HŌKŪLEʻA: FINDING THE LANGUAGE OF THE NAVIGATOR is the latest film directed by Kanaka Maoli filmmaker Ty Sanga. Having its North American premiere at HIFF43, the film would win the Made in Hawai‘i Best Jury Award for Best Feature, and deservedly so.
The documentary centers around a conversation, first started in 2006, between wayfinder and voyager Nainoa Thompson and cultural anthropologist Wade Davis. Fifteen years later, after the historical feat of the four-year Mālama Hōnua worldwide voyage, the conversation is picked back up. This film addresses the origins of the Hōkūleʻa, the impact the waʻa has had on the world, and the legacy it is leaving for younger generations.
As a keiki (child), I had multiple experiences with the sailing waʻa (canoe). I got to go on Hōkūleʻa for the first time in elementary school when Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) visited us at Ka Waihona o Ka Naʻauao Hawaiian Charter School. I remember being extremely fascinated that people could go so far on a waʻa with no modern technology. Then again, I as a Kanaka Maoli exist because of that very feat. As a teen, I got to sleep on the waʻa while docked at Pōkaʻi Bay on an educational tour. I got to learn a bit from some Hōkūleʻa crew members while on the waʻa, which is a special experience I will never forget. Especially after spending so much of my childhood learning about it. I realized being there, I was part of something bigger than myself.
I will admit, I don’t really know what people think about Hōkūleʻa from an outside perspective because I’ve grown up in a community that was educated about it. An outsider perspective was shown from the point of view of Wade Davis. I enjoyed his curiosity towards Hōkūleʻa and the people surrounding it; he is curious in an inquisitive way rather than an extractive way. I particularly enjoyed this film because of the dual perspectives of insider and outsider.
When speaking on the origins of the Hōkūleʻa, Nainoa Thompson mentioned that Hawaiians would’ve been lost without the Micronesian wayfinder and voyager Mau Piailug. The Polynesian Voyaging Society would not exist without Mau Piailug, who taught the first PVS members about his own culture’s navigation. It was with all his knowledge that PVS could start to make sense of what was recorded from Hawaiian wayfinding and voyaging history. It is very important that Mau is always recognized in the revitalization of voyaging in Hawaiʻi, as his selfless contribution of sharing his own cultural knowledge has led to so many Kānaka Maoli wanting to relearn the Oceanic tradition of wayfinding and voyaging.
As a keiki, learning about the Hōkūleʻa and the Hawaiian Renaissance era it came out of… changed my life. Knowing that people were fighting to relearn traditional ʻike (knowledge) and moʻolelo (histories) after a period of so much loss in Hawaiian history ignited a fire in me. The knowledge of the existence of the waʻa and learning that wayfinding and voyaging was how everyone came to be in Oceania absolutely changed the way I thought about things. Including the way I looked at the ocean, something I once thought divided us, but quickly realized is a connector for all of us. The Hōkūleʻa is not just a vessel for sailing, wayfinding, and voyaging. The Hōkūleʻa is a symbol of the Hawaiian Renaissance and the revitalization of Hawaiian culture.
Find out more about the Hōkūleʻa and keep track of Moananuiākea, their second worldwide voyage: hokulea.com.
Pualalea Panaewa is a Kanaka ʻŌiwi (Native Hawaiian) filmmaker, actor, and organizer. Being born and raised in Waiʻanae, Oʻahu, heavily immersed in Hawaiian history and culture. She is passionate about preserving nā moʻolelo o Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian histories & stories) through film for Native Hawaiian audiences and beyond. They are dedicated to combating the misrepresentation of Hawaiʻi in the media. Pualalea currently attends the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, where they study Digital Cinema in The School of Cinematic Arts with a focus on Indigenous filmmaking.
The HIFF ONLINE CREATIVES & CRITICS IMMERSIVE (HOCCI) program supports sustainable film criticism in Hawai‘i through mentorship and paid career opportunities. The mission of HOCCI is to broaden diversity in film criticism across the Pacific region and use influencer branding strategies to spark career opportunities in Hawai’i, not be hampered by oceans, state borders and distance, because geography is no longer a barrier. The 2023 HOCCI is supported by Critical Minded, a grant-making and learning initiative that supports cultural critics of color in the United States.