Misrepresentation of Micronesian navigation must be corrected
Cultural appropriation by the Polynesian Voyaging Society is robbing me and my Micronesian brothers of our heritage, history and truthful place in the world.
For nearly 50 years, PVS has been using the name of my half-brother, celebrated Grand Master Navigator Pius Mau Piailug, for their own benefit without permission or authority.
Their claim is that Mau taught the complex method of Micronesian wayfinding to Nainoa Thompson, CEO of PVS, in 1975 as PVS prepared for the maiden voyage of the double-hulled canoe Hōkūleʻa from Hawaii to Tahiti the following year.
It is true that Mau mentored Nainoa during that time in Hawaii, and sailed on that voyage to Tahiti, a voyage that is currently being recreated with the Hōkūleʻa and the Hikianalia that began in Hilo on May 1.
Billed as the start of “the largest voyage ever done,” a five-year passage around the Pacific Ocean that will begin next year, Nainoa said, it “will focus on bringing together the Pacific islands for the oceans.”
In the years since the 1976 voyage, no one from PVS has paid their respects to Mau’s grave or even set foot on our soil. I doubt they will do so this time and will, instead, circumvent us once again.
According to Waa Honua’s website, “A revival of the art and science of wayfinding is underway among the Pacific islands. In Hawai‘i, Nainoa Thompson studied under Mau Piailug, a master navigator from the island of Satawal in Micronesia, and worked with Will Kyselka at the Bishop Museum planetarium in Honolulu to develop modern methods and techniques of non-instrument navigation for traveling the open ocean over vast distances.”
In his book “Ocean Mind,” Kyselka wrote that Mau tried to teach Nainoa some of our knowledge including “Paafiu,” the names of the navigational stars in our star compass; “Bugoloa,” how to connect the directions of wave patterns to determine the best course to take; and how to read the weather. The book also states that Mau tried to teach Nainoa about the fighting stars and Etak, the reference points between islands.
However, Nainoa was unable to fully understand Etak, and did not have the time to learn about fighting stars due to the brief span they had to prepare for the voyage.
He also did not learn our Wariyeng wayfinding system, which refers to the canoe’s mast and means the “high mast of learning,” or the topmost school of navigation that holds all of the detailed knowledge and skills that a navigator must acquire.
It is true that Mau shared some of our navigational practices for following the stars, currents and birds, including our star compass, with Nainoa and his Hawaiian colleagues. But our complex navigation culture and knowledge is taught over many years in small portions and must be gained in our environment on our Micronesian islands.
We navigators have a saying: “Did you spill all the seeds out?” Which means, are you giving all the knowledge away? Sharing our entire knowledge of this sacred system is against our culture.
PVS also asserts falsely that Mau gave that sacrosanct knowledge to Nainao because our own people were not interested in learning it and it was dying out. They say that Mau was the last navigator whose own children did not want to learn, so Mau gave our knowledge to the Hawaiians.
In fact, Mau chose his son Sesario to be his heir and took him on the maiden voyage of the Hōkūleʻa for this reason. Yet the Hawaiians ignore his presence and his important place in the accurate narrative. Sesario, who also became a grand master, continues to share his knowledge of traditional navigation from his home in Palau to this day.
Despite PVS’s claim, our traditional Carolinian navigation culture remains very much alive, unlike Polynesian navigation which vanished hundreds of years ago.
As a result, Nainoa is using our sacred culture to authenticate his system as “indigenous” because there is no remaining navigation culture in Hawaii.
But perhaps the greatest insult and threat to our navigation culture is PVS’s cultural appropriation of our PWO ceremony. They created the title “PWO navigator.” But PWO is not a title; it is a sacred initiation rite held for those who have been recognized as worthy of entering our traditional school of navigation.
The Hawaiians have held public PWO ceremonies to bestow this fake title on Polynesians whom they want to recognize as master navigators even though they do not have the permission, authority or knowledge to conduct this important initiation ceremony.
I have asked Nainoa and his fellow PVS leaders, who are spreading these misleading falsehoods, to correct them and to cease using Mau’s name and references to his time working with PVS, yet they are continuing to use their revised narrative for their own benefit.
Money, of course, plays a role in maintaining PVS’s revised account of the transfer of our sacred knowledge. Hawaiian tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry, and the so-called “ancient Polynesian navigation” experiences are part of it.
Despite my effort to have Nainoa correct the distorted assertion that diminishes the true Micronesian navigators who work hard to protect and carry on our traditions and our culture, travel writers continue to promote PVS’s self-promoting offerings using Mau’s name and reputation. Books, videos, press materials, social media and websites include this information, building Nainoa up as the inheritor of Mau’s knowledge.
As a son of the Carolinian islands of Satawal and Lamotrek in Yap, I am unaccustomed to speaking out. It is not in our nature or our culture to do so.
But many of my Micronesian brothers have encouraged me, as an elder, cultural leader and grand master navigator, to publicly correct PVS’s deceitful account.
On behalf of Mau’s family, my fellow navigators and all Micronesians, I call on Nainoa and the PVS to stop perpetuating this immoral deceit of blatant cultural appropriation.
Ali Haleyalur, a grand master navigator, teaches traditional navigation at the College of Micronesia in Yap. He also gives talks and university lectures on the traditional navigation system that is practiced on his Carolinian island, Lamotrek. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org