Hawaiian voyaging canoe’s latest journey starts in Alaska: ‘The ocean is what connects us’

a boat
The Hōkūle‘a docked in Hoonah on June 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Carter Johnson)

A four-year voyage across the world starts in Juneau this month.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society will take the Hōkūle‘a — a twin-hulled, wind-powered canoe that was carved 50 years ago and has embarked on 14 voyages since  — over 40,000 miles around the globe.

The journey is called Moananuiākea, and the crew’s goal is to learn about land stewardship and unity from Indigenous communities throughout the Pacific Ocean.

KTOOʼs Yvonne Krumrey spoke with Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. He first came to Alaska looking for logs suitable for a voyaging canoe after a painful search in Hawaii came up empty.

Nainoa Thompson: We searched for nine-and-a-half months. And let’s see, we found trees big enough for the size that we needed to build the hulls of this canoe from our forests, but none of them are healthy enough. So what we found in our forests was a really sad story, that we can’t build a single canoe today. That 90% of our koa forests — the koa is the traditional preferred wood, hardwood, in Hawaii’s forest — 90% has been cut down and much of it’s been replaced by cattle.

Nine-and-a-half months, we couldn’t find these trees — we couldn’t find it. And it was like the first voyage that we took that we didn’t find our destination. And it was very painful to us.

Captain Vancouver, when he visited the Hawaiian Islands, wrote in his logbook that he measured a canoe that was 108 feet long on the island of Kauai, and it is twice the length of our canoe Hōkūle‘a. And it was made out of, in his writing, made out of the finest pine. Pine is not native to the Hawaiian Islands. 

And so when he asked the chief where the trees come from, he said they came from the gift of the gods. They were driftwood logs. And we suspect these trees would have to be, because it was pine, from the Pacific Northwest. And then how I got involved was a single phone call from one of our elders who had a great friendship with one of the Lingít elders in Southeast Alaska. His name is Judson Brown.

And he just said, “Okay, we will get you two trees to build your canoe to carry your culture, but you need to talk to this man, to Byron Mallott, who is the CEO of Sealaska.” And on that phone call, I wasn’t there. But I was told that Byron basically said, “Okay, we’ll give you the trees,” but he had three conditions. 

And one was, you know, don’t ever ask us how much it costs, then it’s not a gift. And he said, “Don’t ever bring these trees back. Once we give it to you, you are responsible for those trees.” And his third comment was that “We’re not giving you trees and just wood. We’re giving our children … Our relationship over 12,000 years in Alaska is about making sure that things in the forest and the oceans are family, so we take care of them.”

That was a profoundly important statement as to why we’re there now. It’s about celebration of family.

Ernie Hillman took a tape measure out and measured the tree and said, “Look, this tree, we found it for us your specifications, this is what you wanted.” And he was stern with me and strict and I really appreciated that. 

And then he says, “Shall we cut it down?” And I told him “no.” And so he got more quiet. I did too. I flew back home to the board of directors in Honolulu. And this is the difference. Yeah, the board of directors get their monthly pamphlets, and all they see is a project and wood. 

But what I saw was the difference between what’s wild and what’s full of life, and what’s still free and powerful of the Alaskan forest compared to the depression of ours. And I just couldn’t cut the trees down.

The ability to take the trees required the Alaskans and Hawaiians and people in Hawaii come together, and they start replanting our forest. So the Alaskans came to Hawaii, and for one weekend, we planted 80,000 koa trees, fenced it off to keep the pigs and the cattle out. And in that forest, it’s just a promise, right? We made a promise. 

Yvonne Krumrey: One question I had that stood out to me from things I’ve read so far about the trip up to Yakutat is that that was the first time they welcomed a yaakw, or canoe, in 100 years. And I think this voyage sits at this really interesting moment in Southeast Alaska where Lingít people are starting to have these experiences and moments that they’re building and working towards that they haven’t had in 100 years.

So can I ask, why start from Juneau? Why go up to Yakutat before this journey?

Nainoa Thompson: We view — and Alaskans view — that the ocean is what connects us, and that we’re all Pacific Ocean’s people. And we are family of the ocean, and that we are family with each other. 

I want to come to Alaska, I want to capture their stories, I want them to tell us about their genealogy of 12,000 years, and how they figured out all the things that we can’t in the modern day, like sustainability, and balance and so forth. How did they do that? Because the evidence is that their country, Alaska, is in relative terms compared to a place like Hawaii, extraordinarily healthy.

I look in Alaska, all I see is life, where I don’t in Hawaii anymore. So in our opinion, Alaska is an extraordinary school.

Yvonne Krumrey: What’s unique about the Hōkūle‘a?

a boat
The Hōkūle‘a docked in Hoonah on June 1, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Carter Johnson)

Nainoa Thompson: She doesn’t have any motors, that’s for sure. But she would be the first canoe that was constructed — best guess, there are no blueprints left anymore. Enormous amount of research back in the early 70s to come up with a design of what the voyaging canoes might have been like. 

She is powered by the wind solely. We have no engines. But what’s most unique about this canoe, it carries the students of the earth. And what it does, it allows us to go into nature, and try to find our way by just being a part of nature.

They found a man by the name of — his name is Piailug, but the nickname is Mau. He came to Hawaii, agreed to sail in Hōkūle‘a with a crew heʼs never met, and go on a voyage six times longer than any voyage heʼs ever taken. On a canoe that’s eight times bigger, and it would cross the equator, he’d see southern stars that he’s never seen before. And he’s going to find that island by using nature. And he did 31 days later, from leaving Maui on May 1, 1976, 31 days later they arrived in Tahiti, a miracle. But why is Hōkūle‘a so, so unique because it carried the master Mau, found Tahiti and changed the Pacific world. Navigation, voyaging is taught all over the Pacific now because of that man.

I mean, Yvonne, we didn’t know anything. We didn’t know how to sit, we didnʼt know how to stand, we didn’t know how to look, we didn’t know how to sleep, you know. We didn’t know anything, nothing. And so all we did for 25 years is watch him and talk to him and be with him.

He told me, he laughed at me and goes, “You know, I want to take you back to my islands (the Carolines in Micronesia), and half the people are gonna like you and half the people are not gonna like you because I give you the navigation.” But what he was saying was, “I give you the navigation and you have responsibility to this navigation.” And that responsibility — ultimately very simple — is to teach. Because we have learned over time, that the way you stop extinction is to make your students better than you. Thatʼs how you stop it.  

Yvonne Krumrey: Can I just ask — are you nervous at all?

Nainoa Thompson: I’m always scared. I’m not a courageous person. And the triggers to get me to commit to something of this kind of risk … The big question always, always, “Is your purpose and your intent greater than the risk you’re putting people in?”

There’s two key pieces: training, and then the other is having the intelligence about nature in a changing, hot world, on a hot earth.

But here’s where I get scared. Because these young people I talked about, if I asked them, “Hey, you want to go, you want to sail from the Cook Islands in New Zealand through into Intertropical convergence zone?” They’re gonna say yes, because they believe in two things: One is that they’re going to be part of something much greater than themselves; and two, it’s safe, because leadership would never ask them to go if it wasn’t safe. That’s why I’m scared. I’m scared, because they would go, they would blindly, blindly go.

So we’re gonna watch it and — and make the right decisions.

The Hōkūle‘a returns to Juneau from Yakutat on Saturday, June 10 and sets off on its longer voyage on June 15. The arrival will air live on KTOO 360TV starting at 3 p.m. 

Thompson says there will be chances to tour the Hōkūle‘a while it’s in town. He says the canoe gets stronger when more and more people put their hands on it.

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the Hōkūle‘a is twin-hulled, not double-hulled.

KTOO is our partner public media station in Juneau. Alaska Public Media collaborates with partners statewide to cover Alaska news.

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