Native Intelligence: O‘ahu

For the Wayfinders

Story by Derek Ferrar. Photos by Matt Mallams.

In 1978 Hawaiian canoe voyager Nainoa Thompson found himself struggling to comprehend the celestial navigation knowledge he was learning from his teacher, Micronesian master wayfinder Mau Piailug.

Thompson turned to an astronomy presenter at the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium named Will Kyselka, and together they spent hundreds of hours running simulations of the night sky so Thompson could better understand and pass on the nearly lost art. Four decades later, with the voyaging canoe Hōkūle‘a recently returned from her three-year journey around the world, Bishop Museum is honoring the voyaging renaissance in a collaborative exhibition with the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

The centerpiece of Holo Moana: Generations of Voyaging is one of Hōkūle‘a’s distinctive original manu, or upturned hull ends. Behind it, a canoe sail serves as a digital-age projection screen for video of today’s apprentice navigators in action.

The exhibit, which runs through June 24, includes several rarely seen treasures from the museum’s collection, including a massive temple drum representing the voyage of Polynesian traditions to Hawai‘i and a tall, ancient “gourd of winds” that King Kalākaua had refurbished in Victorian themes. Nearby is a simulator that allows you to “call” specific winds and hear their Hawaiian descriptions. A mini-planetarium projects star images coupled with audio of Thompson talking about his learning experiences with Kyselka and others. Items on loan from the Polynesian Voyaging Society include a model canoe that Piailug carved during Hōkūle‘a’s landmark first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 and some of the cultural gifts the crew received in ceremonial exchanges during its worldwide voyage.

“I see this exhibit as a thread, a continuation from past to present that goes on to the future,” says museum cultural specialist Marques Marzan. Exhibition designer Michael Wilson points out that the displays move sequentially from ancestral knowledge to scientific research and the joining of the two in contemporary voyaging. “So all around us is this knowledge that it took to get here,” he says, “with Hōkūle‘a at the center and a new generation arising.” For the wayfinding community, says Thompson, the exhibit is “really meaningful because it allows thousands of people to have a deeper understanding of voyaging. My hope is that it can help all of us recognize the importance of indigenous knowledge as part of global solutions.”