Tahiti Rising

As is obvious from my previous blog entries, I have a great appreciation for nā mea 'apau Hawai'i - all things Hawai'i Since Polynesian culture is not, in general, something a lot of people know anything about, I enjoy opportunities to talk about it to friends. A few weeks ago, when I was at the Army-Navy* game with an "infidel" friend (I mean, a friend who had gone to West Point instead of the Naval Academy), we talked about our relative experiences in the military, specifically, the differences between finding your way on land and finding your way on the sea. I had a chance to talk about Polynesia in the context of navigation. (I skipped over the fact that I was singularly lousy at seamanship, one of many reasons the Navy in its infinite wisdom did not make me a navigator.)


The traditional (Western) history of the world ascribes amazing feats of navigation to Ferdinand Magellan, who was the first to circumnavigate the globe. Personally, I'm not all that impressed, since Magellan had a compass and a quadrant at his disposal, and the rest was testosterone and favorable winds. OK, that probably isn't fair. What I mean to say is that even if Magellan deserves some accolades as a mariner, he had mechanical help (the aforementioned compass and quadrant), and he certainly wasn't the first to make long voyages in the Pacific.


The true master mariners, in my opinion, were the Polynesians, who traveled thousands of miles in the Pacific, between New Zealand, Tahiti, Hawai'i and the Marquesas, even Easter Island (Rapa Nui). They were able to do so using traditional Polynesian wayfinding, which considers the wind, the waters, the stars, even the birds. No mechanical assistance, in other words, which makes their navigational skills truly extraordinary. (Lewis and Clark carved a way through the wilderness; today, people can drive an RV from St. Louis, Missouri to Astoria, Oregon, with all the creature comforts of home, the interstate highway network and a GPS system. It's hardly comparable, is it?) The Polynesians navigated the Pacific long before Magellan, because they were an island people. To expand their territory, they had to become voyagers.


By the 1970s, the art of Polynesian wayfinding had all but died out. One of the last practitioners was a master navigator from Micronesia named Mau Piailug. He came to Hawai'i to teach Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian whose dream it was to sail a double-hulled voyaging canoe called the Hōkūle'a from Hawai'i to Tahiti using Polynesian wayfinding.


The story is told that one night, Mau stood under a star-filled sky and asked Nainoa to point to Tahiti. Nainoa pointed to the star (hōkū) under which Tahiti lay. Then Mau asked him, "Do you see Tahiti?" Such a strange question; how could Nainoa possibly see an island 2700 miles away? Finally, after much thought, Nainoa said, "I see the island in my mind," to which Mau replied that Nainoa must never forget what he was seeing or he would be lost.


The day came when the Hōkūle'a set sail with Nainoa as the navigator. Nainoa could see Tahiti in his mind, until the day came when Hōkūle'a was approaching the equator, and with it a great cloud of rain. Nainoa feared that he would not be able to steer the ship without the benefit of the stars to guide him. Great fear and restlessness over came him, until he remembered Mau telling him that he needed to look inside, that he would be lost if he tried to see with his eyes. Suddenly, Nainoa had a feeling of deep relaxation, and he felt the moon over his shoulder, despite the fact it could not be seen in the cloudy sky. He was able to navigate by a sense of knowing where Tahiti was. Days later, he turned towards the horizon and saw Tahiti rising, as he had hoped and dreamed.


Because of the voyages of Hōkūle'a and other Polynesian voyaging canoes over the last 30 years, the Hawaiian people have come to have great pride -  a resurgence of pride - in their culture. In fact, Hawaiian culture has had a sort of renaissance in all areas - language, music, dance. At one point, there were less than 50 native speakers of Hawaiian under the age of 18. Now, there are multiple immersion schools in the Hawaiian language and many young people speak the language. The story of Hōkūle'a does not end with a single voyage. One man's willingness to see Tahiti rising and keep after it affected an entire culture.


Something else I find interesting about this story is that it challenges our assumptions that in the steady march of progress,  new technology is inevitably more sophisticated and better than knowledge built up over hundreds or thousands of years. Maybe it isn't -  maybe we are just lazier than we used to be and nobody wants to put in the time to learn anything of substance anymore.


I recently read a book about the impending extinction of so many of the world's languages. Loss of a language also means losing the knowledge encompassed in that language. A Siberian language (Tuvan) can use a single word to describe all the attributes of a reindeer (age, health, disposition) that are useful if you want to ride him. In English, the linguistic encapsulation of "male reindeer, 5 years old, excellent health and easy to ride" takes 11 times as many words as in the Siberian language.


There is no such thing as a living language with no native speakers. When a language dies - because there are no longer native speakers - the culture dies and most of the knowledge embedded in the culture dies with it. Only today, I read that pharmaceutical companies may be reaching the upper limit of what they can do with purely chemical treatments of disease: they are shifting their investments to biologically-based treatments. Of course, many indigenous peoples - many of whose languages are facing extinction - use plant and animal-based medicines, the use and utility of which is incorporated into their language. If the language dies, so does that knowledge.


In a strange way, we may become collectively more ignorant when we increase our reliance on technology and forget (or don't learn) what our fathers and mothers knew, however simple. How many of us have been in a checkout line when the clerk could not do basic addition and subtraction (to make change) unless the cash register was able to do it for him? I confess, I once had a perfectly lovely financial calculator that could amortize a bond for you. Unfortunately, I was able to get the right answer in some of my MBA classes while in many respects not grokking the basics of finance (one of many reasons I don't work in finance). 


How many people can't actually read a map any more? (I've had some spectacular failures with mapquest.com and just lived through one with a GPS system.) I cringe when I hear about people going hiking or skiing in the backcountry without basic equipment and survival skills (including a compass and knowledge of how to use it). Too many assume that they can use a cell phone to call for help if they get lost. (Not if there is no cel tower in range or your battery dies.) 


We've become so removed from nature that many of us have lost respect for it. A couple of years ago, some (allegedly expert) climbers decided to ascend Mount Hood in advance of a storm (I am told by my climbing friends in Idaho that you should never, ever climb thinking you will "beat" the weather. If there is a better definition of "hubris" than that I don't know what it is). The climbers died. The tragedy was that their deaths were avoidable if only they had respected the weather report. If you live in a wilderness area, you learn to respect it. You don't "tame" it anymore than you "tame" a grizzly bear.


A concomitant of busy lives and "more technology" is that too many of us spend too much time with gadgets and gizmos and not enough time experiencing the natural world. Dare I say, "the real world." A particularly pathetic example of this was a wealthy real estate developer who installed a state-of-the-art golf simulator in his basement. He bragged on camera (one of those home improvement shows on HGTV) that he had "played"  all the best courses in the world - from his basement. The reality is that he is so busy with work that he does not have time to actually play golf. Real golf. Playing virtual golf and saying you've played St. Andrews is like reading the Cliff Notes and saying you read Dickens. It isn't the same - not even close. It's not about your golf score, it is about being there, because the game isn't going to show you the elk that peek out on the course, the geese that fly overhead, or the particularly beautiful late afternoon lighting on the water.


I am sure a lot of people will read the story of Nainoa Thompson and conclude that there are lots of faster and easier ways to get to Tahiti than recreating a Polynesian voyaging canoe and learning the art of wayfaring (so, they think, "why bother?"). Just like you can play a really great round of golf in your basement, without bugs, divots, wind or other annoyances. It's only when you look at a dream of Tahiti rising that the real value of the trip becomes apparent.


Several years ago, I saw the Hōkūle'a entering San Francisco Bay, and it gave me chicken skin, as the Hawaiians say. I can say this after years of seeing some of the great warships of history, and great warships of today's modern Navy: the feeling I got when I saw the Hōkūle'a was unlike anything, because I knew what it meant to the Hawaiian people. Respect. Pride in their culture. Now, people who will never sail a double-hulled voyaging canoe can nonetheless see Tahiti in their mind, because one man could. As Antoine de Ste. Exupery said, "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."


My sister and I are writing a book together, an IT murder mystery. This is the main reason I have not been blogging as much -  my writing energies are going into the book. We have gone from chatting about "we ought to write a book together" to an outline, drafts, character sketches, and entire chapters. My sister has become the book navigator - she sees where she wants it to go, and plots the course in her mind. She is like Nainoa Thompson, being disciplined about spending time learning her craft, and always, she sees Tahiti rising. A couple of months ago, she said she wanted us to have a draft finished by the end of the year, and now, we have.


I can write, but I have always lacked discipline and a vision greater than "I ought to write more." I was like the guy with the golf simulator: I dabbled at something I loved but did not make time for the real deal. I needed a navigator, and my sister stepped up to the helm. I did not envision the book, or know that the moon was over my shoulder: my sister did that. And because of her, now I can see Tahiti on the horizon. For once, I will have finished a writing project I mused about and thought about but never showed the discipline to accomplish. And like the Hōkūle'a, who knows what other adventures will come from that first dream of Tahiti? It seems fitting that the culture of Polynesia figures prominently in our book. Nainoa Thompson inspires me, too, because of all the dreams of Tahiti rising in my mind, one of which is to some day live in Hawai'i, where I already feel at home.


As we come to the end of another year, it is a good time for all of us to imagine what is possible if you have a star to steer by, or one you hold in your heart that you follow to a place of your imagining. Two thousand years ago, wise men followed a star to Judea, asking the question, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him." (Matthew 2: 2)  They were not the first - and they have not been the last - to follow a star and find more illumination than their hearts could hold.


* Navy won, 38-3, the 6th straight win over Army. And, the Navy quarterback is Hawaiian, how cool is that?


For more information:


Book of the week: When Languages Die: The Extinction of the World's Languages and the Erosion of Human Knowledge by K. David Harrison


In all the hoopla about endangered species, people forget that a substantial percentage of the world's languages are in danger of becoming extinct. Lose a language, lose a culture, and all the priceless knowledge that goes with it.  You will never look at linguists the same after reading this book.




Nathan Aweau (nui kona mana!) has a new CD out (Kāne’ohe) which is absolutely kamaha'o (amazing). The very first song is about seafaring voyagers (E Pi'i Mai Ke Kai), and the Hōkūle’a is in the lyric, too. Read about it or order it at:




About the Polynesian Voyaging Society




About Chicken Soup from the Soul of Hawai'i (the source of the story about Nainoa Thompson):




About wayfinding:





More on Nainoa Thompson:




Herb Kawaianui Kane's amazing art of a navigator and a voyaging canoe:





And Herb Kawaianui Kane's imagining of the discovery of Hawai'i:




About the Tuvan language:




Nice one, as always. We always need a guiding star in our lives, so that we can make a life, and not just a living. It is clear you know your star and that you are following it's guiding light! Now I am looking forward to that book - please announce it via this Blog. Having co-authored one, I know it is not an easy task to write one. John Kanagaraj

Posted by John Kanagaraj on December 16, 2007 at 07:20 AM PST #

I think the concept of 'myth' is not very accurate. Polynesian culture is alive and well in the islands. To consider the belief of these people to be myth is to deny the culture altogether. I lived on Oahu for 5 yrs. and it was one of the most meaningful spiritual experiences in my life as a Pagan. I wish I could go back. A huge part of my heart will always belong to Hawaii.

Posted by Polynesian Culture Center on May 07, 2009 at 04:23 PM PDT #

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