You don’t find many linguists at the International Astronomical Union’s General Assembly, the world’s largest annual gathering of astronomers. But at last August’s event in Honolulu, John Kaipo Mahelona was there. He’d co-authored the definitive catalog of Hawaiian star names and knowledge, Nā Inoa Hōkū, the culmination of three decades of research with co-author Rubellite Kawena Johnson.
At the conference Mahelona attended a talk on celestial navigation by Kālepa Baybayan, captain and navigator of the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a. Afterward, when Mahelona introduced himself, Baybayan’s face lit up. He reached under the podium and pulled out his tattered copy of Nā Inoa Hōkū.
Mahelona grew up hearing Hawaiian, which inspired him to become a Hawaiian-language scholar. When his research led him to the Hawaiian name for a certain star, he was fascinated. “It seemed different from what I heard people talk about,” he says. “Nobody talked about stars or astronomy.” Mahelona scoured books, Hawaiian-language newspapers and navigation texts and found hundreds of Hawaiian cognates for English astronomical terms, like Hakamoa (“chicken roost”) for the Southern Cross, ‘A‘ā (“burning bright”) for Sirius and Hōkūle‘a (“star of gladness”) for Arcturus.
When Mahelona met Johnson and discovered she’d also been cataloging Hawaiian astronomical terms, they joined forces and created the most comprehensive index of Hawaiian and Polynesian celestial objects in existence. When the book was published in 1975—a run of just two thousand copies—Mahelona figured that few outside the academic community would care. He was wrong. It became an essential text for the voyaging community, which at about the same time was relearning the lost art of stellar wayfinding. “Kālepa said, ‘You know, we used this as our source of information when we were starting out, because we had none,’” Mahelona recalls.
Last year, with the help of British archeo-astronomer Clive Ruggles, Mahelona and Johnson have released an updated Nā Inoa Hōkū, which matches far more Hawaiian star names with their Western counterparts. It turns out Nā Inoa Hōkū was embraced by more than just Polynesian voyagers. After Mahelona spoke at the IAU conference last year, astronomers from around the world asked him to sign both the original and revised editions. “I was taken aback,” Mahelona says. “I guess it made an impact.”