“A Lei Around the World”

Growing up I liked to think about how my home-town region had been called “a sea of grass.”  Riding out to our farm where there was still native grass stretching to the horizon, I imagined the Spaniards’ and American Expedition leaders’ apprehension as they tried to lay track across the llano estacado.

But years later, the weight of that epithet really came home to me as I gazed at the ocean surrounding O’ahu near University of Hawai’i where I was teaching.  When the local swimmers took off unfazed into that blue each lunch hour off San Souci beach near my condo, I realized the limits of my land-loving.  The vastness of the ocean certainly surpassed the sea of grass.

And now, after three years of voyaging, using only the stars and ancient navigation knowledge to guide them, members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and other Hawaiians are coming home having circled the world.  They will arrive at Magic Island off O’ahu on June 17th.

I watch the news and nowhere on the national nor cable stations has this feat been given so much as a tweet.  Yet tweets we must endure, focusing instead on other frightening and demoralizing events of our day.  The new normal, as some call it, requires that we no longer even flinch at lies, deceit, brutal wars, terrorism, the privileging of making money over spirit and the like. We’ve somehow made peace with that which is not peaceful.

And yet it is the Holule’a and its sister canoe, the Hikianalia, which will have–as of June 17th–circumnavigated the earth in a journey of 47,000 nautical miles with stops at 85 ports in 26 countries.  Each mile is marked by “Malama Honua”–caring for the world,  its oceans and peoples, a journey of love and peace, a journey of vision, values, and sharing.

In the l970s when the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed, no living Hawaiian had knowledge anymore of navigation without modern day instruments and technology.  The Satawalese Master Navigator Mau Piailug of the Caroline Islands in Micronesia was sought to share his traditional knowledge, knowledge that though carefully guarded, risked extinction without sharing.  His mentorship led to a renewed pride in the Hawaiian and Polynesian culture and a renaissance of voyaging and canoe building.

The Hokule’a is built of plywood, fiberglass and resin though the original Polynesian voyaging canoes were made from koa wood. (In building another canoe in the l990s, no appropriately sized koa could be found because of the decimation of Hawaiian forests, a lesson in itself. In an act of kindness and community, the native people of Southeast Alaska gave two, 400-year-old spruce logs which enabled the completion of that canoe.)

The Hokule’a is 61 feet and five inches in length and capable of speeds of 5-7 miles per hour and up to 29 miles per hour with trade winds.  She has no auxiliary motor.  Her name means “star of gladness” in Hawaiian, a reference to Arcturus, a guiding zenith star historically for Hawaiian navigators.  She was launched on March 8, l975 and is a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a wa’a kaulua, a Polynesian double-hulled canoe.

And star of gladness she is.  In just the past six months, she has visited over 33 communities and connected in various educational settings of over 20,000 school children. Among the many goals (visions and values), chief navigator and mentee of Mau Piailug, Nainoa Thompson, says is that the crew hopes to create “a lei around the world.”

For folks who have only visited Hawaii and not lived there there is still the memory of the sweet smell of plumeria and other flowers from the leis that await visitors at the lei stands in the Honolulu (and other) airports. A lei around the world suggests the greatest beauty.  I fondly remember friends picking me up at the airport all those years I taught at University of Hawai’i, greeting me with this delicate encircling of flowers.  Like a sweet prayer.

There could be no more appropriate image for bringing the values of the Society and of Hawaiians to the world.  According to the Polynesian Voyaging Society, their guiding values are:

aloha (to love); malama (to care for); ‘imi ‘ike (to seek knowledge); loomaika’i (to share with each other); na’au pono (to nuture a deep sense of justice); olakina maika’i (to live healthy).

What this does for Hawaiian culture amidst a host of continuing social challenges (alcoholism, suicide, diabetes, heart failure, etc.) is obvious.  The residue of problems so common among native people dispossessed of their land and traditions continues to challenge a people whose monarchy was overthrown by the U.S. government due to economic interests.  These voyages restate the fact that the Hawaiians have always been the supreme wayfarers, in ancient times navigating the largest tract of ocean in world history.  Among the accomplishments of the Hokule’a and its supporters is to create a continuity of cultural knowledge and respect, one that harkens back and is passed forward.

But what it does it mean for us, those of us still land-locked, perhaps mentally and spiritually?  The model of Hawaiian cultural values–from these our fellow citizens after all– reminds us of the meaning of community, how the health of culture is tied to the health of the environment, how restoration of traditional ways may create sharing and respect rather than divisiveness and concern only for oneself.  There’s a reason I tear-up each time I read about this voyage.  What courage and hope and persistence it has taken for a group historically struggling to keep language and culture alive.  And still to share.

I’m dialing up the Hokule’a website and blogs and the celebration on June 17th and dishing the nightly “news.”

Leis–not lies.


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