Ua mau ke ea o ka ‘aina I ka pono

Long before the term “sustainability” became fashionable Hawaiians were, by choice and of necessity, living in harmony with nature. They are a deeply religious and spiritual people who, from ancient times, believed that the land and the sea, upon which they lived and relied, belonged to their deities. They, and now we, are just the caretakers.

Hawai‘i is the most isolated land on the planet. Polynesians discovered the islands more than 1,900 years ago and developed a culture that was uniquely adapted to harmoniously living off the land and the ocean. After Captain Cook “discovered” Hawai‘i in 1778, the population was decimated by disease. In less than 50 years the original population of up to 800,000 was reduced to fewer than 50,000. Much of the wisdom of these people vanished, but some remains.

Four stunning examples of the sophistication of the Hawaiian culture are: 
• The almost instantaneous literacy of the Hawaiian people
By 1825, less than 50 years after “contact”, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i boasted an 85% literacy rate – an order of magnitude higher than any other state in the Union.

• Linguistic evidence of prolonged and repeated contact between all of the archipelago of Polynesia, from New Zealand to Hawai‘i.
English and the other romance languages can be traced to Latin and Greek, yet English speakers cannot easily communicate with French, German, Spanish, Italian or Greek speakers. Without constant contact and dialogue, languages evolve. The English Channel proved a sufficiently formidable barrier to keep the English from speaking to the French. In Polynesia, however, a person fluent in Hawaiian can converse with a Tongan, a Tahitian, a New Zealand Maori or a Samoan – ample evidence of frequent discourse between the far flung reaches of Polynesia.

• Demonstration by the Polynesian Voyaging Society of the seaworthiness of the voyaging canoe.

Herb Kawainui Kane, an artist, historian, writer and sailor, together with Ben Finney and Tommy Holmes set out to prove the hypothesis that the Polynesians could indeed navigate the Pacific. They enlisted Kenneth Emory of Hawai‘i’s Bishop Museum to help design a Polynesian voyaging canoe. From this collaboration arose the idea of a Polynesian Voyaging Society and the canoe Hokule‘a. Hokule‘a’s voyage from O‘ahu to Tahiti in 1975 proved beyond doubt that the voyaging canoe was capable of voyages of 2,000 miles or more.

“The discovery of Hawai‘i could not have resulted from an accidental drift voyage of helpless storm-wrecked fishermen; the way north demanded close-reaching against the wind through three different regions of prevailing winds and ocean currents. A coconut cannot drift from the South Pacific to Hawai‘i through these zones. Those who sailed were on a purposeful voyage of exploration. They knew the dangers; they knew of canoes which had sailed and never returned; but their ancestors had always found new islands in their ocean world, and the spirits of their most powerful ancestors would guide them now.” From Ancient Hawaii by Herb Kawainui Kane.

• Accuracy of the Polynesian system of navigation.

A major obstacle to proving that the Polynesians conducted these immense voyages was the belief that they did not know navigation. This difficulty was resolved when Mau Piailug, a highly skilled Micronesian navigator, was introduced to the group.

From an introduction to the remarkable film Wayfinders: a Pacific Odyssey

“Because no Polynesians new how to navigate in the ancient manner, Mau Piailug, a traditional navigator from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, was chosen to guide the canoe. His method of navigating by the stars and swells was closely similar to extinct Polynesian methods.

Navigator Mau Piailug used the rising points of the stars, supplemented by observations of the sun, moon, and ocean swells, as a natural compass to guide the canoe. Even when days of solid cloud cover hid the stars, sun, and moon from sight, Mau was able to keep the canoe on course and keep in his mind an accurate picture of the canoe’s progress toward Tahiti. And, obligingly, small, white fairy terns skimming over the sea, told Mau that the atoll of Mataiva, just to the north-northwest of Tahiti, was near before it could actually be seen. Once this atoll had been reached, it was easy to orient the canoe for the short sail to Tahiti.

The fact that the canoe sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti and back, and that Mau had been able to navigate to Tahiti without instruments, effectively demonstrated how Polynesian canoes and traditional navigational methods were up to the task of planned, long-distance voyaging.”