Kaua‘i Museum explores tradition of voyaging canoes

The island of Taumako in the Solomon Islands possesses an extremely precious resource — 800 living Polynesians that are the keepers of knowledge of the ancient building and navigation techniques in traditional voyaging canoes, used by their ancestors for thousands of years. The Taumako are among the smallest percentage of indigenous people living on the planet that have yet to be over-run by the homogenization that modernization often imposes — and yet, are currently at risk of being swept away with substantial cultural loss.

The Kaua‘i Museum is presenting a ground-breaking exhibit of the Vaka Taumako Project — a pro-active cultural documentation and educational venture to help “generate sustainable jobs for young Taumako and other islanders that will allow them to reap the benefits of modern life, while remaining physically and spiritually at home,” states Vaka’s mission, designed by Chief Koloso Kaveia, Mimi George, principal investigator, Meph Wyeth, permanent secretary, and Larry Williamson, president of the Pacific Traditions Society.

Beginning in 1993, Mimi George and Meph Wyeth became involved with the plight of the Paramount Chief of the Duff Islands, Koloso Kaveia and his people, who were struggling to remain a self-sufficient population after decades of modern transport had changed the entire region. Once a voyaging, trading, navigating community, the steamships and motors that accompanied commercial fishing boats sent from other northern countries, put at risk the people, the environment and the future of both.

The ancient network of trade and mobility between the islands not only provided a working economy to the people of the Solomon Islands, but also supported environmental and biologic diversity. Through the trading, people of varying islands were able to meet and marry, increasing the gene pool; while simultaneously helping the natural environment by tending to specific plants and seeds that were traded between islands.

The art of building the magnificent voyaging canoes that were the main mode of transport for the entire Polynesian Diaspora thousands of years ago, now rests only in the minds and memories of the elders. Chief Kaveia is both a master navigator and craftsman of these unique vessels. With knowledge passed down through generations, Kaveia has become the leader in a project to promote the documentation and education of this knowledge, through the non-profit organization that operates as the umbrella for the Vaka Taumako Project located in Hawai‘i.

Concerned with the voyeurism that often accompanies aide into indigenous regions, George, Wyeth and Kaveia decided to teach Nga Taumako (people of Taumako) to use video equipment to document their own elders and young students during the educational process. Out of over 20 hours of footage, “Vaka Tamumako, The First Voyage” was edited and shown at the Hawai‘i Film Festival in 1998 and will be shown at the Kaua‘i Museum alongside the exhibit.

The entire canoe is built from materials and labor techniques known only by elder members of the Taumako. From the rope that is used to pull the giant trunk from the jungle, to the elaborate sail woven by women and sewn by men, every single aspect of the canoe is hand-made. The unique shape of the sail has been “studied by engineers and has been proven to be quite aerodynamic,” said Wyeth.

In 1996 the project was able to raise enough funds to commission the chief and his people to construct the first voyaging canoe built since 1979. Many of the young people had never seen a new canoe, let alone knew how to build one. This was the beginning of “reviving a traditional economy where many of the young people have felt they must move away to make a living,” Wyeth explained. Since then, a total of three canoes have been built under the project.

The crafting of canoes is only one aspect of the traditional knowledge that rests in this precarious moment of either being lost or passed on — the canon of navigational science “that exists in four dimensions — three directions and one in time — all is in Chief Kaveia’s head. We have been working on documenting it through interviews with him, but it is so complex, some of our drawings were almost incomprehensible,” Wyeth said.

Navigation for the Taumako people not only meant which direction to sail based on stars, phosphorescent tracings in the water, wind, tides, currents, but also relation to growing seasons, fishing seasons and wave patterns. Renderings of these navigation techniques are exhibited.

“This exhibit is a memorial as well as an exhibition of the project,” said Wyeth, because many of the people they worked with have passed away since their first visits to Taumako. “Age in years isn’t something they record — they know age through meaningful transitions or accomplishments in life … but we think after some memories that Chief Kaveia has expressed, that he was born around 1912. He remembers the flu epidemic of 1918 as a young child, so that’s a good indicator,” said Wyeth.

The Chief, nearing 100 years old, is in good health and has visited Kaua‘i three times since the project began. “We hope to have him here again as he is so knowledgeable and there are so many people interested in his talks here,” said Wyeth.

Larry Williamson first originated the idea for an exhibit at the museum. Complete with nearly fifty photographs, documents, artifacts, a model of the canoe built by Nga Taumako, and a full-sized sail, this exhibit, entitled “Sailing with Lata,” offers a chance for Kaua‘i to learn about this extraordinary project and people.

Mounted by Williamson, George and Wyeth, along with the staff at the museum, the exhibit will open this evening with a reception to follow. Opening protocol led by Roselle Bailey begins at 5 p.m. Pupus and drinks will be served in the courtyard.

The well-known artist Herb Kane has donated prints of his original painting of a Taumako canoe to help raise funds for the on-going project. Commissions for models of the canoes are currently being ordered by museums and cultural centers, but are also open to the public. For more information visit www.vaka.org.

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