|A scene from Papa Mau: The Wayfinder.|
By Ed Rampell
Hawaiian director Na’alehu Anthony’s Papa Mau: The Way Finder literally traverses two of the three Pacific Island regions that compose Oceania: Polynesia and Micronesia (the third is Melanesia). Anthony’s camera and archival footage carries us aboard the Hōkūle'a, an ancient-style Polynesian voyaging canoe, from Hawaii to Tahiti and eventually to Satawal atoll in the Caroline Islands, now part of what is called the Federated States of Micronesia.
Rather remarkably, starting in 1976 Hōkūle'a (translated as “the Glad Star”) made these seafaring odysseys of Homeric proportions minus the use of modern technology: compasses, radio transmissions, GPS, engines, even maps per se. Instead, Hōkūle'a relied solely on the age-old techniques: navigating by following the stars, winds, ocean swells, birds and the like, using dead reckoning and more.
Hōkūle'a’s success helped spurr a cultural revival and ethnic pride, a Pacific Renaissance in the world’s last region still dominated by colonialism. Nevertheless, infighting on the canoe during the 30-plus day voyage disturbed Mau, who surreptitiously left the voyagers after they safely arrived at Tahiti and returned to Satawal (mostly, presumably, via jet), leaving the Hawaiians to fend for themselves for the long return trip home with his tape-recorded voice instructions.
The documentary briefly mentions in passing the dissension among the crew, but does not go into detail about the disputes and divisions. This may be because rather than being an objective observer and outsider, director Anthony has been a crewman aboard Hōkūle'a, and may not have wanted to ruffle feathers. Fractiousness among Hawaiians, especially among those in the “movement,” can reach Shakespearean proportions -- but that’s another story.
In any case, over the years Mau was wooed back to Hawaii and, moved by a desire to perpetuate his vanishing seagoing knowledge, rejoined the Hōkūle,a. However, this time, he would not lead as its helmsman, but rather as a teacher training and imparting to Nainoa Thompson of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and company his navigational genius so others could become and continue the master navigator legacy.
I arrived in Tahiti about three months after Hōkūle'a’s first voyage there, and although I’ve never had the luck, honor and privilege to sail aboard this venerable vessel, in the late 1980s I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the canoe’s return voyage from what, until that point, had been its most epic voyage throughout the Polynesian triangle -- taking it all the way to Aotearoa/New Zealand, thousands of miles away from Hawaii.
Now, Hawaiians have been turned by the vicissitudes of a cruel history into an oppressed, landless minority in their own ancestral homeland, and are often what the French call “les miserables,” full of suffering. But I never saw masses of Hawaiians so happy as when Hōkūle'a proudly sailed into Kaneohe Bay at Oahu, and thousands of Hawaiians joyfully participated in the reenactment of ancient customs and traditions. The then-Hawaiian Gov. John Waihee declared: “In my bones, I am screaming, 'I’m proud to be Hawaiian!'” I believe it was at this joyous homecoming where I had the great luck to meet Mau himself, as well as crewman En Hunkin (who became American Samoa’s Congressman), and I subsequently interviewed the then-youthful Nainoa (OMG, he has grey hair now in this documentary!), and became pals with another Hōkūle'a crew member, Donna Wendt (whom I’d share another epic voyage with on the Aranui, from Tahiti to the Marquesas -- but that also is another story).
So this documentary has profound personal meaning for me and this Paliku production (with support from the stellar Honolulu-based Pacific Islanders in Communications, as well as the State government’s Office of Hawaiian Affairs) should be experienced by anyone interested in sailing, Oceania, cultural rebirth, etc., – and in karma. The documentary follows what could be called the further adventures of the Hōkūle'a, its subsequent voyages since I left Hawaii, and reveals the fate of Mau. In what could be called cultural turn about fair play, the Hawaiians whom Mau taught to be master navigators return the favor in a very moving, meaningful way.