Lessons from Hokule'a ripple to kids, nations
By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer
Voyaging canoe Hokule'a taught overactive fourth-graders to be still. Still enough to watch changes in the clouds, to hear birds sing, to notice little changes in their environment.
That was one of the most impressive things to a couple of Kamehameha Schools teachers, Judy Cramer and Sandi Tuitele, about using the canoe to teach Hawai'i's children.
The teachers met Monday with many of the canoe's crew members, whom they had previously known only through a satellite telephone link between their classrooms and Hokule'a on its recent voyage through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
The canoe sailed from Kaua'i May 23 through a 1,200-mile string of reefs and small islands that make up the northern end of the Hawaiian archipelago.
Hokule'a pulled into isolated anchorages, and crew members went ashore at several islands to do volunteer work such as cleaning up nets on Laysan Island, covering entrapment hazards on Tern Island, and collecting and transplanting from Laysan to Midway Atoll a rare sedge.
Can a cultural icon such as the voyaging canoe help kids learn? Cramer and Tuitele have no doubt. "I think what it does for our students (is) it helps them feel pride in knowing what their forefathers accomplished that their forefathers were intelligent and, therefore, how intelligent they are or can be," Tuitele said.
When the teachers took their kids into the field, to learn to pay attention to their surroundings in the way that traditional navigators must draw clues from the environment, the teachers were surprised to find that even their most hyperactive kids settled in to listening and seeing, quietly.
"They saw an owl fly over. A bright-red cardinal came and landed right by them. Several of them said it was the first time they'd ever heard the call of a dove," Cramer said.
Canoe watch captain and videographer Na'alehu Anthony said the issue of attentiveness to the environment struck him as well when he first got involved with the canoe in 1995 as a student in a voyaging class.
"I started to get a glimpse of how aware of their environment our ancestors were. We have charts and satellite weather maps. They figured it out through keen observation," Anthony said.
Hokule'a captain Nainoa Thompson called the Monday reunion at the Niu Valley home of his mother, Laura Thompson. Crew members of Hokule'a and its escort boat, Kama Hele, sat on lauhala mats in a circle under the kiawe trees. The supporters of the mission sat around the circle among them schoolteachers, the crew members' families, friends, people who helped outfit the canoe, and representatives of the National Weather Service and the University of Hawai'i Peacesat program, which provided shortwave radio communications.
They are, in the words of veteran navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, the ahupua'a that is required to launch a canoe. Hundreds of individuals take part for each person who actually sails on the canoe, he said.
Anthony said he was pleased at the awareness the voyage brought to many people about the existence of what some call the Kupuna Islands, and about the importance of protecting the environment.
"Not many people even knew there were islands past Ni'ihau. I think it brought awareness, and hopefully it will bring some caring," Anthony said.
The canoe's crew, after weeks at sea, did not know how people in the main Hawaiian Islands would respond to them. The response in many cases surprised them.
"It was actually quite overwhelming," said canoe physician Dr. Cherie Shehata. "Patients and patients' kids were following it closely."
One result, she said, is that many of the people who paid attention to the canoe's voyage are now reporting they are paying more attention to their environment than they ever did.
"People tell me they notice the clouds, the stars, the weather, and they ask questions," she said.
Nainoa Thompson said that his discussions with teachers and others convince him of the success of the voyage to the Kupuna Islands.
"Every voyage is a risk. You don't know. But in this one, what I hoped it to be was accomplished, especially with education. It was beyond my expectations," Thompson said. "I'm pretty blown away by the response."
But it raises what to Thompson is an obvious issue: "How do you sustain this? How do we take what we've learned and apply it to these islands?"
One answer is to keep taking kids sailing, and to keep using the canoe as an educational lever. Another is to keep pushing the horizon. While the canoe is scheduled for several smaller voyages this year, the Polynesian Voyaging Society is also planning a half-year voyage from Hawai'i to Japan, by way of Satawal Island in Micronesia, the home of master navigator Mau Piailug, who trained Thompson in noninstrument navigation.
Thompson said it moves the canoe's mission beyond navigation and reconnecting the islands of Polynesia, beyond education and environment, to fostering international peace and cooperation.
For many people, particularly students, the 29-year-old canoe has already made its mark.
"Hokule'a is very, very important culturally for them. She's important in terms of pride and finding roots," teacher Cramer said. "She is now part of their roots."
And the importance of the canoe is not limited to kids.
"Every time I talk to people that find out that I'm a crew member, there is just this awe. Hokule'a is an icon. It's on a pedestal," Anthony said.
Reach Jan TenBruggencate at (808) 245-3074 or firstname.lastname@example.org.