Monday, April 19, 1999

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
A dancer in traditional costume honors
Mau Piailug upon his arrival at Moen, Chuuk.

Going Home

Master navigator Mau Piailug and his
Hawaiian brethren breathe new life into the
'magic of before' and fire the Micronesian spirit,
charting a course for the new century
with wonders 4,000 years old

Celestial navigators
bridged vast Oceania

By Susan Kreifels


Across the lagoons they come, flotillas of small canoes and outboards bearing gifts: a cup of saimin, a bottle of water, a turtle.

They come to touch his hand, hear his words, chant and dance for him -- a man of wonder to remote Micronesian islanders who have heard stories of the great celestial navigators.

"Now they see the magic that I make, the magic like before, sailing to other places," said grand master navigator Mau Piailug, the Micronesian who started teaching Hawaiians traditional navigation in the late 1970s. "They come in the morning waiting for me."

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
The Big Island voyaging canoe Makali'i, background,
arrives at Moen in Chuuk Lagoon, and Piailug, who is
sitting in a spot reserved for dignitaries, is taken ashore.

Those who deliver him are just as wondrous. These cousins of Hawaii who sailed so far, guided only by the stars, the sun and moon, and the ocean swells, to a place mostly forgotten by the world.

The celebrations greeting the Big Island canoe Makali'i, sailing through the Western Pacific to honor Piailug, have overwhelmed the crew.

"Every place we go, we are treated like heroes," said Darrell Lapulapu of the Big Island, in a recent telephone interview from Chuuk.

As the century closes, the Makali'i arrives at Pacific islands perhaps most in danger of losing their cultural identity after generations of foreign dominance and dependence on U.S. aid.

Hawaii resident Mason Fritz, born in Micronesia, said the voyage has triggered a "cultural rethink" of how Micronesians should travel into the new millennium -- the type of renaissance that already has occurred in Hawaii.

The 6,220-mile voyage has created, Fritz said, "the kind of energy that comes once in a lifetime, the energy of rediscovering pride in ourselves. Traditional navigation unifies the people."

The energy sparks from hundreds of students who have gone aboard the canoe or gathered in packed gymnasiums to listen to the voyagers. It's in the greetings of chanters who sing of navigation long ago, the words felt but barely understood. It even stopped a Continental Airlines plane on the runway so passengers could watch the Makali'i enter Chuuk Lagoon.

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
The Makali'i, above, moored by Sokehs, a landmark
similar to Diamond Head, on the island of Pohnpei.

The "magic like before" -- sailing by the stars and other clues of nature without the help of navigational equipment -- is shared by all Pacific island people. It guided their original ancestors some 4,000 years ago from Southeast Asia to populate every inhabitable island of the vast Oceania.

They sailed as far east as Rapa Nui, or Easter Island. They voyaged west to Madagascar, spreading the roots of their language two-thirds of the way around the world, farther than any other language at the time.

Reviving a tradition

But the art of long-distance voyaging was almost lost under centuries of colonial rule that changed, even banned, the traditional way of life.

The 67-year-old Piailug, seeing little interest in his home islands, worried that celestial navigation would die with him. It already had died in Hawaii, and people here wanted to resurrect the tradition.

University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney asked Piailug to navigate Hawaii's first voyaging canoe, the Hokule'a, which set sail in 1975.

"He became the papa and mama of everyone," Finney said.

Years later, Piailug received an honorary doctorate from the UH in recognition of helping preserve traditional knowledge. At the event, "Dr. Mau" wore a traditional red tur, or loin cloth.

Indeed, Finney, co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, considers star navigation an "intellectual feat." But to islanders, navigators become almost superhuman. "The navigator captures everybody's imagination," Finney said. "You have to treat them with honor. They are the rock stars" of the islands.

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
Micronesians on Moen, Chuuk, hold a ceremony in
honor of celestial navigator Mau Piailug.

Nainoa Thompson studied under Piailug for 23 years and now navigates the Hokule'a. Thompson, 45, is revered by those who want to preserve the Hawaiian culture and has become a symbol of its revival.

Research in Guam several years ago showed 30 to 40 traditional navigators left in Micronesia, according to Finney. Navigators have now been trained in Polynesia, including the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

Thompson recalled his teacher's fear that celestial navigation would die in Micronesia, even though four sons of Piailug's 16 children have sailed with the Hawaiians.

"He looked me straight in the eyes and said, 'It's too late,' " said Thompson, recalling Piailug's words of 1992. " 'I'm too old. My people have too much to learn. It's OK. Even after they put me in the ground I have already planted the tree in Hawaii.' "

Thompson said that "when his people want to learn, they have a place to go." And with the Makali'i voyage, "the process has started."

Teaching others

The president of the Federated States of Micronesia, Jacob Nena, has taken keen interest in the voyage, sending a national coast guard ship to escort the Makali'i, and hosting the crew in Pohnpei. Nena wants to include courses on celestial navigation at the maritime school in Yap when it reopens in September.

"Traditionally families who are expert in this keep to themselves, to their families, and don't share," Nena said. "We are fortunate Mau wants to share and teach his knowledge.

"The local people appreciate the fact that Hawaiians and Micronesians are similar seafaring people. Micronesians want to be part of rebuilding the knowledge. This is one of the greatest events in the outer islands."

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
A flotilla of traditional canoes greets the
Big Island voyaging canoe Makali'i.

Piailug and the Hawaiians have sailed canoes to Tahiti, the Cook Islands and other Polynesian islands, helping rekindle interest in traditional voyaging. Sailing to Piailug's home fulfills the Hawaii family's promise to "papa" and completes the circle of learning.

Makali'i navigator Shorty Bertelmann, who says he was Piailug's first student, sailed out of the Big Island on Feb. 10. A crew of 58 volunteered for various legs of the voyage to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Saipan and Guam. The highlight of the voyage was Piailug's home of Satawal, a tiny atoll about 500 miles south of Guam where he learned celestial navigation from his grandfather.

Piailug said about 800 people live on the atoll, virtually untouched by modernization, with no electricity and boats the only transportation. Survival still depends on fishing and whatever else nature provides.

The Hawaiians presented a freezer for fish and a water maker, both powered by the sun. Satawal's only fresh water comes from catchments.

For the Hawaiians, seeing rekindled interest in traditional voyaging is a flashback of the past quarter-century here. Makali'i captain Chadd Paishon of the Big Island hears a common question from young Micronesians: With modern technology, why do you still sail by the stars?

Paishon's answer: "We needed to know where our cultural practices joined up with modern society, how to balance the two to gain self-esteem and connection to our home. Sailing on a canoe helps us focus on what we need to do for our future.

"Right now Micronesians are on the verge of either changing over everything to Western society, or trying to figure out the balance, the best of both worlds. We tell them not to rush too quickly. If they can hold onto their values and culture, that will enable them to have a strong healthy place for their future."

Micronesians have been shocked by some aspects of the voyage. "Traditional women don't go on canoes," Paishon said.

Cultural affirmation

The voyage also has reinforced for Hawaiian crew members the importance of their own traditional culture. Kanani Kahalehoe of Hana, Maui, said life on the remote atolls must be very similar to that of her ancestors. The voyage "is going back to our culture" and she hopes to share her experience with young Hawaiians.

Like the other voyages, this one has proven the common roots of all Pacific islanders. When talking to the Hawaiian crew members, they never stray far from the wisdom and lessons of their teacher Piailug -- the ocean, he constantly reminds them, does not divide people but connects them.

"Mau put a 'stick' between Hawaii and Micronesia," Paishon said, using his teacher's concept of a bridge. "Now it's our responsibility to walk back and forth."

Celestial navigators
bridged vast Oceania

By Susan Kreifels


An ancestral connection to the canoe gives native voyagers stronger sense of identity

Capt. James Cook, the 18th-century explorer, called Polynesia "by far the most extensive nation upon Earth." He was amazed that native people on opposite edges of vast Oceania -- from New Zealand to Rapa Nui -- looked the same and could talk with one another.

Cook didn't even make it to the Micronesian islands, where ancestors shared common roots as well.

Without the ancient celestial navigators sailing their canoes millenniums before the British arrived, Cook would have seen no people on his three Pacific voyages.

In fact, says Hawaiian historian and artist Herb Kane, there would be no Micronesians or Polynesians.

Recognizing the ancestral bond linked to the canoe is helping to sail native Pacific islanders into the new millennium with a much stronger sense of identity and direction.

Kane helped give birth to the Hokule'a, Hawaii's first traditional voyaging canoe, which set sail March 8, 1975. The Hawai'iloa and Makali'i came later. Their voyages have led a renaissance of traditional navigation throughout the Pacific.

Kane said he had not expected the great outpouring of affection during voyages from Polynesians and Micronesians, who share the same "canoe ancestors" -- the only deep-sea sailors in the world for at least 2,000 years, starting their explorations in the second millennium B.C.

By Tim Rock, Special to the Star-Bulletin
A Chuukese chanter honors Piailug.

The canoe "lies at the heart of the cultural web. It exemplifies the qualities that our ancestors had, qualities of resourcefulness, intelligence and courage. In a very quiet way it reminds us that we must emulate those qualities today," Kane said.

Kane, University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney and waterman Tommy Holmes envisioned the Hokule'a to prove those ancestral qualities, and to show that ancient voyagers, without aid of navigational equipment, spread from Southeast Asia using seasonal westerly winds to discover and populate new islands.

Although the animal and plant life and Lapita pottery found in the Pacific islands could be traced back to Southeast Asia, skeptics like Thor Heyerdahl believed the ancestors had sailed from South America with the easterly trade winds. In 1947, Heyerdahl floated on a balsa raft, starting in Peru and landing in the Tuamotu Archipelago in Central Polynesia.

Earlier skeptics believed the discovery and settlement of the Pacific islands was accidental, by exiles or those lost in storms.

Cook was baffled by the settlements. On his first voyage, the explorer picked up a Tahitian priest named Tupaia, who told him that the winds turned westerly part of the year. The ancient navigators off Southeast Asia used those westerlies to discover the Polynesian and Micronesian islands, later bringing plants, animals and people to populate every habitable island of Oceania.

The ancient sailors relied only on the stars, sun, moon, ocean swells and maps in their head to navigate. Drawing upon memory, Tupaia sketched maps of 74 islands scattered over 2,000 miles of the Pacific, according to the documentary "Wayfinders: A Pacific Odyssey." When Tupaia arrived in New Zealand, he and the Maoris understood one another.

Finney, co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, has researched the immigration routes of the ancient navigators. In the "History of Cartography," Finney writes that they shared roots in the Philippines and Indonesia.


By at least 1500 B.C., seafarers had reached Bismarck Archipelago off the northeast coast of New Guinea. Within a few centuries they had moved east to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa. Archaeological and linguistic evidence suggests they may have lingered in this region for up to 1,000 years.

They then sailed farther east to the Cook, Society and Marquesas islands, settling some of them as early as 500 B.C. From there, they spread in three directions: Hawaii, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and New Zealand. The time of Hawaii's settlement ranges from 200-750 A.D.; Rapa Nui, 400-800 A.D.; and New Zealand, 800-1200 A.D.

Micronesia was populated in two movements. About 1500-1000 B.C., seafarers are believed to have sailed from the Philippines to the Mariana Islands, including Guam and Saipan, and to Belau and perhaps Yap in western Micronesia.

Centuries later canoes sailed north from Melanesia to Kiribati and the Marshall Islands. Then they headed for the Caroline Islands, meeting up with Yap and Belau.

The voyagers spread the Austronesian language, traced to southern China, from Madagascar to Rapa Nui -- two-thirds of the world. It was the most widespread language family on Earth until Western Europeans developed their own seafaring technology.

Later colonization by Western nations and the arrival of missionaries forced native Pacific people to abandon many cultural traditions. Voyaging without compass and instruments became illegal in Tahiti and the Marquesas. Hawaiians were forbidden to speak their language or dance hula.

By the mid-20th century, native Hawaiians worried their culture and language would disappear. They dreamed the Hokule'a would help in the recovery. But they needed a celestial navigator.

Mau Piailug of Satawal atoll in Micronesia took the challenge. He and the Hawaiians have sailed to numerous islands in the Pacific, the West Coast and Alaska.

For the last voyage of this millennium, the Hokule'a will sail to Rapa Nui in June, completing its Polynesian journeys.

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