Opinion | A canoe is an island, an island is a canoe

Opinion by Keoni Rodriguez
March 3, 2021, 9:55 p.m.

Growing up in California, I spent much of my childhood yearning for a home I resided in only temporarily. Due to meager job opportunities and ballooning housing costs in Hawai’i, my mom moved from her Native Hawai’i to Southern California for school in the early 90s. She hasn’t left since. I grew up a proud San Diegan, but tried my best to connect with my mom’s culture the best I could, waiting patiently for the rare times when we could afford to make the trip across the ocean back to our ancestral home. But one day, overlooking the San Diego harbor, I saw my ancestral home come sailing in to meet me. 

On one day in September of 2011, I joined the Pacific Islander community of San Diego to welcome the traditional Polynesian voyaging canoes of Te Mana O Te Moana, a group of canoes from Tahiti, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Fiji, the Cook Islands and two from across the Pacific. In the same spot Spanish colonizers landed 242 years prior, representatives of the Native Kumeyaay nation came to welcome the contingent of Pacific Islanders.

The sailors had traversed wide swaths of open ocean without the benefit of modern navigational instruments, using only astronomical navigation, ocean currents and other natural phenomena to guide them, a tradition that reminded a young me of our voyaging past. 

I had just learned about the Hōkūleʻa, a Hawaiian sailing vessel of the same type that had been built and launched in the 1970s. The maiden voyage of the Hōkūleʻa was a crucial milestone for Native Hawaiians, dispelling earlier anthropological theories that Polynesians simply floated to their islands on rafts, at the whims of sea currents. Consequently, the Hōkūleʻa’s voyage to Tahiti would be a marker for what would eventually come to be known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, a period of renewed calls of cultural revitalization, political sovereignty, and social justice for Hawaiians. 

It is no coincidence that the revival of Hawaiian voyaging provided a jumpstart for the Hawaiian Renaissance — Hawaiians have always been conscious of our roots from Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands through countless oral histories and traditional stories. Despite this knowledge, the art of wayfinding, traditional Hawaiian long distance navigation, lay dormant until its revival, led by Satawalese navigator Mau Piailug and the Polynesian Voyaging Society. 

The Hawaiian Renaissance spawned by the voyage of the Hōkūleʻa from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti without modern navigational instruments confirmed that Polynesians had a rich history of exploration and diasporic identity both within Polynesia and outside of it. Studies have now attested to the fact that pre-European contact Polynesians ventured to present-day South America and California, with some theories even suggesting that they sailed to Alaska and Japan. Evidence points to ancestral Polynesians not only venturing to other parts of the world, but also cooperating with those that lived there, intermingling with locals and sometimes even returning to Polynesia. 

Now back to 2011. As I stood watching those Polynesian sailing vessels, commandeered by centuries of ancestral navigational knowledge, I couldn’t help but see myself as merely one of hundreds of Polynesians throughout history that had found themselves in a new place, yearning to return home. I saw my mother as a brave voyager, bringing with her the traditions of our people, yet cultivating her responsibility to uphold the beauty of the new place she inhabited. 

As I have come to learn more about Hawaiian history, I have met more and more Hawaiians who ventured far from home, though not necessarily in the double-hulled canoes of our ancestors. Accounts of Hawaiians traveling far from Hawai’i serve as a poignant reminder of the rich love for voyaging embedded in our culture. 

Hawaiian royalty often found themselves abroad, looking to build relationships with other nations. Timoteo Ha’alilio is famous for helping secure international recognition of the independence of the Hawaiian Kingdom. King David Kalākaua, who was the first head of state to circumnavigate the world, attended audiences with Emperor Meiji, Queen Victoria and Pope Leo XIII, stopping through Paris, Egypt, Portugal, India and more.

His sister, Queen Liliʻuokalani, the last reigning monarch, visited the United States and was even denied lodging due to anti-Black segregationist hotel policies. The Hawaiian nobility’s efforts to establish the Hawaiian Kingdom as a legitimate state resulted in hundreds of international treaties and relationships.

Far more Hawaiians saw other parts of the world through labor opportunities. A centuries-long attachment to the ocean allowed Hawaiians to inhabit jobs like whaling and sailing with ease. Hawaiians quickly learned the mechanisms of 19th century whaling ships and records show their presence everywhere from Alaska to Nantucket. Others found themselves in the gold fields of California, from where they were later pushed out and where they intermarried with California Native Americans. 

A small contingent of around 100 Hawaiians were even sent to the United States in the 1860s to fight for the Union Army, serving alongside Black soldiers in “Colored” regiments — much of the records of these Hawaiians have been lost to time. 

Today, over half of Hawaiians live outside Hawai’i due to high housing costs, lack of educational and vocational opportunities at home and messaging that encourages them to leave the islands. Despite that, Hawaiians have continued to cultivate strong communities amongst ourselves outside our home through civic groups, cultural practice and more. 

A famous Hawaiian proverb reads, He wa’a he moku, he moku he wa’a — a canoe is an island, an island is a canoe. The cultural components that make Hawai’i Hawaiian exist not just in the physical place called Hawai’i but in the people who voyage, explore, and return. As I sit here in California, I look at the Hawaiians who have gone and returned and consider myself lucky to come from a heritage of people who always seem to be able to navigate their way back home. 

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Keoni Rodriguez is a senior studying history from San Diego, CA. They are working with The Daily for the first time as a columnist, writing about history, activism and culture.

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