A Double-Hulled Canoe Helps Heal a Native Culture

BETHESDA, MD – The return of double-hulled canoes that crossed the Pacific Ocean centuries before international sailing, steam, and motorized ships represents a restoration of Native Hawaiian health and culture, said Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, in a speech at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in May.

Thompson said one of the celebrated double-hulled canoe voyages occurred about 2,000 years ago when some historians suggest Polynesians traveled from Tahiti to Hawaii in a craft they named “Hōkūle’a.” Thompson said the Polynesian presence on Hawaii’s islands probably stemmed from the Hōkūle’a’s intrepid voyages.

Mr. Thompson stands at a podium

Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, speaks at the National Library of Medicine, May 2016.

More recently, Thompson explained how the almost-lost traditions of building sea-worthy double-hulled canoes and navigating without modern instruments were revived by a committed volunteer group who call themselves the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Hōkūle’a stopped in the Washington, DC area this spring.

Thompson told an overflow crowd at NLM the Hōkūle’a crew’s odyssey, and the symbols of courage and skill they represent, hold significant meaning to contemporary Native Hawaiians, who perceive the voyages as part of their cultural renaissance.

To provide some context, Thompson explained Hawaii’s native population had declined significantly by the early 20th century. Thompson said estimates suggest there were one million Native Hawaiians at the time of the first contact with Europeans more than two centuries ago, which dropped to around 22,000 Natives by the 1920s.

Thompson noted the building of a Hōkūle’a (which means “Star of Gladness”) is part of a larger revival of Native Hawaiian culture that started in the 1970s. The latter effort includes renewing the teaching of the Native Hawaiian language in schools, colleges, and universities, along with fresh efforts to increase the number of Native Hawaiians within professions such as medicine, nursing, science, and engineering.

In addition to signifying skill and courage, Thompson said the Hōkūle’a symbolizes a healthy approach to life as well as a respectful appreciation of nature. The Hōkūle’a also represents the achievements of ancient Polynesian mariners and a renewed pride in Native heritage.

“Renaissance essentially in the end is knowing who you are, where you come from, and what you believe in,” Thompson said.

Thompson explained the Polynesian Voyaging Society hand-built the first modern Hōkūle’a in the 1970s, using a model drawn by Hawaiian artist Herb Kane in the 1960s. A sizeable replica of the Hōkūle’a and some of Kane’s paintings that depicted the ancient voyaging vessels were on display at NLM from 2011-2015 as part of the Native Voices: Native People’s Concepts of Health and Illness exhibition.

A double-hulled canoe, sails covered, sits empty at dock, a bridge and city skyline visible behind it.

The Hōkūle’a sits at the dock of the Potomac River Boat Club, just outside Washington, DC.

While the initial 1976 Hōkūle’a voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti was successful, Thompson told the NLM audience a subsequent voyage ended tragically when a crew member died after fierce winds and rough seas capsized the Hōkūle’a.

Thompson explained the Polynesian Voyaging Society redoubled their efforts and reached Tahiti in just 31 days during their third Hōkūle’a voyage in 1980.

Incidentally, Thompson, who served as the instrument-free navigator on most of the early Hōkūle’a voyages, learned celestial navigation (using only the sun, moon, stars and natural elements) from a well-known traditional navigator, Mau Piailug, from Micronesia.

Thompson added the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Hōkūle’a have now traveled about 150,000 nautical miles in the Pacific Ocean, including trips to Japan and Aotearoa (New Zealand). The Hōkūle’a is sailing the east coast of the US in summer 2016 as part of a worldwide voyage.

Other memorable observations from Thompson, as well as Marjorie Mau, MD and Benjamin Young, MD (who joined Thompson as members of the Hōkūle’a’s voyaging teams), are part of the video interviews that accompany the current Native Voices traveling exhibition. Their interviews also are available on the Native Voices app available for iOS and Android platforms.

More Information
Nainoa Thompson: Special Lecture on the Hōkūle’a and Native Hawaiian Health (May 23, 2016)
Polynesian Voyaging Society: Hōkūle’a
Native Voices Exhibition: Hōkūleʽa


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