Caring For An Island Home

The Polynesian Voyaging Society celebrates the 35th anniversary of its maiden voyage this year. Here’s a look back on one piece of the group’s history …

In 1990, the Polynesian Voyaging Society went on a mission throughout the Islands of Hawaii. The goal: find a large and healthy koa tree so it could construct a double-hulled voyaging canoe made entirely of natural materials.

This turned out to be easier said than done.

The Internet says Swifty's guitar is made from a koa tree.

For centuries, Hawaiians had prized the resilient, reddish wood and built canoes from the logs. They used cordage woven from coconut husks and tree bark as lashing, and coconut fibers and sap from breadfruit and other trees to seal cracks and seams. They lashed two hulls together with crossbeams and added a deck between the hulls to create double canoes capable of voyaging long distances.

The depletion of the koa population, due to grazing and logging, prevented the crew from locating a single koa tree adequate for the hulls of a canoe. So, after a nine-month search without any luck, PVS volunteers gave up.

Under the leadership of Wright Bowman, Jr., the Polynesian Voyaging Society did end up building the canoe — with the help of native Alaskans who supplied two, 400-year-old spruce logs in a priceless gesture of friendship. They named it Hawai’iloa, after the fisherman who, it is believed, discovered and settled two islands, which he named Hawai’i after himself and Mau’i after his eldest son.

In 1995, Hawai’iloa traveled from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska to give thanks to the Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian people for the donation of the spruce logs. During the spring of that same year, voyages took Hokule’a to the Marquesas Islands, where Hawaiian settlers are believed to have originated. On the way back, five other canoes accompanied Hokule’a, four of which also used traditional navigational methods.

A beautiful painting of double-hulled canoes by Herb Kane.

They relied on the direction of birds’ flights, the movement of waves and swells, the rise of the sun to travel the open seas.

But the Polynesian Voyaging Society learned a valuable lesson from the koa tree debacle. Succeeding with their continued efforts to revitalize and maintain traditional navigation meant caring for, and preserving, island ecosystems — and encouraging others to do the same. So, they wrestled with a question: How could they motivate people to change their behaviors for the sake of our oceans?

Spotted At The Dollar Store

Got this text photo from Cole today: “At the Dollar Store … look what I see!” So, I  just had to post it. For some reason, this pic totally creeps me out. Which means, I love it!

“We’re coming to get you.”

And I have decided that my new hobby is collecting photos of crazy-looking plastic hula dancers, which seems apropos for the “Wailing Peacocks” project. If you have any, send them my way.

Disrupting A Packaged Paradise

Not the exact issue, but still.

Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …

I plop down on a bench in downtown Honolulu and wait for my friend Lisa to get done with her job at a native Hawaiian law firm.

I open a copy of Honolulu Weekly and flip to my favorite section: letters to the editor. That’s where you find the good stuff. Let’s see, what’s cooking among local residents?

A German tourist complains of homeless people begging for money in Waikiki, disrupting the mirage of paradise she expected on her vacation. Ugh. So obnoxious.

Lisa walks out of the building, so I close the publication and we go on our merry little way. The next week, true to routine at 4:55 p.m. — after my “work day” of writing at a coffee shop — I once again claim a bench spot in front of Lisa’s office and peruse the letters to the editor, finding a response from the a Honolulu resident to the previous week’s German tourist.

“What the letter writer wants is a packaged paradise, an escape from the harsh realities that occur when millions of outsiders drop in on our Islands for two weeks at a time, taking, using and consuming, but not giving back … Sorry, but we’re busy worrying about how to create affordable housing for the families and multiple generations of Hawai’ians and other longtime residents who have been displaced by tourism development.”

Oh, snap! (Wait, was that term around back in 2006? I can’t remember).

But, technically, I’m one of those tourists — ah, the guilt! But I’m totally more enlightened and would never say something like that German tourist. Right? Heck, I boycotted a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center after learning Mormons operate the joint. I don’t want to take advantage of the islands and its residents. But how should I avoid that? Plus, I want the authentic Hawaiian experience. But just what is that? And why do I deserve to have it?

I was beginning to notice a theme during my short stay on O’ahu: frustration over tourists and commercialism. But these aren’t the only things worrying Hawaiians of Polynesian descent.

Native Hawaiians have the worst health and socioeconomic indicators of any ethnic group in Hawaii. They have the shortest life expectancy and the highest infant mortality rate. They have 44 percent higher rates of death from heart disease and cancer than the rest of the U.S. population. Native Hawaiian women have increased incidence and mortality breast cancer rates compared with other ethnic groups in Hawaii.

This island state has the worst crystal meth problem in the nation, with some health officials describing it as “worse than an epidemic.” While meth surfaced in the late 1970s, its usage skyrocketed in the past decade. State lawmakers originally responded by establishing mandatory minimum prison terms for meth users and then thought to develop treatment facilities.

In addition to public health concerns, a higher proportion of Native Hawaiians live below the poverty line than any other ethnic group. They compose 40 to 60 percent of the state’s prison population despite making up only about 10 percent of the total population. Fifty-five percent of Native Hawaiians do not complete high school and only 7 percent have college degrees.

It is within this context we find the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and other movers and shakers in the Hawaiian Renaissance who are eager to share their cultural and political awakening.

Or, as activist George Kanahele said back in 1979 near the start of the renaissance’s second phase: “Like a dormant volcano coming to life again, the Hawaiians are erupting with all the pent-up energy and frustrations of people on the make.”

No More Blah Blog!

Blogging is weird. I’m new to this and must admit, I don’t know what the heck I’m doing. This came as a surprise to me, considering I am a journalist and write for a living. I actually looked at my blog today — which is apparently an important thing to do on a regular basis — and had a realization: If I was a first-time reader to “Wailing Peacocks,” I’d  be totally lost.

That is not OK!

I think my problem is I don’t update this blog enough. I’ll try hard to do better, I promise. Sometimes I just get distracted. I can’t help it — I recently discovered “Dexter” on DVD.

I’m sure my legions of loyal readers remember the point of this blog, but for you newbies, here’s a recap. “Wailing Peacocks” chronicles my attempts to research and write about the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging and its role in the Hawaiian Renaissance.

I plan to visit Honolulu, HI in August to conduct interviews and hang out with Polynesian Voyaging Society crew members as they prepare to embark on a worldwide voyage. Hopefully, all of this will result in a feature article —written by me, duh — published in a national magazine.

Now, you’re up to speed! Watch for more blog posts soon. In the meantime, feel free to offer tips on how this blog can go from “blah” to “blaze -,” um, “blaph -,” let’s see … to “bl-awesome!”

The Baddest Bro Ever

Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …

On a misty evening in July 2006, Lisa and I spread out a blanket on the lawn at Waikiki Shell in Honolulu, waiting for the Beach Boys to take the stage to perform a benefit concert for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Everything about the night is beautiful. A light sprinkle cools the warm South Pacific air as the north wind blows.

The Beach Boys, circa 1960s

I’ve been here three weeks now, living in a small studio cottage overrun with centipedes and above a family of 10 or so that sits in a circle in silence outside, every night. I spend my days wandering around, writing in coffee shops and trying to figure out what interviews to snag during my stay.

Before the Beach Boys take the stage, a large screen lights up with an image. A film clip shows 17,000 Tahitians waiting on the shore in 1976 as the voyaging canoe Hokule’a arrives after a 33-day journey to the seaside town of Papeete in the village of Tautira, on the northwest coast. Micronesian navigator Mau Piailug is at the helm. Hundreds of Tahitians swim out to the canoe and ride the final distance to shore. Hokule’a continues sailing from village to village along the coast and at one stop, the canoe’s stern sinks under the weight of dozens of children piling in.

Hokule’a returns to Honolulu in 24 days without Piailug or the use of modern-day instruments. For the voyage back, navigator Nainoa Thompson leads the crew.

On this evening in 2006, Thompson, dressed in a purple Hawaiian shirt, his black hair laced with gray, takes the stage. He’s now a master navigator — and will forever be the first native Hawaiian in 600 years to use non-instrument navigation to sail the open seas. The crowd around me claps and whistles.

“Nainoa Thompson,” says a man lounging on the lawn.

I turn around to find the voice and see a scruffy, middle-aged white man leaning back on his elbows.

“The baddest brother I ever met! Yes, sir! The baddest bro in the whole wide world!”

Nainoa Thompson. Yes, I realized, I absolutely had to meet this man.


Feeling The Heat

Five years ago, I spent summer in Hawaii. Here’s a look back …

I had been warned not to pack jeans. Oahu is hot and humid all the time, seriously, 24 hours a day, my friend Lisa told me over the phone. She had flown to Honolulu a month before and settled into her job at a nonprofit native Hawaiian law firm and into the studio cottage we’d share the rest of summer.

But I pack jeans anyway. My first full day in Hawaii, I pull them up my legs, zip the zipper, slip on a T-shirt and tie my hair in a ponytail. At the last second, I apply some makeup. People are attractive here.

This is a mistake. It’s so hot. I’m drenching sweat, trying to make my way to a convenience store for water. I hate Hawaii. Why do people even come here? Why do I insist on wearing such tight jeans? And why are there no convenience stores?! I’m so annoyed. The Converse All Stars would have to go, too. This is Daisy Dukes and flip-flops territory. The next day, I walk to the public library to grab maps for bus routes, with no choice but to quickly and desperately figure out the (air-conditioned) bus system. Later, I disembark outside Goodwill to purchase more shorts and tank tops.

Now, I’m ready to start.

This is Nainoa Thompson! (courtesy: PVS)

I traveled to Hawaii almost on a whim, when Lisa called to tell me about this Polynesian voyaging group she heard about from colleagues at her internship. Why don’t I write about this group for my final graduate school project, she suggested. Sure, sounds pretty good to me!

But this trip wouldn’t include pricey luaus or tanning on Waikiki beach all day — OK, maybe I engaged in little (a lot) of that.

Within a couple weeks, I’d visit the Hawaii State Art Museum, Bishop Museum and (now closed) Hawaii Maritime Center, and spend most afternoons walking around downtown Honolulu. I toured ‘Iolani Palance and St. Andrew’s Cathedral where a stained-glass window shows Jesus ascending Heaven on a surfboard. I quickly got over my hesitation of killing bugs — specifically, cockroaches and centipedes — and learned to ignore geckos squirming around the walls above my bed. I developed a fondess for Yellowman and memorized every lyric to a song about wanting to be free. It was great.

But, as time slipped away, my ultimate mission remained unfulfilled: A face-to-face meeting with Nainoa Thompson. And this had to happen.

Mahalo Very Much

You people are awesome! Or, at least, 20 of you. The rest of you are just OK. I’m so totally kidding! But I would like to especially thank all the contributors to my Kickstarter “Wailing Peacocks” project, which has already surpassed its goal amount. I truly appreciate your support.

Thanks to those of you who sent messages with words of encouragement. While I’m on a roll, I’d like to also express my gratitude to Cole Allen for creating the cute (and meaningful) hula dancer video.

Loss To The PVS ‘Ohana

The Polynesian Voyaging Society lost a special member of its family March 8 with the death of Herb Kawainui Kāne. A Hawaiian artist, historian and cofounder of PVS, Kāne, 82, passed away on the 36th anniversary of Hokule’a’s maiden launch. He helped design this voyaging canoe and served as its first captain.

Herb Kawainui Kāne, Hawaiian artist, historian and cofounder of Polynesian Voyaging Society, passed away March 8.

Kāne helped usher in the Hawaiian Renaissance. A statement on the PVS blog says, “his vision of drawing upon our heritage to build our future was not just the founding of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, but the basis of rediscovery of pride for thousands of Hawaiians.”

I hope my “Wailing Peacocks” project will offer insight into the legacy he’s left behind.

Let Me Explain

Aloha, dear friends and welcome to “Wailing Peacocks,” a blog devoted to sharing the true story of how a navigator, double-hulled canoes and dozens of volunteers voyage to distant places to demonstrate the value of home.

That’s awfully vague, isn’t it?

Let me explain. This project, affectionately nicknamed “For Hawaii, With Love,” centers on the revival of ancient Polynesian voyaging in Hawaii, and how this movement has helped restore cultural pride in native Hawaiians. This year, the group behind the movement — the Polynesian Voyaging Society — celebrates the 35th anniversary of its maiden voyage by embarking on a series of stateside sails.

Check out Kickstarter to see my acting debut.

I am the journalist hoping to share their story.

And I’m seeking your support — that’s right, you! — to complete a feature magazine article about this Hawaiian Renaissance. This summer, I will travel to Honolulu, HI for two weeks to conduct interviews, observe the crew and, ideally, participate in a short-distance voyage. I will post daily photos, video and reflections on this blog. In the meantime, I’ll use this platform to share related news, explain why this topic matters and pretty much post whatever else my little heart desires.

A national magazine has expressed interest in the feature article, but cannot cover expenses. I’ve launched a Kickstarter project to help offset flight, housing and transportation costs. You can contribute here. This project won’t happen without you and I will remember your generosity for-ev-er. Seriously!

To see samples of my writing, check out Earth Island Journal, Alternet, Sacramento News & Review, Chico News & Review, Monterey County Weekly, Eugene Weekly and Missoula Independent. I’ve also been published in Forest Magazine, off our backs, Cooperative Business Journal and the newspaper where I currently work.

Thanks, and kiss, kiss!