The Canoe Is the People
Indigenous Navigation in the Pacific
Satawalese navigator Jerome Rakilur
The first time I heard about navigators, I very much wanted to be one of them so that I could go to the far islands, like Pik or Pikelot. I first learned from one of my uncles from Pulusuk when he came to Satawal.
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).