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Other kids looked up to the astronauts: I looked up to Nainoa Thompson and the crew of the Hokule'a. This ship, whose name means "Star of Gladness" in Hawaiian, is a fiberglass reconstruction of the voyaging canoes the ancient Polynesians used in their transoceanic voyages. It, and the canoes upon which it was modeled, were built for the same reason as the space shuttle: to carry human beings and sustain them on a long journey in a hostile environment. The crew of the Hokule'a, like the astronauts, all had to possess specialized knowledge, courage, and a desire to look for answers in the unknown.

The first part of this article is going to deal with these transoceanic voyages and the people who undertook them. Using historical texts and Thompson's work with traditional navigation technique, we're going to see how the Polynesians colonized the Pacific from New Zealand to Easter Island, ultimately occupying an area larger than that of any other nation on Earth. We're going to see how Polynesian technology evolved to cope with transoceanic travel thousands of years before the Europeans. In the second part of this article we're going to see what happened to the Polynesians who settled in Hawai'i after the transoceanic voyages came to an end.

But first, a brief disclaimer: proper spelling of Hawaiian words requires the use of two characters that don't appear in most standard Web fonts. These characters are the okina, or glottal stop, and the kahako, or bar indicating a long vowel. In this article, I substitute an apostrophe where an okina is called for and I omit the kahako altogether. While this is necessary because of the limits of technology, it means that some of the words in this article are misspelled. For the proper spellings of Hawaiian words that appear in this article, you should consult the latest edition of the New Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, compiled by Pukui and Ebert.

The ancient Polynesians belonged to a stone age culture. They crossed the Pacific Ocean without compass or sextant. To the first Europeans to encounter Polynesian settlements, this seemed impossible. They were therefore forced to explain how a heathen, primitive group of people managed to spread throughout the Pacific islands, establishing colonies that were separated by thousands of miles of ocean -- all before the first European had even laid eyes on the Pacific Ocean.

One early theory held that since the Polynesians themselves were not capable of making the transoceanic voyage, and reaching such far-removed locations as Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, and Hawai'i by themselves, God must have put them there. Over time, the Europeans abandoned this theological hypothesis in favor of ones that seemed more rational. Popular views held that, since the Polynesians could not have made the transoceanic voyage on purpose, they must have reached new islands by accident. Some asserted that Polynesians reached new islands after being blown off course; others asserted that ocean currents haphazardly carried Polynesian mariners to new shores, sort of like Tom Hanks at the end of the movie Castaway. These ideas persisted until the mid-1970s, when the first voyage of the Hokule'a disproved them.

These theories display the cultural bigotry and the lack of imagination that we've come to expect from early European explorers, as they take new information and force it to fit the prevailing paradigm, instead of changing the paradigm to accommodate new information. The later theories are particularly amusing because they attempt to be rational and scientific, while ignoring obvious facts. For example, waves in the Pacific are sometimes as big as two-story buildings, and the distance between Polynesian islands is vast -- it's over two thousand miles from Tahiti to Hawai'i. It would be difficult to manage a long voyage through inhospitable territory "by accident." These "rational" theories likewise ignore how much water there is, and how little land. If you don't know the signs that indicate the presence of a nearby island, you'll almost certainly sail past without ever knowing it's there, just over the horizon and out of sight. It's improbable that Polynesian mariners would drift across the ocean from Tahiti and "just happen" to run into Hawai'i.

Simply put, nobody could buy into these "rational" theories without ignoring obvious facts (as the writers of Castaway did).

We, as fans of speculative fiction living in the twenty-first century, know better. We realize that paradigms must change to fit new facts. We realize that seemingly impossible situations have a scientific explanation. We also realize that just because something seems primitive or unfamiliar, it is not necessarily ineffective. I usually express this last point by paraphrasing one of the great maxims of science fiction: a technology sufficiently different from ours isn't recognizable as technology.

And the technology employed by the Polynesians on their transoceanic voyages was certainly very different from that employed by the Europeans who first encountered them. While the Europeans depended on their instruments to show them the way across the ocean, the Polynesians depended on highly trained individuals with detailed knowledge of astronomy, oceanography, and marine biology as it applies to transoceanic navigation.

Thompson and the Polynesian Voyaging Society rediscovered these techniques during the Hokule'a project, largely through Thompson's work with Mau Piailug, an elderly man from Satwal, Micronesia who was one of very few who still practiced the ancient methods of instrumentless navigation.

One of the most important tools at the navigator's disposal, Thompson learned, is the star compass. The star compass is a mnemonic construct, which enables the navigator to deal with the tremendous amount of astronomical data he must keep in his head in order to find his way. It isn't enough to know where the stars are supposed to be; the navigator can't get his bearings by just looking up at the sky. Instead, he has to be able to identify the stars and watch where they rise and set every night. He must also have detailed knowledge of the pattern of the stars in the sky, so that when the night is overcast he can project the position of crucial stars, which are obscured by clouds based on the position of other stars, which are visible. Such crucial stars include the constellation Hanai-i-ka-malama, or the Southern Cross, which Thompson found is very important for determining latitude on the voyage between Tahiti and Hawai'i, and Hokule'a, or Arcturus, which indicates to the navigator that he is at the same latitude as Hawai'i when he sees it at the zenith.

The navigator also must keep track of the canoe's speed and heading, and the passage of time. And he must do this without a speedometer, or a watch. The star compass helps make this mass of information manageable by dividing the sky into four quadrants named, in Hawaiian, for the four cardinal directions. Each quadrant contains seven directional points on the horizon, each of which is 11.25 degrees from the next. Each of these directional points marks the midpoint of a house of the same name, and each house is 11.25 degrees wide. As the stars travel through the sky, the navigator plots their course through his mnemonic star compass, and is able to derive the vessel's current heading.

The star compass also helps the navigator read the flight path of seabirds, which, Thompson learned, is an important navigational tool. By watching for birds that sleep on land by night but fish in the ocean by day, such as the manu o ku, or white tern, the navigator can tell that an island is nearby. Other signs that point to the presence of an island include changes in the behavior of sea mammals, such as dolphins, and changes in the pattern of waves.

In order to keep track of all this data, a navigator was awake for twenty-one to twenty-two hours of every day. The rest of the crew did the physical labor on the ship, allowing the navigator to devote all of his efforts to the mental chore of compiling and analyzing environmental data. In a sense, the navigator is similar to the on-board computers used in modern vessels. Frank Herbert fans will also notice the obvious similarities between a Polynesian navigator and a Guild navigator, or even a mentat -- except that the Polynesian navigator was just a human being, operating without the performance-enhancing benefits of spice. It's clear that the Polynesians, despite the assertions of the early European explorers, were not primitive. In fact, they were among the most advanced civilizations of their time.

The historical details of the Polynesian migration across the Pacific are subject to much debate, and most of the facts are obscured by centuries of myth. It is clear that the Polynesians undertook ambitious voyages across the ocean and settled remote islands. It's also clear that for a time there was travel and trade between these islands, since Hawaiian oral history and genealogy make frequent reference to travelers going to and from other island groups. Finally, it's clear that for some reason these voyages came to an end, leaving the people of Polynesia isolated to evolve separately from each other.

Hawai'ian Social Structures and Customs

The Native Hawaiians evolved social structures that allowed them to cope with limited resources, and with living together in a relatively small space.

For instance, the Native Hawaiians were much more tolerant towards homosexuality before the arrival of Europeans. In his book Mo'olelo Hawai'i, David Malo writes that the chief Liloa, who ruled from Waipio on the Big Island and is the ancestor of Kamehameha I according to the oral genealogies, invented the practice. According to Malo's account, the practice then spread throughout the population and remained prevalent until the time of Kamehameha I. Malo, of course, grew up under the influence of European Christian missionaries, and is not nearly as tolerant of the practice as his ancestors likely were.

As some writers have asserted, this tolerance toward homosexuality makes sense in an isolated, island environment. Simply put, people were a valuable resource and there were too few of them available. It didn't make sense to discard some based solely on their sexual preference.

Another Hawaiian social adaptation was the practice of ho'oponopono, a kind of spiritual and sociological healing ceremony and method of conflict resolution. Detailed extensively in E. Victoria Shook's book Ho'oponopono, the practice consisted of a family conference led by a senior family member or a respected outsider. The problem solving process could be complex, involving "prayer, statement of problem, discussion, confession of wrongdoing, restitution when necessary, forgiveness, and release" (Shook, 11).

The Native Hawaiian family, as Shook points out, is seen as a net of relationships. A dispute between two people involves not only them, but also the entire family "net." Therefore, the goal of the ho'oponopono ceremony is to restore balance and good relationships to the entire extended family, not just between the two parties of a dispute. This process of conflict resolution is based on the concepts of interdependence and interrelatedness, which are essential to Native Hawaiian culture and which are driven by the island's isolation. With the nearest land outside of Hawai'i being over two thousand miles away, and with no way of leaving once the period of the transoceanic voyages stopped, it was very important that everybody got along as much as possible.

Malo details another interesting practice, which was called ume. This practice, which Malo classes among sports and games played by the Native Hawaiians, is vaguely analogous to the modern swinger party. In the playing of ume, people would gather at night in an enclosure and sit in a circle. The leader of the game would walk around the circle, tapping, one after another, a man and a woman with a long wand. The man and woman thus tapped would go outside of the enclosure and "enjoy themselves together" (Malo, 214). In general, husbands and wives would return to each other the day after playing ume, with no anger or jealousy. Sometimes, however, husbands and wives would permanently transfer partners, having shifted their affection to the partner they found playing ume.

The only difference I can see between ume and the modern swinger party is that the ume players didn't have a fishbowl of car keys.

The game of ume ought to be seen as a useful adaptation to island life. First, it provides a sanctioned outlet for sexual desires that could otherwise lead to conflict and disharmony. In a way, like ho'oponopono, the game of ume helped everybody get along with everybody else. Also, partner swapping would be a useful way of increasing the potential genetic diversity in an isolated population, preventing inbreeding and ensuring that the Native Hawaiian genome would remain healthy.

Polynesian Mythology and History

The oral histories and legends collected by Abraham Fornander, a circuit court judge of Maui during the reign of King David Kalakaua in the late 18th century, give us some additional insight into the development of the Hawaiian people. In his book A History of The Polynesian People, Fornander asserts that the Hawaiian islands were colonized by at least two waves of settlers. He points, for instance, to differences in the spoken Hawaiian language between different areas of the kingdom as evidence of cultural influence from other Polynesian islands. Based on the oral history at his disposal, he concludes that one of these waves likely came from Samoa, and the other from Tahiti.

To Fornander's credit, it is now generally accepted that at least some of the colonists of Hawai'i came from Tahiti. There is ample linguistic evidence for this, including the striking similarity between the Tahitian and Hawaiian languages: if you can speak Tahitian, it's not much of a struggle to understand Hawaiian.

In Hawaiian, the proper noun Kahiki can refer either to Tahiti, or to the mythical place from which the gods originated. Fornander points to this as evidence that some of the figures in Hawaiian mythology were, in fact, historical people who came from Tahiti during the second wave of colonization. He singles out Pele, the volcano goddess, and her family, saying that perhaps these were mortal people who settled near the volcano on the Big Island of Hawai'i, and so over time became linked with the volcano in the popular psyche. The demigod Kamapuaa, an unwelcome suitor of Pele, was perhaps also an historical person who later became the subject of myth. As evidence of this Fornander points to Kamapuaa's presence in the genealogy of Oahu chiefs, in which Kamapuaa is supposed to be the son of Kahikiula. Kahikiula and his brother Olopana, according to the genealogy, arrived from Kahiki and settled in the Koolau region of Oahu. Kamapuaa, according to the oral history, later returns to Kahiki, his father's birthplace, and gets married.

The oral history does not specify whether Kamapuaa's return to Kahiki happens before or after he attempts to court Pele. According to the legend as it is collected in Hawaiian Mythology by Martha Beckwith, it wasn't a pleasant courtship. Kamapuaa encounters Pele in her home, the crater of the volcano Kilauea. He sings love songs to her, and she rebuffs him by calling him "a pig and the son of a pig." This wasn't just Pele being cruel: according to legend, the demigod Kamapuaa could assume the form of a giant boar, and taken literally his name means "pig child." Kamapuaa is insulted by Pele's taunt, and brings torrential rain to extinguish the fire of the volcano. Pele gives up, the two become lovers, and then divide the Big Island between them: Kamapuaa taking the windward side, which is often rainy, and Pele taking the leeward side, which is often covered with lava flows.

According to a different version of the story, it is Kamapuaa who yields, only escaping from Pele's wrath by hiding in the form of a fern. This species of fern still grows near Kilauea today, and bears a superficial resemblance to a pig with red singe-marks left by Pele's fire.

In more modern times, the story of the Law of the Splintered Paddle gives us another example of the layering of myth on top of historical fact. The Law of the Splintered Paddle, or Kanawai Malamahoe, was one of the strictest laws promulgated by King Kamehameha I, making murder and robbery punishable by death. This law is significant in the development of the Hawaiian Kingdom that Kamehameha I created. It is so significant, in fact, that a version of it is included in the constitution of the state of Hawai'i.

In the state constitution, it appears in section 10 of Article IX:

Section 10. The law of the splintered paddle, mamala-hoe kanawai, decreed by Kamehameha I -- Let every elderly person, woman and child lie by the roadside in safety -- shall be a unique and living symbol of the State's concern for public safety. The State shall have the power to provide for the safety of the people from crimes against persons and property.

However, the oral histories do not agree on the exact incident that led to the creation of the law. In the version collected by Fornander, a young Kamehameha attacked the subjects of a rival chief on the Big Island while they were peacefully fishing on the reef near Keaau. In the ensuing fight, Kamehameha's foot got caught in the reef, putting him off balance and allowing one of the fishermen to club him several times on the head with a paddle. As the story goes, Kamehameha's life was spared only because the fisherman did not know the identity of his assailant. The Kanawai Malamahoe was promulgated by the king later in his life in commemoration of this incident, when he nearly died because he foolishly chose to attack harmless noncombatants.

A version of the story collected by Pukui in Folktales of Hawai'i is different. In this version, the young Kamehameha I was building a heiau, or temple, and needed human sacrifices. He attempted to capture a pair of fisherman, but as he was pursuing them his foot got caught in a fissure of lava and he fell. One of the fishermen clubbed him over the head with his paddle so hard that the paddle splintered. As Kamehameha lay there stunned, he heard one of the men ask the other, "Why don't you kill him?" The second man replies, "Because life is sacred to [the god] Kane."

Kamehameha was so impressed by their reverence for life that he later promulgated the Kanawai Mamalahoe, which abolished human sacrifice and established the basic right to life in the Hawaiian culture.

There are still other versions of the story, collected by other historians, and it is not clear which version is the most accurate, if indeed any of them are. We have the law itself, but we can't say for certain what chain of events led Kamehameha I to promulgate it.

The voyaging canoes, too, were lost in myth, like the Kanawai Mamalahoe. Despite the efforts of historians like Fornander, Beckwith, and Malo, we still don't know why the period of colonization stopped, and we can't say for certain what happened while it was going on. But, because of the work of Nainoa Thompson and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, we can see the Hokule'a moored in Honolulu, or sailing the open ocean between Hawai'i, Tahiti, and New Zealand.

The Polynesian Voyaging society now has an additional voyaging canoe besides the Hokule'a. Both vessels are used to educate the public about Hawaiian culture and the traditional techniques of instrumentless navigation. Brigham Young University in Hawai'i recently completed work on a voyaging canoe of their own, which students there will use for a similar purpose. These vessels give us a concrete connection to the past, allowing us to see a point in human history where one of the most advanced cultures of the time undertook a project of exploration and colonization more advanced than any before, and spread their culture across the widest area of any nation on Earth.


Reader Comments

Originally born in Hawai'i, Ramon now lives in Washington state with his wife and two cats. His work has appeared in the Hawai'i Review and The Absinthe Literary Review.

Bibliography & Further Reading

The Polynesian Voyaging Society Web site is an invaluable resource for information about traditional navigation.

Beckwith, Martha. Hawaiian Mythology. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu. 1975.

Fornander, Abraham. Ancient History of the Hawaiian People. Mutual Publishing, Honolulu. 1996.

Malo, David. Mo'olelo Hawaii, trans. Nathaniel B. Emerson. Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu. 1997.

New Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1975.

Pukui, Mary Kawena. Folktales Of Hawaii. Bishop Museum Press, Honolulu, 1995.

Shook, Victoria E. Ho'oponopono: Contemporary Uses of a Hawaiian Problem Solving Process. The East-West Center. Honolulu. 1985.

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