Hawaiian experts in traditional navigation stop in Virginia ahead of a worldwide canoe trip

Native Hawaiians Nainoa Thompson and Lehua Kamalu grew up decades apart on Oahu.

Kamalu, who is 36, said she heard early on the story of Hōkūleʻa, a canoe built and launched by the Polynesian Voyaging Society in the 1970s to revitalize the art and practice of traditional navigation .

“We definitely learned about the heroes and the people who actually did the work to bring it back to life,” she said.

But Thompson, who described himself as “really old,” said he didn’t learn much about that heritage in school.

“When I did high school I didn’t know anything about where are my ancestors? Where are you from?” he said. “How did you end up on the world’s most isolated archipelago of islands, essentially traversing 2,200 miles of open ocean?”

Eventually both became experts in Polynesian navigation and part of the growing effort to teach them.

The practice honors the way people traveled thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii as early as AD 400, before modern technology and materials existed.

Now, Thompson and Kamalu are sharing their knowledge and related environmental values ​​with students across the United States.

They visited William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science in Gloucester Point last week for a whirlwind tour meeting with local scientists, students and Indigenous leaders.

The visit was the prelude to a new role Thompson will assume, known as Scholar in Ocean Residency.

The idea came to him decades after he first met Kirk Havens, who is now the director of the VIMS Center for Coastal Resources Management.

Havens, whose family has a long association with canoeing, competed with a group of friends from Virginia in an outrigger canoe race between two Hawaiian islands in the early 1990s.

A local suggested they contact a local expert to ensure they made it across the open sea waters and Thompson ended up steering for them. They stayed in touch over the years.

In 2016, Havens coordinated with Thompson, Kamalu, and others with the Polynesian Voyaging Society to make a stopover in the Chesapeake Bay during one of their worldwide voyages.

The Society has a protocol to always seek permission from local Aboriginal people before arriving on their land.

Havens said it was emotional to see them do this in Yorktown with tribes around the Chesapeake, like the Nansemond Indian Nation.

He said it got him thinking about how VIMS could build on collaboration with local tribes and “the concept of merging indigenous wisdom with scientific understanding” in coastal and marine sciences.

Ashley Atkins Spivey, a member of the Pamunkey Tribal Council, said the tribe looks forward to working with Thompson.

“It’s not just about learning what’s coming our way and how to deal with it, but learning from our ancestors how to deal with it,” Spivey said in a statement. “Education has to be a key component because if we don’t know where these practices came from in our relationship with the water and the bay, they won’t have the foundation they need.”

Most of Thompson’s residencies will be off-campus. It will be from the ocean.

He and the shipping company are preparing for a three-year, 40,000-mile circumnavigation of the Pacific Ocean from Alaska to Russia — the long way around — aboard the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hull touring canoe.

Kamalu was the first woman to serve as chief captain and navigator on the Hōkūleʻa on a traditional long-distance ocean crossing – 2,500 miles along the ancestral “sea route” between Hawaii and Tahiti.

She said her methods — including paying close attention to the stars, sky, weather, waves, animals and more — went unappreciated for years before being revived in recent decades.

Some people “don’t realize that there might be other ways to find our way across the ocean that don’t involve technologies and simply involve people being really attentive to what’s going on in nature around them,” he said you.

Thompson said he was not an academic. Through the new VIMS position, he hopes to spread messages about listening and caring for the earth.

He and Havens also see the role as the start of a long-term partnership: VIMS can be an East Coast anchor for the voyages, while Thompson can act as a sort of ambassador, encouraging youth around the world to pursue their interest in marine science.

“We worry about the future of our children, that that future will be clean, healthy and safe,” Thompson said. “We try to do something responsible through social commitment and essentially through education.”

Read the original story on the WHRO website.

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