Letter to Solomon Islands Ministry of Education in support of the Vaka Taumako Project’s application for renewal of its research permit
In 1976, for the first time in centuries, a voyaging canoe sailed from Hawai`i to Tahiti. Its hull was fiberglass, its sails and ropes were nylon, and its navigator Micronesian. Why? There are two basic reasons. First, Hawaiians no longer knew how to build and sail the kinds of canoes that had brought their ancestors from the southern Pacific. Second, in many cases the plants that once furnished Polynesians with building materials had become either extinct or so rare as to make them no longer usable.
When Captain James Cook, the first European known to have visited Hawai`i, landed there in 1778, Tahiti was no longer a place to which Hawaiians regularly sailed. It had become part of the landscape of myth, home of gods and ancestors, a synonym for faraway. What had changed? How had Hawaiians and other eastern Polynesians like the Tahitians forgotten how to make the sea voyages that had enabled their forbears to cross earth’s largest ocean and colonize its remotest islands? Why had people all over the Pacific, and especially the Polynesians, suddenly stopped making their long sea journeys at approximately the beginning of the thirteenth century C.E?
No one knows the answer to that question, though theories abound. Some Polynesian oral traditions speak of wars, famines, family feuds etc. that broke up kinship networks and communities. Some modern scholars, noting that the end of long-distance voyaging in the Pacific roughly co-incided with the cold spell that in Europe was known as the Little Ice Age, have speculated that sudden climate change caused a period of violent storms that could have destroyed communities and made sailing long distances too hazardous. Many other ideas, some reasonable, some risible, have been advanced, but none fully explains what happened. What is important here, however, is that the knowledge of building, sailing, and navigating voyaging canoes of the type that gave the ancient Polynesians mastery of the sea roads was lost to their descendants.
In losing this knowledge, the eastern Polynesians also lost the basis of their cultural identity. In Hawai`i and elsewhere the effects of this loss are obvious. The institute of which I am president, an organization dedicated to preserving and teaching the Hawaiian culture, deals with them daily. Of the many ethnic groups inhabiting the United States of America, Hawaiians, a small minority, have among the highest rates of alcoholism, drug abuse, crime, domestic violence, and preventable diseases like diabetes. They are disproportionately represented in our prisons, homeless shelters, and juvenile halls. Other Pacific islanders share their plight. At the root of their afflictions is a loss of spiritual foundation and self-worth.
The 1976 Tahiti voyage started an astonishing cultural revival throughout eastern Polynesia. It has inspired efforts to preserve and rediscover traditional crafts, dance, science, agriculture, the languages in which this knowledge was taught, and, ultimately, the dignity of a race. Yet much of that knowledge, especially the science and skills of those ancient voyagers, has died with our ancestors.
Nga Taumako, the Polynesian people of Duff Islands, still have it. People like their Paramount Chief, Koloso K. Kaveia, are among the very few who still have the skills that enabled their ancestors to become the greatest seafarers of all time.
Chief Kaveia is over 90 years old. He is a member of the last generation of Polynesians who actively built and sailed the canoes that once carried his people across the Pacific. Every time one of these old people dies, people like the centenarian navigator Jocelyn Soli of Pileni, who passed away on August 26, that person’s knowledge also dies.
Chief Kaveia knows this. He knows how important it is for his own people and Polynesians everywhere that his skills do not die when he does. For this reason he established the Vaka Taumako Project in 1996.
He also understands how important it is that his people’s knowledge be properly preserved and taught, so that it will genuinely benefit nga Taumako and all humanity. For this reason he chose as his collaborator Dr. Marianne George, a cultural anthropologist, sailor, and, most important, a person of integrity.
Dr. George not only has the academic status that gives her access to opportunities for scholarly publication and the sailing expertise that qualifies her to transmit ancient Polynesian seafaring skills to a worldwide modern audience, she also has the wisdom and training to respect traditional protocols. In our age this is particularly important. In Hawai`i we constantly struggle against distortion and exploitation of our traditional culture by greedy, uninformed, or even malicious outsiders. We therefore appreciate those like Dr. George who respect and support our people’s right to control their own intellectual and spiritual patrimony. In her, Chief Kaveia has chosen a wise and honorable collaborator.
The Vaka Taumako Project’s purpose is to preserve and teach the canoe building and sailing skills that nga Taumako cherished for centuries after their kin in more developed parts of the Pacific lost them. Now that those kinfolk have finally learned the value of what nga Taumako have preserved, nga Taumako themselves are in danger of losing it. What a loss it would be to the world if Chief Kaveia and his generation were to pass away without teaching what they know!
The Chief in his wisdom has chosen The Vaka Taumako Project as his teaching vehicle. It therefore deserves the highest level of support from governments and individuals alike.
Heu`ionalani Wyeth, President
Ka `Imi Na`auao o Hawai`i Nei