The Canoe Is the People - Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific






How did the islands of the Pacific form? Where did the peoples of the Pacific come from? How did they live? When and why did they move? How did they learn to navigate? Over the years, these questions have fascinated many people. They have been asked and answered in many ways. Each culture of the Pacific tells its own stories - some similar and some different - and modern researchers also have stories to tell. Every story has its own truths, and without them all, the picture would not be complete.

CD-ROM Sample story: Tonga, Polynesia
Tangaloa, the god of art and invention, looked down from his sky home of Bolotu. "I am hungry. Hungry for fish." He let his great turtle hook go down, down, down. Soon, something heavy pulled on the line. Tangaloa pulled and pulled, but he couldn't pull up the hook. He had caught a huge rock, not a fish! He laughed and said, "Today, I won't eat. Today, I'll have fun making islands." He pulled up the very bottom of the sea. When the rocks reached the surface, the line broke. The land split into lots of little islands.

Then Tangaloa let pieces from the wood he was carving fall to the water. He told one of his sons to become a bird and fly down to see what happened. After some days, the pieces of wood became a beautiful island! He told his son to plant a seed on the island. The seed grew into a vine. His son pecked at the root until it broke in two and rotted. A big white worm formed there. He pecked at that, and it split as well. The three parts became the first men - Kohai, Kuau, and Momo.

Tangaloa named the island Eueiki, the first place of men. The three men became the first tui Tonga (rulers of Tonga). The first true man (not from a worm) was Ahoei. He was born later to Tangaloa and a beautiful woman called Ilaheva Veepopua.




Canoes and Sailing

In Aotearoa, one of the last places to be settled in the Pacific, every Maori iwi (tribe) is connected to the crew of one of the big canoes that first arrived there. This is the starting point of their whakapapa (family line, history). Waka, the word for canoe, can be used in many different ways - for example, to mean a project or voyage done together, both physical and spiritual.

Canoes were (and still are) of great importance to Pacific peoples. In the past, they were the way to travel, trade, and get food. They were part of stories and the work of everyday life. The whole community had huge respect for them. The Pacific peoples developed different types of canoe and ways of sailing for different purposes. 



Becoming a Navigator

Becoming a navigator is a lifelong experience. Learning happens in many places (the home, the canoe house, the sea) and in many ways. On Satawal, everyone learns some things about canoes and sailing from a young age - for example, by playing with model canoes. Children, including girls, learn mostly from their father or uncles. If their mother is a navigator's daughter, she teaches them what she knows too.

But there is also a lot of secret knowledge. It includes knowledge about navigation, canoe building, the weather, and even knot divination. The knowledge is like property. Secret navigational knowledge is passed on only through certain families. In the past, a tribal group without a navigator would sometimes pay to have a student trained. Some young men learn in the school of a reb (master navigator). They are initiated through a pwo ceremony. There were once many traditional schools in the central Carolines, but only two remain - Warieng and Faalnuur.

In the Marshall Islands, navigational knowledge is considered a sacred gift from the ancestors. Only some families have access to it. (If others knew it, they might use it to bring disaster on a canoe.) Polynesian people say that knowledge is mana - the power to change. In Tonga, there were special navigator tribes like the Haa Fokololo oe Hau, who navigated the kalia (double hulls) of the tui Tonga (kings). A young boy from a high family was chosen to learn on board. Some boys were trained as ula lahi (navigators), and some as lomu lahi (canoe builders).


CD-ROM Sample: Uma Ni Borau (Roof of Voyaging: Star Compass)
Like the use of stones in Satawal, this is another way to learn the star compass. In Kiribati (Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands), the roof of the maneaba (meeting house) represents the night sky. A young navigator sits by the central pole. He faces east and looks up. Various oka (rafters, poles) divide the sky into sections. The student first learns the stars in one section (where they are for each season) and then in the next sections. He might have to remember the names and positions of more than 100 stars! He also learns star paths - the order of stars to follow to reach an island. Stories about gods or heroes help him to remember. 




Before anything else, a navigator and his community have to prepare well for a journey. Once at sea, the navigator has to bring together all his knowledge about stars and the sea, sun, and wind to keep the canoe on course and safely find land. At all times, he must know his canoe's position in relation to his home and destination and adjust his course if necessary. To do this, he must stay awake for long periods - sometimes all day and night. Otherwise, he might miss important information, like a star sighting or wind change.

But navigating isn't just practical - it's spiritual as well. It is said that you can tell a navigator because of his red eyes - a sign that he's spiritually blessed, not so much that he's had no sleep! In the Caroline Islands, a navigator carries a charm made of wood and stingray spines to protect the voyage. In the Louisiade Archipelago, he places plants like coconut leaves on the canoe to show his authority and keep spirits away. In Kiribati, he might perform a chant to keep away dangers like bad weather.


CD-ROM Sample: Star Path
A star that is just rising or setting is a very good guide. A navigator steers towards the star that rises or sets in the direction of the destination island. A rising star, however, doesn't go straight up from the horizon (unless you are at the equator). It moves to the side of the island and soon is no longer a good guide. A navigator then uses the next star that rises in the same direction, and so on. There might be up to 10 stars in a star path for one night's sailing, but only one might have a name.

Often, songs or stories are used to remember the star paths. A journey between two islands can have more than one star path. Any star path can only be used in a particular season. Six months later, the same stars are only above the horizon in the day and so can't be seen. Different star paths are also used when there are strong currents or winds.



Voyages and Revival

In parts of the Pacific, especially Micronesia, much navigational knowledge has been kept alive. In others, it has been lost.

Now, all over the Pacific, there is a growing revival. There are now many voyaging societies, including those in Hawaii, Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Aotearoa, and the Marshall Islands. People are making more and more voyages in traditional canoes - rediscovering the past and carving the way to the future. New schools are being started to teach navigation to young people.

Sometimes, European ways are used - like teaching with books, building canoes with modern tools, navigating with the help of western maps and compasses, and using inboard motors and escort boats for support. People have different opinions about these things, but everyone has the same aim - to keep the traditional knowledge alive and hand it down to the young navigators of the future.

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