Paddling full steam ahead: Traditional voyaging and navigation at the 9th Festival of Pacific Arts

PRESS RELEASE posted by Rosita Hoffmann, Communications Officer, Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), 26 July 2004 on the SPC website (

Koror, Republic of Palau, Monday 26 July: Manny Sikau, born on Puluwat Atoll in Chuuk (Federated States of Micronesia - FSM), was five years old when he began learning traditional navigation from his grandfather, the late Ikuliman Sikau.

"He taught me the stars, the names of the stars, then taught me about the directional stars for each island, and what the direction and position of birds meant, about reefs, and fish around each island," he says.

So, for example, if you have a certain star in sight, and you see a flock of black and white seabirds fishing, you can be fairly certain you are near the southeast shore of Saipan. Even if there is cloud cover, no problem - a mental map of the area is in your head.

"Traditional navigation is still very important - we still rely on it," says Mr Sikau. "We still have our canoes to sail. We need to have canoes for fishing and foraging - that's part of our culture."

Mr Sikau, who carries the title of "po", or master navigator, says he feels far safer in a canoe than anything with an engine. After all, a canoe won't break down or run out of fuel.

Mr Sikau, who these days lives in the US territory of Guam, was one of about 40 people with a special interest in traditional voyaging and navigation who gathered for a symposium today at the 9th Festival of Pacific Arts. In the crowd was another master navigator, Sisario Sisaru, who captained the voyaging canoe that sailed to the festival from Yap (FSM). (His brother Tony led the canoe that sailed from Saipan, CNMI.) 

Some of the festival delegates hail from such places as Guam, whose people lost many of their seafaring traditions but who are passionately re-learning them through groups such as the University of Guam Traditional Seafarers' Society, which Mr Sikau founded and at which he teaches.

Other delegates are from places such as the Cook Islands, where canoes are still used for fishing and foraging in the same way they were used in traditional times, says festival delegate and member of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, Ian Karika. Cook Islanders still make large ocean-going canoes, and have sailed to previous festivals.

But whatever their experience and expertise, delegates are united by a strong desire for traditional canoe-building and non-instrument navigation skills to not just survive, but thrive. And judging by the activity at the festival, they are.

At the base of the Japan-Palau Friendship Bridge, teams from five countries - Tokelau, Cook Islands, Samoa, FSM (Kosrae state), and the Marshall Islands - are  each constructing sailing canoes out of logs gathered by their Palauan sister states.

The five canoes will stay in Palau after they are unveiled on Friday, says canoe events organiser Tiare Holm. This means that Palau's national fleet will soon grow from 11 to 16 canoes. This will be, she says, the largest fleet of traditional canoes that younger Palauans will have ever seen.

The festival canoe programme also includes sailing demonstrations, a symposium on navigation, and sailing trips.

Mr Sikau, who is attending the festival for the first time, says that such a gathering offers great benefits to traditional canoe-building and navigation as it allows people to share their knowledge (since practices vary from place to place) and their sea stories.

Mr Karika tells of how voyaging connects him to his ancestor, the sailor Karika. Mr Karika's forebears sailed to the Cook Islands from eastern Samoa. He says that when he's on the water, "I feel completely relaxed, and it's like being on the train that's taking you home after you've been away. It's that feeling of fulfilment."

Young people always show up in droves when voyages are announced - the next inter-island trips will take place later this year - and Mr Karika hopes that youths will find the cultural connectedness he has. He hopes that some will commit themselves to perpetuating the traditions of their elders. But there's a lot competing for young people's attention in the wired world. But it's just this up-to-the-minute technology that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hopes will encourage young people to plug into to traditional canoeing and navigation.

UNESCO's Bangkok staff member Derek Elias was at the symposium today, presenting a CD-ROM called The Canoe is the People: Exploring and Sharing Traditional Knowledge in the Pacific. The CD-ROM has been progressively developed over the last five years,and contains video clips and information on navigational practices all over the Pacific.Its aim is to whet young people's interest in traditional voyaging and navigation  skills.

"Formal schooling doesn't necessarily value local and traditional knowledge - there's a difference between what they see and what they learn at school," he says.

He hopes the CD-ROM will help teachers to "insert information about traditional navigation into different core subjects so children can understand that knowledge held in their community has a sound basis in science, in maths, and in history."

Delegates at the traditional navigation symposium viewed a short documentary, featuring renowned master navigator Mau Pialug. The video was filmed at the home of Sisario Sisaru (one of Mr Pialug's sons) on the FSM island of Satawal (Yap state). The documentary, which Mr Elias says was made at the instigation of traditional navigators, shows Mr Pialug demonstrating star maps - one of the basic skills of non-instrument navigation - using stones on the sand. Other parts of the CD-ROM package recount the great Pacific canoe voyages of the 20th century.

A handbook for both teachers and students will be developed, says Mr Elias, who hopes to see the CD-ROM launched by November this year. "Through this we can give youth a taste of Pacific navigation," he says. "We want to get them more interested in it in their own community and revitalise and foster that sense of pride and identity with that [local] wealth of knowledge."

Click here for more information on the CD-ROM: The Canoe Is the People

For more information on Palau, see:

- or        

For more information, please contact:

  • Rhonda Griffiths <RhondaG(at)>, Cultural Affairs Adviser, Secretariat of the Pacific Community, Mobile in Palau: + 00680 779 3612.
  • Alexander Merep, Festival Director and Minister for Community and Cultural Affairs, Tel: +00680 488 1126.

  • Derek Elias, UNESCO Bangkok: (00662) 391-0577.

Background information

     The 9th Pacific Festival of Pacific Arts, being held in the republic of Palau, takes place from July 22 to 31, with more than 2000 people from 27 Pacific Island nations taking part.

     The festival was conceived as a way to combat the erosion of traditional customary practices, and every four years since 1972, Pacific peoples have come together to share and exchange their cultures. This is the first year that the festival has been held in the northern Pacific  and also the first year in which every single member of the Council of Pacific Arts has been represented there.

     The Pacific islands and nations taking part this year are: American Samoa, Australia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.

     The theme of this year's festival is Oltobed a Malt: Nurture, Regenerate, Celebrate.

     The phrase, in the Palauan language, signifies that the process of promoting new growth to maintain the essence of a culture is dependant on the wisdom and endurance of the ancestors. The physically-able youth power the canoe, while elders stabilise the country and navigate the course. The young people have keen vision, to seek and select new and effective ideas to ensure a successful future. The festival assures the protection of cultural heritage and supports the aspirations of young people.

     The following activities will be demonstrated, conducted and exhibited during the 10-day festival: contemporary and traditional arts (body art, weaving, wood, bone and stone carving, tapa making, tattooing, jewellery, beadwork, shellwork and pottery); photographic arts, cinematography, costumes, and floral arts; traditional medicine and healing crafts; traditional canoe-building and navigational crafts, traditional culinary arts, philatelic arts, traditional moneys and literary arts; traditional and contemporary performing arts (oratory, storytelling, musical instruments, song, dance, drama, fire-walking, traditional sports, symposium, debates and workshops on issues such as legal protection of traditional knowledge, roles of traditional and elected leadership, natural resources as wealth, social change, and education).


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