Myths morph in translation. Of Maui, the Polynesian sun god or demigod, many tales are told, but where are the true ones? Some say he set out one day with his canoe and his fishhook to pull the links of the Hawaiian island chain together so that his people might travel back and forth, but then a human chieftain broke the spell and spoiled everything. Some say it was Maui who pulled the islands of Hawaii from the depths of the Pacific in the first place, then cast his fishhook into the sky, where it blazes as the constellation Western astronomers know as Scorpio. To those who can decode them, here are clues to the unwritten epic of the discovery and settlement of Polynesia, beginning around 800 BCE, around the time of the rise of the Greek city states.
Hawaiki Rising, a new book by the writer, sailor, prize-winning documentary filmmaker, and Harvard-trained anthropologist Sam Low, weaves from many strands a chronicle of the recovery of the Polynesians' ancient science—or rather their art?—of navigation, practiced without charts or instruments, yet powerful enough to have guided what modern descendants have called the spaceships of the ancestors safely back and forth across the vast face of the Pacific. Glimpse here, if you will, transposed in time and tongue though not in space, the true-life myth of a latter-day Maui.
Bounded by New Zealand in the southwest, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) in the southeast, and Hawaii in the north, the Polynesian triangle is dotted with atolls and volcanic peaks, some 1,000 islands in all, cast like specks across 70 million square miles of Pacific ocean, an area more than four times the size of Asia. "Can you see the island?" a master navigator asked in November 1979, weeks before his disciple set sail from Hawaii in quest of Tahiti.
"I cannot see the island but I can see an image of the island in my mind," the disciple answered.
"A navigator knows where the land is inside of him," the master commented years later, "even when he can't see it."
What lay ahead, over three decades ago, was a 2,400-mile voyage through raging tempests, the dead calm of the Doldrums, capricious currents and countercurrents, seldom blessed with fair winds or following seas. For his compass, the fledgling pilot would gaze at the wheeling stars overhead, at the same time scanning the data in natural signs like winds, waves, cloud formations, the music of the canoe in the water, the flight of birds out to the distant shoals and back to shore. After an odyssey of 31 days, like Maui with his fishhook, he pulled his first island out of the sea by the brushy tops of a stand of coconut palms. Hawaiki, I might mention, is the name of the legendary Hawaiian homeland, whereabouts uncertain except in realms of imagination.
In Low's narrative, great archetypes are born anew. From the solitary coral atoll Satawal in the remote Caroline Islands comes the master Mau Piailug, a seafaring dinosaur in possession of ancestral knowledge for which his people see no further use. His disciple, from contemporary Honolulu, is Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian achingly out of touch with his cultural birthright. From Maui, we meet a third star in this constellation: the young waterman Eddie Aikau, lost at sea, whose gently heroic spirit will hover over the enterprise like a guardian angel. And then there's the Hōkūle'a, a modern replica of a double-hulled Polynesian canoe, the vessel of everyone's struggles, tragedy, aspirations, and dreams. Over the decades the Hōkūle'a has emerged as perhaps the most potent symbol of the burgeoning Hawaiian renaissance. (For a log of her travels past, present, and to come, visit the Polynesian Voyaging Society website.)
The scientific objective in building the Hōkūle'a was to prove that the purposeful seafaring attributed to the Polynesians was no crackpot fantasy. From the first, her history has been amply documented in print and on film, by Low himself, among others. Hawaiki Rising gives the fullest account to date, but that alone may not be the book's principal distinction. As a three-time crew member, Low writes with an insider's knowledge of the personalities and the challenges at sea, quoting liberally from private logs and journals. Best of all, he goes beyond the physical and logistical challenges of the voyage to illuminate its imaginative, metaphorical, and ultimately spiritual significance. Low's subtitle—Hōkūle'a, Nainoa Thompson, and the Hawaiian Renaissance—gives a first hint of his grander theme. That it should fall to Thompson to strike the opening chord, as he does in a foreword, seems only pono, as Hawaiians say, meaning right and proper.
"Growing up in Hawai'i in the nineteen sixties," Thompson begins his foreword, "I found my Hawaiian culture ebbing away. I had never seen an authentic hula, attended a traditional ceremony and seldom heard our language spoken. It was a confusing time for me and I felt lost between worlds that seemed in conflict. All that changed one night when Herb Kane [founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society] introduced me to the stars and explained how my ancestors had used them to find their way across a vast ocean to settle all of Polynesia. At that moment, my vision of my ancestry became timeless and alive in those same stars." The heart of Low's book is Thompson's coming of age as a navigator, a thinker, and a role model, not only to antiquarian seafarers. Imbibing a legacy of priceless knowledge at the knee of his master is part of the picture but not all. Beyond what Mau Piailug could teach him, Thompson sought and found ways to teach himself, to expand the database, to reconcile ancestral knowledge with the science he learned in school.
Like any heroic venture gathering momentum, the building of the Hōkūle'a ("Star of Joy") drew mavericks like a magnet, pioneers and romantics, running away or running toward goals for which even they may have no name. Low paints a lively gallery of these characters. Pure or mixed, the blood of the ancient Hawaiians flowed through the veins of many of the earliest recruits, as it does through Low's. Others were haole through and through, which for those who see only the color of their skin is to say white-bread white folk. Suffice it to say that early on the populations did not mesh.
"Before we leave, throw away all the things that are worrying you," Mau Piailug urged his dozen-odd fellow sailors as they set sail on the Hōkūle'a's maiden voyage to Tahiti. "Leave all your problems on land." But soon deep-seated animosities and mistrust took over. Whose canoe was the Hōkūle'a, anyway? "No one could foresee how pride in the canoe, reviving pride, would turn into possessiveness," one observer said later. "'This is my canoe because I am Hawaiian and this is not your canoe because you are haole even though you, Mr. Haole Man, are largely responsible for building and creating this. Thank you—but give it to me.'"
In the decades since the launch of the Hōkūle'a, Hawaiian studies have burgeoned even as the Hawaiian-sovereignty movement has gained ground. As native peoples throughout the colonized world have seen, reconnecting with an extinguished or disappearing heritage is never easy. All too often, perhaps inevitably, new schisms arise.
Yet other scenarios are possible. Since the second voyage to Tahiti, with Thompson navigating under Mau Piailug's unobtrusive eye, harmonious interracial crews have been the norm, with women aboard as well as men. Today, the canoe is embarked on a five-year circumnavigation of the globe. As Thompson describes it, the mission transcends personal or chauvinistic glory. "We sail," I have heard him say, though the words do not appear in this book, "to honor all cultures."