Photo by Maggie Hallahan.
On August 16, the Hikianalia, a seventy-two-foot dual-hulled Polynesian voyaging canoe from Hawaii set out across the Pacific for California, powered by the winds, tides, two solar-charged propellers (for emergencies), and a thirteen-person crew. Thirty-two-year-old Captain Lehua Kamalu, the first-ever woman leader of a long-distance Polynesian voyage, charted the Hikinalia’s course using only ancestral navigation methods.
To get to California from Makapu’u, Kamalu first had to give hurricanes Hector and Lane the slip. Charting a course ‘Akau, or direct north on the Hawaiian star compass, the canoe traveled 1,200 miles over ten days to 41°N, safely atop the windy shoulder of Hector’s high-pressure system, roughly parallel with the southern border of Wyoming. From there, the Hikianalia turned toward California, setting a reference course to Aina Malanai, two houses south of Hikina, or direct east. Kamalu synthesized signals from the swells, skies, winds, and stars, using wayfinding techniques passed down from Polynesian navigators over thousands of years through chants, stories, and dances. On the wily seas there’s no margin for whoopsie-daisy, and the methods rely on careful, constant observation and memorization. In Polynesian culture, you can always spot the navigator among the crew: the one with the bloodshot eyes. The knowledge Kamalu carries comes from the late Mau Piailug, a Satawalese pwo, or master navigator, at one point the last Polynesian to practice the art, connecting her to a legacy of legendary trickster heroes, like Maui and the forebears of Hawaii. These navigators were the astronauts of another era, who spread their civilization across nearly every island in the expansive Polynesian Triangle with technologies that long predated European explorers.
Polynesian seafaring, like many other Indigenous practices, survived an apocalypse that is often euphemized as colonization. Throughout the Pacific, Polynesian peoples were massacred, enslaved, and brutalized, their religions obliterated, governments dismantled, and homelands appropriated by distant empires. In 1893, American businessmen overthrew the Kingdom of Hawaii in a cunning coup sponsored by the United States. In response, Native Hawaiians organized to block the annexation of their homelands, but were overpowered. Many today say the Americans are unlawfully occupying their sovereign nation.
In this context, the act of crossing the vastness of the Pacific in the Hikianalia—against the history of near annihilation and into the future peril of global warming—is an intergenerational, transcontinental work of endurance art. But Indigenous bodies, histories, and cultures are not often read with that intention. Traditions handed down from survivors and fired in the kiln of cataclysm are condescended to as romantic, primitive, and ethnographic. They are displayed in dark anthropology museums as signifiers of the past, not in white-walled art galleries as aesthetic interventions into the present. Though they require masterful skill, scientific precision, otherworldly imagination, and an intimate grasp of the colonial condition, they rarely command the attention of critics, writers, and the public. But what if they did?
On September 10, twenty-three days and 2,800 miles after departing Makapu’u, the Hikianalia made landfall in California’s Half Moon Bay. After a week’s rest, the canoe rode the westerlies through the Golden Gate, where a flotilla of outriggers and sailboats escorted the craft into San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. A trailing fireboat blasted four water cannons in a salute to the vessel’s odyssey. A delegation of Muwekma Ohlone representing the first peoples of the Bay Area stood on the beach to greet their Native Hawaiian visitors. Wearing leafed garlands, the Muwekma sang the Hikianalia into Ohlone homelands. And once ashore, the Hikianalia’s crew responded in kind, sharing traditional Polynesian songs and dances to reciprocate the welcoming.
Their arrival capped the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco—a statement about the precarity of the environment and the resilience of the Indigenous. But it was punctuated by joy. Grandmothers and grandchildren dancing the hula, every ounce of their lithe bodies—hips, hands, toes, eyes—gliding and rocking with liquid grace to island ukuleles, drums, and voices. California Indians, elderberry clapper sticks in hand, beat out proud songs that survived a genocide. Orations delivered in endangered Native tongues. Between performances, hugs and gifts were exchanged between Indigenous peoples from opposite sides of the Pacific. The afternoon carried on with this rhythm: speech, song, dance, gift, hug, repeat—for hours. In the background: Alcatraz Island, site of the 1969 Native American occupation that birthed the modern Indigenous rights movement.
Thousands of onlookers, myself among them, gathered in Aquatic Park to witness. Indigenous peoples dotted the crowd, beaming. As I took in the scene I turned my attention to the audience: families enjoying a weekend spectacle; joggers and dogwalkers mildly inconvenienced by a ceremony that temporarily reclaimed a boardwalk; the suit-and-tie staff of elected officials, waiting around to deliver bland remarks.
There is a sly power in the fact that they just don’t get it—that they don’t see us coming, even though we have already arrived.