Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, spoke at Harvard Divinity School in April, 2019. He shared stories of sailing the ocean in a double-hulled canoe. For Thompson, the first Native Hawaiian in 600 years to practice the ancient Hawaiian art of navigation using only the stars, the wind, and the flight of birds, the ecological is also deeply personal. In particular, it is linked to his heritage.
However, with European incursion, things began to change. “Twenty-eight years after the European discovery of the island, 79 percent of native islanders had died,” he said, calling it “the chronic story of what happens to indigenous people around the world.”
“It’s characterized by the loss of everything: your lands, governance,” he said. “When you get close to extinction is when they take away your dignity.”
This didn’t begin to turn around until the 1970s, when, with the help of anthropologists such as the late Californian Ben Finney, Hawaiians began to believe again that they had been great navigators. The path to proving this — and to reasserting self-esteem — would be to build an ocean going canoe and navigate it from Hawaii to Tahiti using traditional methods. The only problem, explained Thompson, was, “None of us knew anything about our culture. It wasn’t valued enough.”
The islands of Micronesia, smaller and less valuable to the Europeans, still had six master navigators. The youngest of these, Pius “Mau” Piailug, was approached. It was a big ask. To complete the proposed journey, explained Thompson, “He’d cross the equator and see stars he’d never seen on a canoe he hadn’t constructed with a crew he hadn’t selected. When Hawaii came and asked, he knew if we failed, then all we would have done was meet the expectation that we would fail because we were Hawaiian. So he came and he saved us.”
Thompson, who crewed on the return trip, describes himself and his colleagues as rank amateurs who ran aground on sandbars as they started to learn the ways of their ancestors. “Everything changed after that,” he said. Even teaching in Hawaiian, which had been banned in 1896, has now been restored, with K–12 Hawaiian culture, language, and study programs.
“We could believe again.”
The move to that lost sustainability is a continuation of this growth, and today Thompson is a master navigator himself. Having circumnavigated the globe, he is now planning a trip around the Pacific, highlighting the damage we are doing to our oceans and way they connect us all. “We’re going to put the language of the Earth on the agenda,” he said.
Clea Simon Harvard Correspondent April 8, 2019 SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY