Terri C. Hansen
News From Indian Country
Pacific NW Bureau Chief
Question: What’s 60-feet long, features twin hulls (one that represents the female, the other male), and has sailed the deep blue seas since time immemorial?
Answer: Traditional Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoes. And yes, they are sailing just as they did more than 800 years ago.
Two of them slipped into Washington State’s Puget Sound only a month ago.
As the five to 10-ton Hawaiian canoes swayed in the ruffled waters of the Sound, oars could be heard slicing through the 40-degree water, their slapping sound a signal of the approach of several traditional cedar canoes.
Using their native language, the People of the Canoe Nations called out greetings to their visitors.
The Hawaiians responded in their melodic language.
It was one native culture to another.
Hokule’a, a 63-foot voyaging canoe, traversed the Pacific Northwest from mid-May through most of June calling on the Puyallup, Suquamish, Swinomish, Muckleshoot, Lummi, Makah, Cowlitz, and other Indian Nations. A second canoe, Hawai’iloa, traveled from Puget Sound north to Juneau, Alaska.
“The trip was multi-purpose,” said Hokule’a Skipper Kimo Lyman. They were here, he said, to honor the area’s Native Americans, Hawaiians and Indian-Hawaiians.
They came too, to rekindle ancient ties made when their ancestors voyaged here over 500 years ago.
Those early Polynesian visitors would probably have been greeted with cedar, and this trip was no exception. Soon after arrival the big canoe was graced with fragrant cedar boughs that took their place next to mesh bags bulging with island fruits — a Hawaiian gift.
There were traditional welcomes for the Hokule’a crew as they pulled into tribal lands. The Hawaiians blew music on conch shells and chanted traditional songs. Spiritual leader Dan “Kaneala” Akaka led the ceremonies.
No two were exactly alike, he said, but he most always asked for permission to land. “I do a paddling chant, then I do an entrance chant. It’s like a common courtesy: asking permission, getting permission, telling them we come in peace to share our culture.”
The most interesting part to Akaka was greeting his hosts in his native language and hearing their answer in their native tongue.
Once on shore, there was hospitality: traditional salmon bakes, ceremonies, giveaways. “They’ve been honoring us so much, it’s incredible,” said Lyman. “There have been so many different interactions with all the different tribes. It’s been fabulous.”
Crew member Dave Bush enjoyed the cultural exchange. “I think we found a lot of common values with the Northwest Indians,” he said. “We found a lot of the same problems. One woman said 80 percent of their culture was lost. It’s the same in Hawaii, but we’ve regained a great deal.”
There was even fun and games with a stop at an Indian-owned casino.
Their last stop in the Northwest, Fort Vancouver, coincided with a memorial anniversary commemorating those early Hawaiians who had lived at Kanaka Village, next to the fort. “The Hawaiians came over in the 1800s,” said Kariotta Kaaa, of Vancouver’s Hui O Hawaiinei. “There were 300 men that worked along with the French Canadian and Indian tribes.”
Hawaiians and Indians married, leaving a rich legacy of two Native cultures around the Northwest.
Hokule’a was the first voyaging canoe to emerge from the vision of a handful of Hawaiians in the early 1970s, who went on to form the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Today there are three canoes, and more are in the building stage.
Completed in 1975, Hokule’a is much more than just a voyaging canoe replica. She inspired a renaissance of native-Hawaiian culture and is, “a symbol for the reawakening of our culture,” 16-year-old crew member Laulima Lyman said.
“The meaning and symbolism behind Hokule’a is mind-boggling,” added 18-year-old Kekoa Ho. Summed up Akaka, “This canoe was the vehicle to sew all the others together into a lei.”
Since Hokule’a, the old traditions are being reclaimed. Wayfinding — the traditional practice of navigating long voyages using only the stars, sun, waves and seabirds as guides — has successfully been used on voyages to New Zealand and Tahiti.
So how does one get chosen to sail to, say, Tahiti? “You start by building canoes,” explained Bush. “When you start people watch your character. That’s how they determine who they select.” Students begin with sea trials or inter-island trips, Bush said.
The final leg of their journey is taking them south to San Diego. It shouldn’t take long. On an average day Hokule’a travels at 100 miles per hour, on a good day 120.
Since Hokule’a was built, she has crossed 80,000 miles of water. Will she head this way again?
Promised Capt. Lyman, “We’ll be back.”