One of the best parts of being on the wa'a is when the crew has time to hang out together and talk story. Whether it's after dinner or during a watch, being on the wa'a or maybe on the ocean, brings these mo'olelo, these stories to life. At our last night in Salem, eating delicious ice cream bought by Niko's grandfather who lives in Boston, Kalā Thomas begins to share Papa Mau's story.
Kalā Thomas, whose foundation comes from training with Makali'i, has had the fortunate experience to have learned first-hand from Papa Mau; gaining knowledge from the source (talk about the Hawaiian word kumu. Find the definition at wehewehe.org). Not only is he a skilled crew member and seasoned voyager, but also great at teaching others about wa'a. I can't tell his story of Papa Mau, but here's what I've learned and the story I like to share.
‘O Hōkūleʻa ka wahine, ʻO Mau ke kāne. Hōkūleʻa is the woman and Papa Mau is the man.
Mau Pias Pialug is the master navigator from Micronesia who is from a small island called Satawal. In Papa Mau’s culture, a navigator is chosen before he is born. When the mother is hāpai, she sings navigation songs to her son so that he can get maʻa to wayfinding knowledge. Once he is born, they hold the baby in the tide for hours so that feeling the movement of the water is like breathing, it’s second nature. Uʻi Malakaua, a waʻa sister says, “as if he came from the sea.”
Papa Mau attained an exceptional level where he knew his location based on the feeling the waʻa on the water. He could be inside of a room and point to the exact position of all the stars without needing to see them. I heard one story where it was an extremely sunny day and everyone was wondering why Papa Mau came out of his bunk wearing his foul weather gear. Shortly after it started to storm. He is the Michael Jordan of navigation.
Sometimes people forget that being the navigator, the father of the crew, Papa Mau was expected to do more than just find the direction using the environment. He made lures from the live chicken that was taken on board of Hōkūleʻa’s maiden voyage to Tahiti. When the mast broke, Papa Mau knew how to fix it in the middle of the ocean. If someone was sick he knew how to heal them. He knew the entire process of how to make a canoe, mai uka a i kai, from beginning to end.
Papa Mau, and the culture of wayfinders which included Hawaiians long ago saw the world in an entirely different perspective. Our kūpuna never thought that the world was flat, unlike the famed explorers children in schools learn about from their textbooks. When scientists asked Papa Mau, how did your kūpuna know that the earth was round? He looked at them with a confused face, They looked up. The sun is round, the moon is round - the earth must be round (in Hawaiian the word for round is poepoe. Find the definition atwehewehe.org). The first time I heard this story, I thought why didn’t I think of that?! Simple and full of profound wisdom. Kūpunaology, the knowledge of our ancestors is equivalent to or what I sometimes believe, even exceeds what modern technology is only finding today.
That is why I like the word kilo so much. I think of kilo hōkū, observer of stars. It can refer to someone who is a seer, a kahuna, a person who looks at stars, or reader of omens. I found it particularly interesting that kilo is not only for waʻa or navigation. Kilo aupuni means to be a political expert and kilo ʻuala is to know when sweet potatoes are ready to harvest. Kilo can be used in any context because if you take the time, you can observe anything around you. By practicing kilo our kūpuna knew that the earth was round, that the the sun travelled a specific path that marks the equator, the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer at certain times of the year, that animals can be used to help show direction. The list can go on and on. Without any modern technology they had this knowledge, using what they had; their eyes, their minds, and their naʻau.
I’ve asked students to look at the world around them for one minute, just one minute. They laugh because it is uncomfortable- it is no longer common practice to ask oneself what the world trying to say. It is an example of how many have become completely disconnected from the world. This practice need not happen outside, you can observe how your children are behaving, how your classmates or coworkers are feeling, if things in your life are starting to come together or not. Take it in and write it down. So you don’t forget, so that you can teach your children. Being more aware of the world around you is a way to mālama honua.
Papa Mau started to notice that children in his village were becoming less interested in navigation, preferring and depending on modern technology like motors. He saw that if this continued, the people of Satawal would be in the same situation as Hawaiʻi, a potential lost of this traditional practice. I hear others commonly say that Papa Mau came to Hawaiʻi and started to teach Hawaiʻi how to navigate again. It wasn’t as simple as it sounds. He was a part of a long line of navigators where the knowledge they passed on from generation to generation was sacred, for the few, for the chosen ones. People in his culture looked down upon him, shunned him, and did not support his decision until many years later. Independently, he went against tradition to pass this knowledge to us, and that’s why there is an enormous kuleana to tell his story and perpetuate the legacy he left us. Pomai Bertelmann explained his gift like this: Papa Mau deposited his knowledge to us and we have a kuleana to not only perpetuate it, but also care for it until the time comes for it to be withdrawn in the future for the people it was meant for, the Papa Mau's people.
I usually say that without Papa Mau, “This star compass wouldn't exist, many wa'a wouldn’t exist today and Hōkūleʻa probably wouldn’t be sailing around the world.” Future generations are changed because of Papa Mau; the powerful impact that one individual can have on a people, on a community, and on the world. Everyone has the potential to make this kind of positive and lasting impact. I tell my students, if they had to remember one thing from this lesson, it would be to remember Papa Mau and his story.
Kumu Kaʻai previously taught at Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy and Hawaiian Studies at Wilson Elementary School to K-5 students.