The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Cook Islands navigator Tua Pittman
In traditional navigation, you never know if you have enough knowledge. You never know. You never know what the elements will put up in front of you, so you are forever learning.
Becoming a Navigator
Becoming a navigator is a lifelong experience. Learning happens in many places (the home, the canoe house, the sea) and in many ways. On Satawal, everyone learns some things about canoes and sailing from a young age – for example, by playing with model canoes. Children, including girls, learn mostly from their father or uncles. If their mother is a navigator's daughter, she teachers them what she knows too.
But there is also a lot of secret knowledge. This includes knowledge about navigation, canoe building, the weather, and even knot divination GLOSSARY divination - fortune-telling . The knowledge is like property. Secret navigational knowledge is passed on only through certain families. In the past, a tribal group without a navigator would sometimes pay to have a student trained. Some young men learn in the school of a reb (master navigator). They are initiated through a pwo (initiation ceremony for navigators). There were once many traditional schools in the central Carolines, but only two remain – Warieng and Faaluur.
In the Marshall Islands, navigational knowledge is considered a sacred gift from the ancestors. Only some families have access to it. Polynesian people say that knowledge is mana – the power to change. In Tonga, there were special navigator tribes like the Haa Fokololo oe Hau, who navigated the kalia (double hulls) of the tui Tonga (kings). A young boy from a high family was chosen to learn on board. Some boys were trained as ula lahi (navigators), and some as lomu lahi (canoe builders).