The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Before setting out, wayfinders and their communities must prepare well for a voyage. Once at sea, wayfinders bring together all they know about the stars, sea, sun, and wind to keep the canoe on course and safely find land. At all times, they must know the direction from their vaka to their destination, and how long it will take to get to that destination. The time that it takes to sail somewhere depends on the wind and sea conditions that they are sailing in, the abilities of the vaka they are sailing, and whether the crew knows how to sail the vaka so that it moves slowly or more quickly.
The navigator must know how to set and adjust the course, if necessary. To stay on course the wayfinder observes signs. So a wayfinder usually stays awake for long periods – sometimes all day and night, or longer, so as to not miss important information, like a star sighting or wind change.
When the sky is cloudy it is difficult to clearly see the stars, and sometimes we cannot see them at all. Even when there are no clouds above us, the horizon is often cloudy or hazy, so it is often not possible to see exactly where a star rises or sets. So a wayfinder must have other ways to keep on course. The wayfinder must also know how to read the patterns of the swells (big rounded waves that come from far away). When departing the home island, and whenever stars are visible on the way to the destination island, then the wayfinder makes note of how the swells are angled to position of the guiding star. Then the wayfinder keeps the vaka at the same angle to the same swells. Doing this well takes a lot of practice and attention.
Wayfinding is not just doing things the same way all the time, it is a spiritual job as well… And spiritual work can be very hard work! It is said that you can tell a wayfinder because of his red eyes – a sign of being spiritually blessed, rather than having no sleep!
In the Caroline Islands, a traditional navigator carries a charm GLOSSARY charm - spiritual object * made of wood and stingray spines to protect the voyage. In the Louisiade Archipelago, the wayfinder places plants like coconut leaves on the canoe to show authority and keep spirits away. In Kiribati GLOSSARY Kiribati - Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands , a wayfinder might perform a chant GLOSSARY chant - song to keep away dangers like bad weather.
Me na baka, me na maototo i maiaki-ni wa-u ni boborau ikai!
So it falls, so it breaks to the south of my voyaging canoe!
Adapted from Grimble, A. (1972).
Spirituality is a big part of voyaging
Cook Islands wayfinder Tua Pittman
“A lot of things that we do on the canoe are things that we’re not able to explain. There are things that are more spiritual than physical or mental, and they’re a very big part of voyaging as well. You can be very physical, you can be the strongest guy on the canoe, but if you don’t have that spiritual feeling as well, you don’t have the whole package.”