The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Cook Islands navigator 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.
Before setting out, a navigator and his community have to prepare well for a journey. Once at sea, the navigator has to bring together all his knowledge about the stars, sea, sun, and wind to keep the canoe on course and safely find land. At all times, he must know his canoe’s position in relation to his home and destination and adjust his course if necessary. To do this, he must stay awake for long periods – sometimes all day and night. Otherwise, he might miss important information, like a star sighting or wind change.
But navigating isn’t just practical – it’s spiritual as well. It is said that you can tell a navigator because of his red eyes – a sign that he’s spiritually blessed, not so much that he’s had no sleep! In the Caroline Islands, a navigator carries a charm GLOSSARY charm - spiritual object made of wood and stingray spines to protect the voyage. In the Louisiade Archipelago, he places plants like coconut leaves on the canoe to show his authority and keep spirits away. In Kiribati GLOSSARY Kiribati - Gilbert, Phoenix, and Line Islands , he 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).