By Stacy Palen
On May 18, 2014, Hokule’a left Oahu for a 3-year voyage that would take her and her sister vessel, Hikianalia, around the globe. The journey covered 47,000 nautical miles with stops in 26 countries, and ended in Hawaii on June 17, 2017. The vast majority of the navigation on this journey was celestial navigation. Specifically, the celestial navigation of pre-contact Pacific Islanders. The voyage was a celebration of the revitalization of an art and a science that were nearly lost to the world.
In his book, Hawaiki Rising, Sam Low tells the story of the rediscovery of this lost art. The book reads like a mystery story with adventure chapters. Along the way, it covers the principles of the celestial sphere in a fair amount of detail.
The story begins with a very brief history of Captain Cook’s discovery of Hawai’i and the aftermath. This sets the stage for the shift in culture that caused the art of navigation to be lost and simultaneously hints at the trail of breadcrumbs that would be followed in order to rediscover this ancient art. After a brief nod to Thor Heyerdahl, whose famous voyage forms the basis of the movie Kon Tiki, the story shifts to following the “detectives” in 1968 who asked the question, “How did they do it?” By the seventh page of the main text, we are already on the trail of the answer to that question.
Two of the most interesting characters along the way are Mau Piailug, known simply as Mau, and Nainoa Thompson. Mau learned to navigate “the old way”; from oral tradition stretching back generations, and Nainoa Thompson learned from him as a young adult. Nainoa Thompson is now the President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and knows more about this method of navigation than anyone else, at this point. Not long ago, he gave a talk on the experience at Stanford, which I highly recommend.
The astronomical content is spread throughout the book and is all related to the celestial sphere and the appearance of the sky from various locations. As such, it does not provide content that is broadly applicable across the whole course, but it does provide a fascinating motivation for learning the content in those initial few chapters. We often mention “people used to navigate this way,” but beyond talking about finding the North Star, we tend to gloss over the details.
For myself, this book gave me new ideas for how to motivate that section of the course. Many students are already somewhat familiar with these ideas from the Disney movie “Moana,” in which a young Pacific Islander girl sets out to rediscover how to navigate the oceans. The movie gets it right, which is encouraging. Students are interested to learn that a movie they loved has an application to what they are studying in class.
Students in a book group will undoubtedly stumble across the PBS documentary The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific, directed by Sam Low and Boyd Estus. The film centers on Mau Piailug, the last known navigator from the Micronesian islands, who was so instrumental to the revival of this type of navigation. In 57 minutes, the film cannot possibly cover the story, and especially the astronomy, at the level of detail of the book.
It would be interesting to try combining all these resources in one semester: First, assign students to watch Moana, or at least watch the clip of the song “We Know the Way.” Read the book throughout parts of the semester, then watch Nainoa Thompson’s talk. Finish by watching the PBS documentary. Comparing and contrasting the three different treatments of the material would allow for interesting discussions that draw on students’ competencies beyond the astronomy classroom.