The Polynesian Voyaging Society and Voyages of the Hokule'a Collection in the Kanehameha School/Bishop Estate Archives

Janet M. Zisk


The Polynesian Voyaging Society was organized in Hawaii in 1973 for the purpose of investigating whether the Polynesians in their voyaging canoes were able to intentionally travel from island group to island group in the Pacific using only non-instrument navigation. To explore this possibility, the Society built and launched a replica canoe, the Hokule'a which has sailed to Tahiti and the other Pacific Islands using the ancient art of wayfaring. The collection of the records of the Society and the Hokule'a is housed at the Kamehameha Schools. A Title IV grant enabled the collection to be arranged and catalogued.

The Polynesian Voyaging Society

The non-profit Polynesian Voyaging Society was organized in Hawaii in 1973 by Herb Kawainui Kane, artist-historian, Ben R. Finney, University of Hawaii anthropology professor, and Tommy Holmes, Pacific history scholar. The primary purpose of the Society was to investigate whether the Polynesians in their voyaging canoes reached the various groups of islands in the Polynesian Triangle intentionally. If the voyaging was intentional, then the Polynesians had to know how to navigate over huge distances of open water without any modern instrumentation and how to plan supplies for surviving long periods at sea.

To test the theory of intentional exploration, Society members designed and built a 60-foot, performance-accurate replica of a Polynesian double-hulled canoe in 1974, which was launched at Kualoa Beach Park, a sacred place in Hawaii's history, on Oahu's windward side in March, 1975. This was the first double-hulled voyaging canoe to sail in Hawaiian waters since the time of Kamehameha the Great. Although the canoe was built of modern materials, the lines were authentically reconstructed from sketches by explorer Capt. James Cook and others. The "crab-claw" sail design can also be seen in an ancient petroglyph on Maui.

The name given to the canoe, Hokule'a, came to Herb Kane in a dream. Hokule'a means "Star of Gladness" and is the Hawaiian name for the star Arcturus, a navigational star at the zenith in Hawaii.

After testing for sea worthiness of boat and crew by sailing around the Hawaiian Islands, the Hokule'a set sail for Tahiti, a distance of 2,500 miles, on May 1, 1976, as the State of Hawaii's bicentennial project. Without charts or instruments, the navigator Mau Piailug, from the Satawal atoll in the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, guided the Hokule'a to Papeete where the canoe and crew were greeted by the largest crowd ever assembled in Tahiti. On July 26 the Hokule'a sailed into Kewalo Basin, Honolulu, met by an impressive regatta of boats of every size and watched by people gathered at vantage points from Diamond Head to Magic Island. The actual distance traveled round trip was 5,400 miles.

The purpose of this remarkable voyage was twofold, to prove that ancient Polynesians could have traveled the vast distances between the Pacific island groups deliberately, and to be a symbol of the high cultural achievements of the Polynesians.

A second round-trip voyage was made to Tahiti by the Hokule'a in 1980. This time the navigator was Nainoa Thompson of Hawaii, who became the first Polynesian to navigate a voyage since ancient times without instruments of any kind.

In 1983, the Polynesian Voyaging Society began planning a project entitled "Voyage of Rediscovery, Hokule'a 1985-1987, a Cultural, Educational and Scientific Expedition." On July 10, 1985, the Hokule'a set sail from Miloli'i, Hawaii on a two-year, 16,000 mile voyage to Tahiti, the Cook Islands, New Zealand, Fiji, Samoa, back to the Cook Islands, and Raiatea, Tahiti, the Marquesas, and Hawaii. The crew was rotated, but navigator Nainoa Thompson stayed with the canoe the entire distance, again guiding it without modern navigation instruments. The goal of this voyage was to compress the 1,500-year voyaging adventures of the Polynesians by retracing as many of the ancient voyaging routes as time, budget, and weather permitted. The Hokule'a sailed back to Kualoa Beach Park, from where it had been launched in 1975, on May 23, 1987. Thousands of welcomers wading into the sea and dozens of boats and canoes greeted the Hokule'a's return. Hawaiian ceremonies, chants and songs composed in honor of the Hokule'a, and speeches marked the successful completion of this ambitious adventure.

Since this voyage, the Hokule'a has served as a floating classroom sailing among the Hawaiian Islands providing information on Polynesian voyaging and non-instrumental navigation to adults and school children. In May, the Hokule'a will be undertaking another lengthy voyage. The canoe is scheduled to be in Rarotonga by October 16, and will return to Hawaii eventually by way of the Marquesas.

The project of archiving the papers of the Polynesian Voyaging Society was done in 1989, funded through a USDOE Library Services and Construction Act, Title IV grant for the Native Hawaiian Library Project, administered by ALU LIKE. Lela Goodell arranged the collection and compiled the "Guide to the Archives of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the Voyages of the Hokule'a 1973-1988." The collection is housed in the Kamehameha Schools Archives, Frank E. Midkiff Learning Center, on the Kamehameha Schools Campus. This is a closed collection and access is by appointment only (808-842-8945).

The material was sorted into three chronological groups: Group A, 1973-1976, the organization of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, building the Hokule'a, and its voyage to Tahiti in 1976; Group B, 1977-1983, educational use of the Hokule'a, training of Nainoa Thompson in non-instrument navigation, and the voyage to Tahiti in 1980; and Group C, 1984-1988, the planning and undertaking of the two-year Voyage of Discovery. In addition, a fourth group, Group D, chronicles the Children's Book Project 1974-1983.

The Guide to the collection was widely distributed to libraries in Hawaii. It contains a brief history and chronology of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the voyages of the Hokule'a, an inventory of all the files in each of the four chronological groups outlined above, an alphabetical listing with location in files, a list of the crew members for each leg of the Voyage of Rediscovery, and a map of the Voyage of Rediscovery.

The collection is truly comprehensive with subject matter ranging from Polynesian voyaging; the design and construction of the Hokule'a; the training of the crew; non-instrument navigation on ocean voyages; a lengthy list of canoe terms in Hawaiian; the investigation and preparation of foodstuffs to take on long ocean voyages; the animals on board the Hokule'a during the first voyage to Tahiti; videos, tape recordings, photographs, and slides made; ceremonies for departures and arrivals of the Hokule'a in Hawai'i and the Pacific Islands visited; songs and chants written for the Hokule'a; publicity including newspaper and magazine articles; and materials produced by the Polynesian Voyaging Society through such efforts as the Children's Book Project.

The first voyage of the Hokule'a to Tahiti, accomplished with non-instrument navigation, was a direct challenge to those who believed that intentional long distance canoe voyaging by the ancient Polynesians was not possible. The Hokule'a was aimed at Tahiti and made landfall there. The two-year Voyage of Rediscovery through the Pacific Islands, again accomplished with non-instrument navigation, demonstrated that the ancient Polynesians were capable of making long distance canoe voyages in the Pacific in any direction they chose, once wind patterns were understood and natural navigation aids developed. The awe-inspiring voyages of the Hokule'a have drastically challenged and changed the history of the populating of the Pacific Islands, and in doing so have added immeasurably to the pride of all Polynesians in the remarkable accomplishments of their culture and its spread to the most remote islands of the huge Pacific Basin. The collection of the records of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and the voyages of the Hokule'a accurately reflect the similarly awe-inspiring work that went into the recreation of ancient Polynesian long distance canoe voyaging.

Janet M. Zisk, is Archivist at the Kamehameha Schools/Bernice Pauahi Bishop Estate, and maybe contacted at Frank E. Midkiff Learning Center, Kapalama Heights, Honolulu, Hawaii 96817, Tel. (808) 842-8945

Suggested Readings

1. A Guide to the Archives of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and Voyages of the Hokule'a 1973-1988 compiled by Lela Goodell, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1989.

2. National Geographic, December, 1974 An excellent four-part series on "The Isles of the Pacific" including a map "The Pacific Islands and Their Discoverers."

3. National Geographic , April, 1976 "A Canoe Helps Hawaii Recapture Her Past" by Herb Kawainui Kane.

4. Science, June 17, 1977 "Voyaging Canoes and the Settlement of Polynesia" by Ben R. Finney.

5. An Ocean in Mind by Will Kyselka, University of Hawaii Press, 1977.

6. Hokule'a: the Way to Tahiti by Ben R. Finney, Dodd Mead, 1979

7. A series of books for children and a resource curriculum guide on Polynesian voyaging published by the Polynesian Voyaging Society, 1976:

The Vision of Mo'ikeha (Ka Moe'uhane O Mo'ikeha) by Nancy Alpert Mower

A Canoe for Uncle Kila (No Kila Ka Wa'a Kaulua) by Stanley Kapepa

The Voyage to Tahiti (Ka Huaka'i i Kahiki) by Nancy Alpert Mower

Hokule'a by Maralyn Blackman

A Curriculum Resource Guide on Polynesian Voyaging by Cecilia Kapua Lindo

8. Polynesian Seafaring Heritage Cecilia Kapua Lindo and Nancy Alpert Mower, Editors published by the Kamehameha Schools and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, Honolulu, Hawaii, 1980.