Below: The Maori Voyaging Canoe "Te Aurere" Sailing off
Honolulu Harbor, 1995
was built quickly, of modern materials mostly, and then we went right
into sailing. It was an ocean project; the emphasis was on sailing her,
not on building her. But when our ancestors built and sailed voyaging
canoes, it required the labor and arts of the entire community, everyone
working together--some collecting the materials in the forest, others
weaving the sails, carving the hulls, lashing, preparing food for the
voyage, or performing rituals to protect the crew at sea. So we thought
that building a canoe of traditional materials would bring our entire
community together, not just the sailors, but the crafts people,
artists, chanters, dancers and carvers. The Native Hawaiian Culture and
Arts Program was set up to build not just a canoe--but a sense of
community--by recreating Hawaiian culture.
started in our koa forests and ended up finding that in the last eighty
to a hundred years, ninety percent of our koa trees have been cut down.
The ecosystem that 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.
our last weekend of the search, in the Kilauea Forest Reserve on the
island of Hawai'i, we searched with a large team and found nothing.
Everyone went back to work on Monday, but Tava Taupu and I stayed up in
the forest. We decided that Tuesday, March 18, was our last day. At that
point I was very project oriented--we have a job, we've got to build a
canoe--but inside I was sad and depressed by the difference between what
I imagined our native forests to look like and what they actually looked
like. All around us were alien species and ferns uprooted by feral pigs
introduced to Hawai'i in the 19th century. I saw a layer of banana poka
vines twisting in the canopy from one tree to another, choking the
a fence-line up ahead about a half mile," I told Tava. "I'll
go up slope and we'll work toward it together to cover more ground.
We'll meet at the fence. If we don't find anything, that will be
nodded and began moving forward. We knew that we were not going to find
any trees, that the search was going to fai, but it was our last chance.
When I saw Tava and he saw me, from that moment, we never spoke. We each
knew the other had not found a tree. We did not even walk on the same
side of the road. Tava walked behind me, as if we were repelled by each
other. We were very depressed. We had not achieved what we so much
wanted to achieve. But beyond that, I think the loss of the forest was
eroding something inside of us.
was another source of trees for Hawaiian canoes. We knew trees from the
Pacific Northwest drifted to Hawai'i, and our ancestors cherished them
and built canoes from them. Herb Kane and I had talked about our
project earlier with his old friend, Tlingit elder Judson Brown, who was
chairman of the board of Sealaska, a native Alaskan timber corporation.
Judson fully understood what we were trying to do. It was about reviving
our culture, and he knew the trees were the tools for doing that.
Without hesitation, he said, "We will give you trees for your canoe
if you need them."
we ended our search for koa trees, we called on Judson and Sealaska and
gave them the specifications for the two trees we needed. They said they
would search, and they did for six weeks in the remotest parts of their
forests in Alaska. Then they called us up and said, "We have the
trees of your specifications. But 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."
was in charge of building a canoe. That was my narrow focus. But around
this project were so many layers of values that I did not clearly see. I
understood them, I felt them, but I did not see them as part of my
responsibilities. I was thinking of deadlines and logistics. Judson gave
me a new perspective based on the values of his elders; it's the kind of
wisdom that we always seek from the older generation.
we flew up to Alaska. We got a helicopter in Ketchikan and went west 80
miles to a remote forest on Shelikof Island. Our guide was Ernie
Hillman, a forest manager for Sealaska. He had done his job. The trees
were exactly what we asked for. But when he asked me, "Shall we cut
these trees down?" I couldn't answer him. I didn't want to cut the
trees down. They were too beautiful, too full of life. I began to weigh
the value of our project against the value of the life of the trees. I
was just too troubled. Everybody got real quiet. I couldn't explain
myself. The trees were breath-taking--I had never seen trees like that
before, giant evergreens. I began to sense Alaska's power. There was
something so very different about it, something alluring. It was very
spiritual, and that made me quiet and humble. The place was so wild, so
clean and still, so natural. I began to face up to the reckless changes
taking place in Hawai'i, especially on O'ahu. When I was a kid I felt
very lucky to be from here--and I still do--but the reefs in Maunalua
Bay were still alive back then, and now they are dead. We got back on
the helicopter, and no one talked. We flew back to Honolulu. The trees
remained in the forest.
was wrong. I didn't know what it was. I talked to Auntie Agnes Cope and
John Dominis Holt, our elders who were on the Board of the Native
Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program which was supporting this project to
build a canoe called Hawai'iloa. Why didn't I ask for the trees to be
cut down? It was because by taking the trees out of Alaska, we were
walking away from the pain and the destruction of our native Hawaiian
forests. We could not take the life of a tree from another place unless
we dealt with the environmental abuse in our own homeland. The answer
was clear. Our elders told me, "You know what the answers are. To
deal with the abuse here, you need to do something to renew our forests.
Before you cut down somebody else's trees, you need to plant your
own." So we started a program at Kamehameha Schools to plant koa
trees; and we've planted over 11,000 koa seedlings, in hopes that in 100
years, we might have forests of trees for voyaging canoes.
the planting, I remember grandchildren with grandparents, a big circle
of people participating in healing the forest. It was a diverse group.
There was a growing sense of community. What started as a project of
artisans and people within the Hawaiian voyaging community now extended
out as far away as Alaska.
event brought closure to the search for koa trees by recognizing that we
had a real problem in our land. Even though the planting was symbolic,
we were contributing in a way that was sending the right kind of message
to our communities about replacing abuse with renewal. This became a
fundamental value which began to permeate all our decisions. It was the
groundwork for what guides us today--Malama Hawai'i, taking care of
Hawai'i, our special island home.
Brown was there at the tree-planting ceremony. He was the spiritual link
between his people and ours. At the koa forest he said, "When you
sail, don't be afraid, because when you take your voyage we will be with
you. When the north wind blows, take a moment to recognize that the wind
is our people sailing with you." He was clear that the voyage
wasn't about navigation. It wasn't about building a canoe. It wasn't
about the stars. It was about bringing people together. He always saw
Hawai'iloa as a celebration of a connection between native cultures.
we went back to Alaska, and we thanked the spirits of the forest for the
gift of the trees. Wright Bowman, Jr., who would build the canoe was
there. Keli'i Tau'a chanted in Hawaiian and Paul Marks chanted in
Tlingit. Sylvester Peele from Hydaburg offered a Haida blessing. Before
they cut the trees down, the Alaskans told us, "You take these
trees. They are gifts to you. Don't ask us how much they cost. And don't
ever bring them back because if you do, they're not gifts." Then
they cut the trees down, took them out of the forest, and shipped them
to Hawai'i. Each tree was over 200 feet tall, 400 years old, and weighed
over 25 tons.
what do we do? We had a focus, a vision of building a voyaging canoe
that people would feel was special enough to bring all their resources
together. We knew to build a voyaging canoe as our ancestors did would
take the effort of a healthy community.
brought in the best--Wright Bowman, Jr., whom I consider the best canoe
builder in Hawai'i. His job was to carve a 4,000-pound hull out of a
100,000-pound tree. We also needed ten lauhala sails. We asked native
weavers to help us make our sails, and they said, "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 at first. We
asked them to please try. And after about a month of coaxing, two
weavers, Mrs. Nunes and Mrs. Akana, said, "Yes, we'll try."
They made the first sail in 600 years big enough for a voyaging canoe.
The thing that impressed me most was that it took them 13 months. We
estimate about 280,000 weaves for the sail. When you put the panels up
against the light, you could barely see a pinhole through them. 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 so much care into weaving those sails.
building of Hawai'iloa 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 and values. They worked
together for something they believed was special, not just to themselves
but to their whole community.
then trained for two years on the canoe. We sailed 2,000 miles in
Hawai'i before we left. Our first day out, we almost got run over by a
container ship outside of Waikiki because we couldn't turn
the canoe around. We recognized we made some big mistakes in our
computer design and took the canoe back out of the water. The hull shape
and the sails were not in balance. The only way to balance them was to
turn the hulls around. We took all three miles of lashings off, turned
the hulls around, relashed the canoe, and then sailed it. It sailed
Voyage to the Marquesas-1995
voyage to the Marquesas in 1995 was not just about Hokule'a, but also
the children of Hokule'a--Hawai'iloa and a third canoe from Hawai'i
called Makali'i; two canoes from Rarotonga--Te 'Au Tonga and Takitumu;
and Te 'Aurere, Hector Busby's canoe from Aotearoa.1
We all met to Tahitian canoes--Tahiti Nui and 'A'a Kahiki Nui--at a
place called Taputapuatea, on the island of Ra'iatea--a place of great
teaching in navigation, the most appropriate place to start this voyage
that would take these canoes to the Marquesas Islands.2
Some believe these islands are the homeland of the first people to come
trained the navigators for the canoes for five years, recognizing that
for our voyaging traditions to remain strong, we had to build strength
in numbers. Six canoes made the voyage from the Marquesas to Hawai'i,
over 2,200 miles of open ocean. Five of them were guided by navigators
from their own islands, trained to sail in the ancient way. We used
transponders to track the 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, and everybody else would be following. So everybody sailed on
their own. All the canoes made it to Hawai'i. The tracks of the canoes
were similar--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 as difficult a task as this voyage was.
canoes from the South Pacific sailing in Hawaiian waters beneath Diamond
Head--to me this represents the fulfillment of dreams. Not just dreams,
but powerful beliefs that what you're doing is important, it's worth the
commitment--even though you're risking lives. I think of Hector
Busby--his vision and his commitment to his people. I've seen the
struggles. This was not an easy thing to do.
the West Coast and Alaska-1995
the 1995 voyage to the Marquesas, we took two of our voyaging canoes--Hokule'a
and Hawai'iloa--and shipped them to Seattle. There are more Hawaiians
living away from Hawai'i than live here--the majority of them on the
West Coast of North America. They've made this choice for many different
reasons, but if you talk to these people, many of them say that their
hearts and their spirits are still in Hawai'i, their home is in Hawai'i.
We couldn't bring the 185,000 people back home, but we could take our
canoes there. Hokule'a sailed down the West Coast to connect with them,
to build better relationships, to share ideas and educate.
went to Seattle and then north to Alaska. We visited 20 different native
villages between Vancouver and Juneau. We took Hawai'iloa on this
1,000-mile journey up the coast to thank the native Alaskans for their
gift of logs, and, more importantly, to let them know that we did not
abuse the gift they gave us when they cut down those trees. The only way
we could thank them was to take the canoe to them. We weren't giving it
back. We were showing them what was already theirs. It was an incredible
voyage of cultural exchange and connecting people.
is rich in resources. It has 500 times more land than we have in Hawai'i,
and only half the population. The people are very healthy because they
can still sustain themselves with the resources of the place they live
in. Because of my ignorance, I thought the people would be very
different from us. They come from a different place and speak a
different language. I was wrong.
Hawai'iloa was leaving Hilo for the Marquesas along with Hokule'a in
1995, Judson Brown was a special guest. He was there, we thought, so
that we could thank him. But he told the crowd who had gathered to see
the canoes off: "I am very grateful that the Hawaiian people would
thank us for what the Alaskan people have given them. But in truth, all
we did was give you wood; you have given my people a dream."
was absolutely silent. Judson understood that we were building a bridge
between native peoples. His role was critical, not just in getting the
trees, but in the celebration of culture. Even though Hawaiians and
Alaskans are different people--defined by their different environments,
languages and cultures--in the end, the native Alaskans 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.
we went to visit Judson's home in Haines, Alaska, we were taken into a
small building by a river, a simple and humble place with a wooden
floor. We sat on the floor and the people gave us a potlatch. They
heaped gifts before us. I was embarrassed. I saw an elderly lady sitting
against the wall in the back of the room. There was a young boy with
her, her grandson. Toward the end of the gift-giving, I saw her hand to
him a small package. She seemed embarrassed about the gift, almost
ashamed. The young boy walked quietly up to the front of the room and
put the package on the pile of gifts. I saw that the package was full of
hundred dollar bills. I was shocked. I turned to Judson and said,
"I don't know how to respond to this kindness."
idea of wealth," he told me, "is not about accumulating
possessions but giving them away. We have survived for centuries by
caring for our natural environment and by sharing with each other."
Brown passed away in 1998 and was buried in his native village of
Kluckwan. He is still with us because the bridge that he built between
the people of Hawaii and the people of Alaska is still strong. After
Judson's death, his people carved two totem poles. They brought one to
Hawai'i, with a delegation of fifty people to celebrate this connection
in the Bishop Museum's Hall of Discovery. At the ceremony there was an
elder, Alan Williams, who said: "We are doing this as our
contribution to keeping the relationship between the Hawaiians and the
Native Alaskans alive." The other totem pole is in Juneau, Alaska,
and that is the other end of the bridge that will always connect the
people of Hawai'i and the people of Alaska.
Makali'i was built by Na Kalaiwa'a Moku o Hawai'i under the
leadership of Clay and Shorty Bertelmann. It was launched in 1995 and
sailed down to Tahiti to meet the other canoes on their way to the
For an account of this gathering of canoes at Taputapuatea, see
Ben Finney's "Sin at
Avarua" in this anthology.