Lessons from Master Navigators Translated for a New Age

This week Elizabeth Lindsey will board a Polynesian voyaging canoe “Hine Moana” bound for the Solomon Islands.  Weather permitting, the crew will leave Vanuatu’s Port Vila on the summer solstice stopping briefly on Meskelyne before landing at Honiara where more than 3,000 cultural practitioners from more than 27 countries will gather. Over the next few weeks Elizabeth will share stories of master navigators from the Pacific who live by the wisdom of ancient wayfinding.

Navigator-priest Aromai. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Lindsey.

By Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey, National Geographic Fellow

Throughout the world master navigators such as Micronesian Palu Pius “Mau” Piailug were sages who relied on a multifaceted system, which included ritual, chant, myth, prayer, dreams and visions.

Polynesian cosmology takes as fundamental the mutually interdependent relationships among humankind, the natural world and deity.  If the navigator prayed, he trusted, he knew, an answer would be revealed.

From Chowra, India to Satawal, Micronesia, navigator-priests called the winds and calmed the seas by means of their mysticism. Such phenomena defied Western belief.  Unfortunately, their native knowledge was dismissed by classic science and demonized by Christianity.  The judgments and consequent constraints imposed on native people almost destroyed their indigenous practices.  As native societies were conquered, decimated, and assimilated, these priests: Hawaiian kahuna, Micronesian palu, and many others, were forced to abandon or denounce their ancestral traditions or conceal their secrets. It was nearly the death knell of native science.

Fortunately, remnants of this ancient knowing still exist within the vanishing clans such as the palu of Satawal, Micronesia. Without Piailug’s vision and dedication, wayfinding would be little more than a myth to descendants, not only of Satawal but also of other Pacific cultures whose traditional sciences would have been all but shattered.

Ancient seafarers were not unlike modern-day astronauts exploring new frontiers–their sea, our space, their canoes, our capsules.  We cannot overestimate the extent of their brilliance, daring and achievement.

As modernity teeters on the brink of environmental and social collapse, we are not unlike the ancient mariners who crossed uncharted waters with finite resources. Whether guided by stars, instinct or global positioning systems, we are now the wayfinders.  The success of our journey depends on everyone.  As Piailug often said, “The canoe is our island, our island, the canoe.”

The planet is now our canoe, the canoe our planet.

More from Elizabeth’s Expedition

A Gathering of Wayfinders of the Pacific


Changing Planet

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