been torn apart, promoting world peace.
During the 2007 voyage to Micronesia and Japan, the leadership on Hōkūle‘a witnessed how successful she was in crossing cultural boundaries and inspiring people outside of Hawai‘i and Polynesia with hope. They raised the vision of sailing Hōkūle‘a around the world to share the canoe with everyone searching for ways to care for and protect the earth and her people.