Navigating the Divide

Led by Mau Piailug’s son Eseliquipi Plasito, the creation of Micronesian sailing canoe Elleen Eoreni links cultures past and present.

Text by Tina Grandinetti | Images by Jonas Maon

In Native Hawaiian culture, mo‘oku‘auhau, or genealogies, serve as ways to connect people and places across generations. Told in the form of chants, shared through carefully retold stories, or lovingly traced through dusty archives, a mo‘oku‘auhau serves as a tether that ties kanaka maoli (Native Hawaiians) to the history that continues to shape our world today. With mo‘oku‘auhau comes identity and also responsibility to the people, places, and stories that make these identities possible.

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Elleen Eoreni, the Micronesian sailing canoe that recently launched from Sand Island Recreation Center, traces her genealogy across oceans and generations. The canoe was the product of Connecting Oceanic Pathways, a collaborative project between the Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy, Kupu, Kokua Kalihi Valley, and the University of Hawai‘i ethnic studies department. As project coordinator Loyal Kekahuna-Baisa says, “The goal of the project was to find ways to bring the Micronesian and Hawaiian communities together, particularly because there are so many Micronesians who are migrating to Hawai‘i and becoming very displaced from their culture and connection to the ocean.” The canoe is a fitting vessel from which to explore and strengthen these oceanic connections, because it is through voyaging and traditional wayfinding that Micronesians and Hawaiians have long held common ground.

In thIMG_8174e 1970s, a group of Hawaiian visionaries built a traditional sailing canoe called Hōkūle‘a. The construction of the canoe was, in itself, a triumph over the destructive effects of colonialism and a proud resurgence of native cultural knowledge. But the dream of sailing the canoe across the Pacific utilizing ancient, non-instrument navigation was limited by the fact that in Polynesia this art had been lost. Amazingly, on a small Micronesian atoll called Satawal, it was kept alive in a man named Pius Mau Piailug, who had been trained since boyhood to read the stars and the ocean. Papa Mau, as he came to be known, helped to revive traditional navigation here in Hawai‘i, and when Hōkūle‘a finally made her first voyage to Tahiti, his work helped to reignite cultural pride across the Pacific.

JNS_8406Though Papa Mau passed away in 2010, his wisdom and knowledge continue to guide voyagers throughout the Pacific. Today, Hōkūle‘a and her sister wa‘a Hikianalia are on a three-year long voyage around the world to share indigenous values of Mālama Honua (taking care of the earth) with peoples and cultures far away from their island home. And, here in Hawai‘i, it was Mau’s son, Eseliquipi Plasito, who served as master carver for the Elleen Eoreni, leading youth from around O‘ahu (many from Micronesian and Hawaiian communities) through a traditional learning process. Over the course of 75 days, they turned a simple log of albizia wood into a finished canoe. As Bonnie Kahapea-Tanner, founder of the Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy notes, “It was a chance for them to learn from a true master, in the traditional way. You watch, and then you practice with your own hands, until you can make your tool do the same thing as your teacher’s.”

Yet, as Kahapea-Tanner explained in an essay in the Value of Hawai‘i 2: Ancestral Roots, Oceanic Visions, since Plasito moved to Hawai‘i, he, like many Micronesian migrants, has experienced ongoing hardship, prejudice, and marginalization. She writes, “This is a larger problem with the way the dominant society in Hawai‘i today fails to value fully Oceanic knowledge and even the ocean itself.” Elleen Eoreni, however, represents an effort to fix this problem by honoring the exchange of knowledge that brought two cultures together decades ago. Kahapea-Tanner, who worked closely with Mau as a young navigator, cautions: “Now that Mau has passed away, we cannot forget about his people. There needs to be some kind of reciprocation from our community to his.”

JNS_8229On January 10, the day of Elleen Eoreni’s launch, Plasito was honored in a traditional ‘awa ceremony. Children splashed in the water and people shared food and dance as the canoe rested quietly in the shallows. Earlier in the day, the project team hooked the canoe to a trailer and visited a mural of Papa Mau in Kaka‘ako. “As I turned the corner and saw the canoe next to his portrait, I was overwhelmed. I was crying!” Kekahuna-Baisa recounts with a laugh. Mau’s presence was felt throughout the day, strongest, perhaps, when Elleen Eoreni slid into the turquoise water for the first time. The mo‘oku‘auhau of Elleen Eoreni thus weaves across the ocean from Hawai‘i to Micronesia and across generations from Papa Mau to his son Plasito. These genealogies, embodied in a small, single-hull canoe, serve as a reminder that island peoples are connected through a deep, oceanic wisdom.

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