By Lee Zion

Chilkat Valley News

History came to Haines with a remarkable visit from a Polynesian ocean-going vessel Monday afternoon.

The twin-hulled Hōkūle’a arrived at the Chilkoot Indian Association (CIA) dock at close to 2 p.m. About 50 Native elders greeted them dockside, while close to 200 people waiting on the shore saw them arrive.

Tlingit dugout canoes went out to greet the Hōkūle’a at Battery Point to guide the boat in. 

Hōkūle’a is the “star of gladness,” which is at its zenith right above Hawaii. It’s an important navigation star.

The visit to Haines, Hoonah and Yakutat is just the start of a massive trip across the Pacific Ocean. The Moananuiākea voyage is named for the Hawaiian words “moana,” meaning “ocean,” “nui,” meaning big, and “ākea,” meaning vast. Moananuiākea is the Hawaiian word for the Pacific Ocean.

The Hōkūle’a will leave from Juneau on Saturday, heading down the coast of North and South America, roughly to Peru, by February 2024. From there, the boat will head for the open ocean, reaching the island of Rapa Nui – Easter Island. Then the boat will explore what their website calls the largest country in the world, “our country, Polynesia,” from March to December, 2024. After that, the vessel will explore New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia and up the coast of Asia to Japan by September 2026, when the vessel will be shipped to Los Angeles with a final voyage to Hawaii by December 2026. 

A journey of 43,000 nautical miles – and the crew plans to do it without modern instruments. They will rely on knowledge and skills thousands of years old, such as navigating by the stars.

For this leg of the trip however, up from Hoonah, the crew did use GPS, due to the complexity of negotiating the Lynn Canal. But for the open ocean, they will use “non-instrument navigation,” said Moani Haimuli, one of a rotating crew of captains who navigated the vessel up from Hoonah.

Haimuli said this is part of the larger mission of protecting the planet, and meeting other Polynesian people with a goal to provide clean water and educate their youngsters. It also helps to perpetuate the culture itself.

Haimuli added that many people aboard the boat were inspired by stories of past journeys.

“We’re just excited to be here. It’s one of our stops for our four-year voyage,” she said. “This one is basically raising awareness for future generations and making the world a better place for them,” Haimuli said. 

Harriet Brouillette, CIA tribal administrator, said the trip to Alaska arose out of a longstanding friendship between the Polynesians and the local tribes. About 50 years ago, Hawaiian culture was first being revived. The Hawaiians wanted to build ocean-going canoes, but due to overdevelopment, there were no koa trees left on the islands large enough for building canoes.

Fortunately, they had a connection with Tlingit elder Judson Brown, and he had a connection with Sealaska. Sealaska had access to many old-growth trees, and they were able to provide the Hawaiians with the logs they needed for their canoes.

Thus, the Polynesians were able to build Hawaii Loa out of wood. The Hōkūle’a is built mostly from fiberglass, but without nails or screws. Everything is hand-lashed, 

“So that was the restart of open-ocean voyaging for the Polynesian Voyage Society,” she said.

The descendants of Judson Brown were there on the dock to greet the Polynesians when they arrived. 

Brouillette noted that part of her own heritage is Hawaiian, as her ancestors came up to Alaska on the same type of voyage.

“The significance of this journey is monumental, in more ways than one,” she said.

Brouillette said the koa tree is making a comeback, as parts of Hawaii are being cleared of non-native vegetation. However, the return of the koa tree will take some time.

Kahia Walker, one of the crewmembers on the boat, says he is only one of many. Crew members will switch out every three weeks, for the next four years, allowing them to return to their regular lives.

Most of the people on the boat are from Hawaii, but the trip will incorporate people from other Polynesian cultures, he said.

“As we go to each of the communities, we’ll be inviting specific individuals who know the ocean, what we’re dealing with. It’ll be local knowledge to help us out,” Walker said.

The first voyage was in 1976. The purpose of the trip was to prove that Polynesians were intelligent people, capable of navigating the ocean. Prior to that the prevailing belief was that the Pacific Islanders came to these islands purely by accident.

“They came from the Americas and just built rafts, and out of mere luck, inhabited all of Polynesia. However, according to our legends, according to the stories that we have, we came from the west. We had vehicles capable of going into the wind, to discover all of these islands,” he said.

To prove their point, they made the trip from Hawaii to Tahiti without modern navigation equipment. “And ever since then, we’ve been aspiring for bigger,” Walker said.

The voyage of four and a half years just shows how vast the Pacific Ocean is. Previous trips took the Polynesian Voyaging Society all the way around the world, and that took only two years, Walker said.

This is not the first time a Hawaiian vessel has come to Haines. On July 10, 1995, the Hawai’iloa, a twin-hulled wooden ocean canoe, came to town, where the sailors thanked the community for donating the old growth trees that went into making the vessel.