I went to Hawai’I in July 1975 to produce a National Geo Special about a boat that had just been launched. It was to sail, a year later, on a voyage to Tahiti, without technical instruments to guide it, in the manner of Polynesian ancestors. Some said it was a scientific experiment: could this replica of an ancient double-hulled voyaging canoe navigate—steer—its way against the wind. Or, as some interpreted, were the thousands of islands scattered across the vast Pacific populated by voyagers in the style of Thor Heyerdahl’s KON-TIKI raft in 1947 that drifted to French Polynesia.
Hokule’a, “Star of Gladness” as she was christened, succeeded far beyond anyone’s wildest imaginations or expectations. But her birth and infancy were deeply troubled. Births are difficult sometimes. This one was extremely hard because, in Rashomon style, everyone who saw her—in paintings or in real life—or who touched her, or sailed upon her, or hoped that she was built for their children and their ancestors—each person expected this humble, proud, nimble, inquisitive, stalwart, powerful vessel to do their bidding and fulfill their dream.
The feature length documentary I made in Hawai’I between 1975 and 1977, with our WQED/Pittsburgh camera crew, captured that very troubled time for a Polynesian culture that had long been suppressed and never talked about publicly. Though Hokule’a began as an “experiment”, she very soon became a cultural icon, a symbol for a past life beaten into submission, a hope for the future of the human species.
When our film was released, and distributed globally, she—Hokule’a—became the major catalyst for cultural change throughout the Pacific. Languages that had been rubbed out returned; dress that had been ridiculed was now on display; dances that had been constricted blossomed; navigators who had been reduced to one grew to a cadre of more than 50 populating other islands; canoe clubs that had been dormant flourished; voyaging canoes that had not plied the Pacific in hundreds of years multiplied logarithmically; children were given Hawaiian cultural immersion lessons; the bombing by the US Navy of ancient Hawaiian cultural sites was terminated; the Hawaiian language was spoken exclusively on the most recent voyages; land that had been annexed or stolen from native peoples was returned, piece by piece; the annexation of Hawaii in the late 1800’s by the United States was being questioned by those who would restore the sovereignty of the original Hawaiian Kingdom. Hokule’a, and the film that captured the human and civil rights issues that clung to her sails, rigging, and hulls, had leveraged major cultural change throughout the Pacific in the past 40-plus years.
Last Saturday, June 17, 2017, Hokule’a sailed into harbor at Magic Island in Honolulu, surrounded by 6 other large voyaging canoes, more than a hundred smaller paddling canoes and surfboards, in a glimmering diadem, cheered onward by some 50,000 people who came to the water’s edge at daybreak. Hokule’a had returned from a historic three-year circumnavigation of the globe—45,000 miles, 18 nations, 8 UNESCO Marine World Heritage sites, more than 150 ports, more than 250 crew members and navigators, more than 100,000 people touched around the world—all without instruments, in the manner of the ancients. Guided by the stars, waves, currents, and birds, she is a needle creating a lei of peace for all peoples who are concerned about climate change, education, and indigenous peoples. Hokule’a, still proud and humble, at anchor embraced by tens of thousands, tugs at her lines, ready to take her messages to communities around the Hawaiian Islands in the next year before setting out on another major voyage from the past into the future.
I was there last Saturday, a spectator brimming in tears, still a fly on the wall as I had been in 1975-76, cheering that from her troubled birth—a first step in her full life— she had taken these huge voyages for humankind globally. I, too, could not be more proud or humble.