The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Majuro reefs, Marshall Islands, Micronesia
Letao, a man from Majuro in the Marshall Islands, was famous for his strength … and also for playing tricks on others. Letao really liked the King of Laura’s canoe and made a plan to get it. He built a beautiful but useless canoe to trick the King. Letao used kone wood, which is strong but doesn’t float!
Letao shined and decorated the canoe. At low tide, he piled large stones offshore and pulled the canoe on top of them. When the King arrived, Letao’s beautiful canoe seemed to be floating on the lagoon. The King was very impressed. Without thinking, he traded his own good canoe for one he had never sailed. In the King’s canoe, Letao raced towards the pass to the open sea, laughing and singing.
When the King tried to paddle his new canoe, it fell from the rocks and sank! The wet and angry King yelled for his people to catch Letao. Canoes raced after him, but Letao kicked up sand and coral from the bottom of the lagoon. This created reefs that blocked their way. Letao was last seen sailing into the sea beyond Majuro.
In other versions of this story, Letao is called Etao, Majuro is Mejuro, and the King is Koko the canoe builder.
Lots of stories tell about the beginning of places and people. Like the archaeological account, many stories talk about flooding or lost lands … or islands being fished up from the sea. Others talk about canoe voyages from faraway places. Still others tell about people using spiritual powers to create new lands.
In Aotearoa GLOSSARY Aotearoa - New Zealand (New Zealand) alone, a range of stories are told. As in many Polynesian islands, there’s the story of the boy Maui. From his canoe (Te Waka a Maui, the South Island), Maui fished up the North Island (Te Ika a Maui). There’s the story of the navigator Kupe, who landed on the northwest shores. There are the stories of the canoes that navigated here from the island homeland of Hawaiki. And there’s the story of Paikea, who arrived on the east coast of the North Island on the back of a whale.
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