Wayfinders: Polynesian Navigation


Hōkūle‘a photo © Monte Costa | Courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society |

Wayfinders: Polynesian Navigation
Aired  on NPR’s “Morning Edition,” May 6, 1999
By Heidi Chang

Centuries before European explorers entered the Pacific Ocean, Polynesian seafarers had already explored the Pacific, settling the islands in the middle. They traveled in canoes without navigational instruments. Over the years, as European and American influence grew in Hawaii and other islands, the art of what’s called “wayfinding” over a long distance was nearly lost. In the last 25 years, some people in Hawaii have begun “wayfinding” again. Their story is told in a new documentary called “Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey,” which will be broadcast tonight on public television to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage month.

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Nainoa Thompson

Master Navigator Nainoa Thompson | Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society

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CHANG: With the ocean as its backdrop, the film, Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey, chronicles the history and the revival of the Polynesian art of navigation.

FILM CLIP: Thousand of years ago under a dome of stars, our ancestors ventured out into the vast unexplored waters of their Ocean World. They crafted voyaging canoes with natural materials and stone tools. The whole community helped build these vessels that carried them for weeks on the open sea.

CHANG: The film follows the adventures of the people who sail on two Hawaiian double-hulled canoes–Hokule’a and Hawai’iloa. The film’s writer, producer and directer is Gail Evenari, who now lives in California. After sailing on Hokule’a in the 1980’s, she says she was inspired to make the documentary and share what she learned about Pacific Island voyaging.

EVANARI: Well the thing that’s unique about my background is how would a Jewish girl from Detroit end up in the middle of the Pacific Islands on this canoe with 13 guys going from island to island, it’s such a stretch, it’s so far from my birth and my background, that when I look at it from here, from today, it’s kinda like, I go, wow, how did I end up there? And yet, I am so grateful that I did. Because I was able to see a different way of being in the world and experience it.

CHANG: That different perspective is explained in the documentary by the voyagers. Nainoa Thompson is the first Hawaiian in 600 years to master the art of Polynesian navigation, guided only by the signs of nature–the stars, the moon, the sun and the ocean swells. Thompson studied with Micronesian master navigator, Mau Piailug, who came to Hawaii to help the Hawaiians relearn the ancient tradition. Piailug guided Hokule’a on its first voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976.

Mau Piailug

Master Navigator Mau Piailug | Photo © Monte Costa, courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society


FILM CLIP: Thompson says, this particular place was really our classroom…

CHANG: In this scene, Thompson stands on a lookout point on Oahu and shares what he learned from Mau Piailug.

THOMPSON: And there was one time, just as the early stars came out, he (Mau Piailug) said, “can you point to the direction of Tahiti?” That was easy to do, I was well trained for that. So I pointed towards the direction where the island would lie. But the island is 2500 miles away. He said, “can you see the island?” I just told him I see the island in my mind. He said, “good, keep the vision in your mind. If you lose that you’ll be lost.” And from that point on we never had a lesson again.

CHANG: Nainoa Thompson is now passing on the legacy of Mau Piailug… by training a whole new generation of navigators from Hawaii, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Cook Islands. One of his students is 31-year-old Shantell Ching, who’s training on Hokule’a.

CHING: This canoe is very special, it’s an inspiration to lots of people and being of Hawaiian ancestry there’s some kind of draw for me to participate in this voyage in anyway that I can, and find out how our ancestors did it.

Ben Finney

Ben Finney, one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society | Photo courtesy of the Polynesian Voyaging Society


CHANG: University of Hawaii anthropologist, Dr. Ben Finney, is one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. It was his idea to build Hokule’a in the 1970’s, to see if it was possible for Polynesians to have intentionally explored and settled the Pacific.

FINNEY: We never quite expected that Hokule`a would become the cultural, political symbol that it is. … And that canoe Hokule`a has helped give the Hawaiians back their pride, and that has to be the base for all positive action.

CHANG: Gail Evenari began filming Wayfinders before Hawaii’s voyaging community began building a second canoe in 1991, called Hawai’iloa. Since Hawaii no longer has koa trees large enough for the canoe’s hulls, the film follows the voyagers to Alaska, where they get their trees, a gift from the Tlingit (Klingit) and Haida Indians.

NAT SOUND: Choppping down tree and tree falling.

CHANG: It took Evenari ten years to complete the film.

EVANARI: Really the heart of the story is that ancient wisdom can teach us how to survive today. And that’s a universal story…. I hope that people who see this story can look at their own cultures and think about how they can learn from their past and carry that wisdom into the future.

CHANG: The story of Hawaii’s Voyagers doesn’t end with the film. Nainoa Thompson and his crew are gearing up for their last voyage of the millennium, and their biggest challenge. They’ll be sailing Hokule’a thousands of miles to the tiny island of Rapa Nui or Easter Island, to close the Polynesian Triangle, the vast oceanic region between Hawaii, New Zealand and Rapa Nui. The journey is expected to take six and a half months, with several crew changes at islands along the way. Wayfinder, Nainoa Thompson.

THOMPSON: For me, Wayfinding is about reaching for ones dreams, and it’s also about conducting ones way of life. And it’s not just where we want to go to, but it’s why. Also, it’s about strengthening our culture. Bringing pride and dignity to our history our heritage, and to ourselves. Everybody wayfinds in their own ways. They all have their own contributions. We just simply do it on voyaging canoes.

CHANG: The movie, Wayfinders, will be broadcast nationally tonight on PBS. Next month, Hokule’a will set sail for Rapa Nui, with the first good wind.

NAT SOUND: Hokule’a sails out in the open ocean.

Wayfinders: Polynesian Navigation won a  Society of Professional Journalists Hawaii Chapter First Place Excellence In Journalism Award for Radio Feature Reporting in 1999. 

Related Topics

Learn more about  Hōkūle‘a’s Worldwide Voyage (2014 – 2017)

To follow the journey visit Hokulea.com – Malama Honua (to care for our Earth)

Polynesian Voyaging Society

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