My fourth graders watched Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey this week and I found myself riveted. It tells a fascinating story about the resurection of traditional navigation which was on the brink of total extinction as recently as 1975. I actually watched it a second time while I graded papers after school.
Many anthropologists and historians did not believe that ancient Polynesians had the technology to undertake intentional long term voyages. Instead, it was assumed that the people who originally populated Hawaii and other islands throughout the Pacific had been lost at sea, making land only by accident or luck.
Around this same time, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was created to prove once and for all that intentional long distance voyaging was not only possible, but a historical fact.
By the late 1970's, ancient navigation techniques were already lost in the Hawaiian islands where it had been illegal to sail without western instruments for fifty years. One man, Mau Pialug from the island of Satawal, still held this knowledge, but he knew that if he did not find a way to pass it on, it would die with him.
Nainoa Thompson began to study with Mau. To hear them describe this method of sailing is to inspire reverence. It is clearly a sacred art to both of them. Without the aid of any navigational equipment, the captain of the ship conceives of his job not as taking the ship to the island, but as guiding the island to the ship. Instead of charts and logs, he relies on knowledge stored in his mind's eye, including a complex star map. The farther you sail, the more the stars change, making detailed astronomical knowledge essential. Other cues are important to- the master has learned to read the weather each day based on the color, texture and shapes of clouds and observing the waves. He also learns to look for specific animals, and certain behaviors in those animals to learn that land is nearby.
After a long period of study, Mau declared Nainoa ready to attempt such a voyage himself. Herb Kane, the celebrated Hawaiian artist, designed a boat based on his lifelong research of Hawaiian canoes and construction of the Hokule'a began. Nainoa set out to head a crew that would steer the Hokulea from Tahiti to Hawai'i and to many other islands around the vast Pacific.
The story of this journey is awe inspiring. I found it moving for many reasons; first, that such precious knowledge came so extraordinarily close to total extinction. It gives me goosebumps. Secondly, that this crew managed to turn scientific theory and ethnocentrism on it's ear by proving that such a thing not only could have been done, but had been done. The pride and purpose the crew had on this voyage was evident in every shot. The Hokule'a was a concerted effort all across the Pacific, bringing together Polynesians from far flung and remote islands and igniting a pride and interest in preserving traditional culture. In a way, the Hokule'a was the Hawaiian Renaissance's most beautiful flower.
Have you discovered anything inspiring lately? I'd love to hear about it!