The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
How did the islands of the Pacific form? Where did the peoples of the Pacific come from? How did they live? When and why did they move? How did they learn to navigate?
Over the years, these questions have fascinated many people. They have been asked and answered in many ways. Each culture of the Pacific tells its own stories – some similar and some different – and modern researchers also have stories to tell. Every story has its own truths, and without them all, the picture would not be complete.
The origins of wayfinding
Satawalese wayfinder Mau Piailug
Women were the first wayfinders, and Pulap was the first wayfinder island. It started with a kuling bird (sandpiper), which was a ghost and not just a bird. The kuling flew from the Marshall Islands to Pohnpei, Chuuk, and Pulap and ate everyone along the way … but not the people of Pulap.
The kuling said to the chief’s daughter, “If you feed me enough, I won't eat the people here.” The girl told her father this, and he said, “Take her a piece of wot (taro) and a coconut.” The girl did, and the kuling ate until she was really full. Then she said, “Tell your father to build me a house so I can teach you to be a wayfinder.”
Every evening, the girl learned from the kuling. She learned more and more. Then one day, the father said to the girl, “I know the story of the kuling … and do you know how we will kill her? Tell the kuling not to leave yet – we are going to give her something.”
The chief told the women of Pulap to get many baskets of wot and the men to get many coconuts. They loaded everything onto the kuling bird. The kuling took off and flew between Chuuk and Pafang, but then she fell down and changed into an octopus. Every wayfinder always protects himself from this octopus by using pwanur (a mystical way that wayfinders use to protect themselves from danger).