By Sam Low, author of Hawaiiki Rising
In 1990, the Polynesian Voyaging Society decided to create a new canoe, to be called Hawai’iloa after a famous Tahitian navigator. Hawai’iloa would be built of traditional materials – lauhala for the sails, olana for the lashings, koa for the hulls, ohia for crossbeams to connect the hulls, and hau for stanchions, decks and steering paddles.
“Hokule’a was built quickly, of modern materials mostly,” Nainoa Thompson recalls, “and then we went right into sailing – it was an ocean project – the emphasis was on sailing her, not building her. But when our ancestors built and sailed voyaging canoes, it required the labor and arts of the entire community, everyone working together – some collecting the materials in the forest, others weaving the sails, carving the hulls, lashing, preparing food for the voyage, practicing rituals to protect the crew at sea. So we thought that building a canoe of traditional materials would bring our entire community together, not just the sailors, but the craftspeople, artists, chanters, dancers and carvers. The Native Hawaiian Culture and Arts Program was set up to build not just a canoe – but a sense of community – by recreating Hawaiian culture.”
Nainoa hoped they could find traditional materials to build the canoe in Hawaii. He was particularly concerned about finding two large koa logs for the hulls. For nine months, almost every weekend, teams of Koa hunters fanned out through Hawaii’s forests. They walked over hundreds of square miles on Molokai, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii. They followed tips from foresters, naturalists, game wardens and hunters. Once they discovered an extremely large and promising tree but it was rotten. It had probably died 50 years earlier. As the days passed without success, Nainoa worried. If they did not find the trees the dream of building Hawai’iloa of native Hawaiian wood, after years of planning and soaring hopes, would certainly fail. Time was running out.
On a weekend in the middle of March 1991, Nainoa and Tava Taupu searched the remains of a once dense Koa forest on the flanks of Kilauea volcano on the Big Island. They scanned the trees around them, measuring the trunks visually, looking for one large enough to carve into the 60-foot hull of a voyaging canoe.
“We searched that weekend with a large team and found nothing,” Nainoa says. “Everyone had to go back to work on Monday but Tava and I stayed up in the forest and we decided that Tuesday, March 18th, was our last chance. At that point I was very sad and depressed by the difference between what I imagined the forest to look like and what it actually looked like. All around us were alien species and ferns uprooted by feral pigs. I saw a layer of vines twisted in the canopy from one tree to another, choking the trees. The fence line between the Kilauea forest and Keahou ranch created a stark contrast. How small the reserve seemed when compared to the ranch. How much had been cut down.”
“There’s a fence line up ahead about a half mile,” Nainoa told Tava, “I’ll go up slope and we’ll work towards it together to cover more ground. We’ll meet at the fence. If we don’t find anything, that will be it.’ We knew that it was probably a futile attempt, but it was our last chance.”
It was getting cold as the two men neared the fence line. Mist sifted through the trees and collected on Nainoa’s fleece jacket. He raised the collar and hunkered into its warmth. Reaching the fence, he joined Tava and they continued together downslope toward the sea. They came to a place where prairie grass lapped at their legs with a swishing sound like the ocean on a sheltered beach. The view opened out to wide expanses of ranch land with cattle in the far distance. They headed toward a four-wheel drive truck parked in grass up to its hubcaps.
“I saw Tava and he saw me but we didn’t say anything,’ Nainoa recalls. “We each knew that the other had not found a tree. There was nothing to say, because there was nothing good to say. We did not even walk on the same side of the road and Tava walked behind me, as if we were repelled by each other. We were very depressed. We did not achieve what we so much wanted to achieve. But beyond that, I think the erosion of the forest was eroding something inside of us. We didn’t want to mess with each other. I walked ahead. He walked behind.”
A single alternative remained. Nainoa did not want to accept it but he knew that it was the only way that Hawai’iloa could be built.
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Learn more about Sam Low’s work via his website: www.samlow.com