Na'alehu Anthony discusses his documentary about traditional Polynesian open sea canoeing and its significance to the revitalization of Hawaiian culture. [29:47]
Na'Alehu Anthony: Papa Mau is a gentleman from the atoll of Satawal in Micronesia. He was an extraordinary wayfinder, an extraordinary navigator, and he had the foresight to come to Hawaii to help in the process of Hawaiians, and therefore Polynesians, relearning non-instrument navigation in the '70s.
Jo Reed: That was Na'alehu Anthony, he was talking about Mau Piailug who was the subject of Anthony's documentary Papa Mau:The Wayfinder.
Welcome to Arts Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works.
I'm your host Josephine Reed.
During the 1970s, a small group of Hawai'ians formed the Polynesian Voyaging Society with the goal of building a canoe in the ancient style. Their dream was to sail the double-hulled canoe, named Hokule'a from Hawaii to Tahiti using traditional navigation..... the stars, the wind, and the sea. The problem was they were missing a critical piece: the ancient art of navigation was lost in Hawaii. To recreate the ocean paths recounted in oral traditions, the Hawaiian sailors turned to a man from the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia. Mau Piailug or Papa Mau was a wayfinder. He held the secrets to open sea canoe navigation and he was eager to share them.
He agreed not only to serve as navigator on the maiden voyage of the Hokule'a from Hawaii to Tahiti but he became a teacher and mentor to Hawaiians who wanted to reclaim this heritage. That union of navigator and canoe had a tremendous impact not just in Hawaii but across the Pacific, generating an interest in the ancient art of boat building and navigation as far away as New Zealand. It had awakened such pride and interest in Hawaiian culture that the period became known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. And It also demonstrated that the Pacific Islands could have been deliberately colonized by people arriving from the west, giving the people of the islands a sense of their ancient forebearers, the original voyagers.
Na'alehu Anthony 's film Papa Mau:The Wayfinder. documents the lasting legacy and central role of navigator Mau Piailug, in the revival of the art of traditional voyaging and the subsequent reawakening of cultural pride throughout Polynesia. His film traces the thirty years of interaction between Papa Mau and his Hawaiian students and contains extraordinary footage from the 1976 maiden voyage of the Hokule'a .
I spoke with Na'alehu Anthony at a viewing of his documentary, at the All Roads Film Festival which is a project of National Geographic. All Roads provides a platform for the work of indigineous filmmakers from around the world.
I began our conversation by asking Na'alehu to recall the cultural displacement felt by many Hawaiians in the 1970s.
Na'Alehu Anthony: I think that when you look at many native cultures in the Pacific, specifically Hawaii, you see this degradation of all these things that had come the previous hundreds years. So, in the '70s Hawaiian language was outlawed in schools for almost a hundred years, which meant that there was this generational loss of all of these things that were passed on orally, because the language had been smothered. And so when there's this reawakening of things people are having to look in different places to find this stuff. So, there were all of these fights, if you will, for different native rights, land rights, language rights, the right to just be Hawaiian. And so now it's turned the Hawaiian Renaissance, but you see these, I think, these pillars that came back, song and chant, the asserting land rights, as well as, wanting to relearn some of these traditional knowledges which voyaging is a huge component.
Jo Reed: Herb Kane, one of the founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society said that canoes are central to Polynesian culture.
Na'Alehu Anthony: It was Herb Kane.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Absolutely. Without these ocean-going vessels, we would have never connected all these dots that's Polynesia and Micronesia and Melanesia. So you had to have, the metaphor is that the canoe can only go somewhere if the canoe has eyes, which is the navigator. So they're paired together.
Jo Reed: The canoe that we're talking about, we're not talking about a kind of European canoe, it's a Hawaiian canoe. And that's very particular. Can you give us a visual description of that?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Sure. In the '60s and '70s, there was a lot of research going on, some of it particularly by Herb Kane to look at all the different designs of canoes that had existed all throughout Polynesia. And he had looked at early drawings that Cook's voyages had produced and they had looked at all these different pieces of what was left of this canoe culture. And so what he ended up drawing as the marine architect for the actual building of Hokule'a was 62 foot by 20 foot performance accurate replica of what would have existed 600 years prior in these large voyages that had gone on between Hawaiian and Tahiti and Micronesia.so there's two hauls with a deck in between. There's two sails capable of holding maybe 13 or 14 people on board and having enough food and water for 30 plus days of open ocean sailing.
Jo Reed: Now, I was really surprised at how important doing the research, finding out, and rebuilding that canoe, how important that was to a resurgence of Hawaiian culture.
Na'Alehu Anthony: I think that when you look at all of the pieces of culture that were lost by that point, and the fact that we were almost fully colonized into this Western mindset, that not only did the canoe provide an actual image of how our people got there, but it proved that these people were very, very sophisticated and could do these unthinkable tasks of taking a canoe in open ocean for 2500 miles and pulling land out of the sea. And so it wasn't just this visible character that you could see, and touch, and feel, but it changed the way Hawaiians felt about themselves because of these acts that had been done a thousand years before.
Jo Reed: And traditional navigation, which uses the sea, and the stars, and the wind?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Traditional navigation being anything that you have available to you in your natural environment that you can read. So, as you train for it, you can start to read the swells and understand that there are islands out there that are refracting swells. You can start to read the wind and know what the dominant wind pattern is going to be. And then also obviously the stars, the celestial bodies that are going to give you very detailed clues as to what direction you are going and where land is.
Jo Reed: And in fact, in Hawaii this was a lost art. And it was you had to go to Micronesia to find somebody who still, it seems like some miracle, retained this.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Very much so there were these large pieces missing in the fabric of what canoe culture had been. And that had disappeared in the last hundred, or hundred and fifty years. And so one of the large pieces that was missing was non-instrument navigation. And it was a miracle that there was someone so young who was willing to take this piece of knowledge, and take it outside his family, and place it in the hands of others. Because that wasn't traditionally done.
Jo Reed: Outside his family? Outside his island.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Outside his family, outside his island. Outside of his culture. And he paid for that when he went home.
Jo Reed: And that was Papa Mau?
Na'Alehu Anthony: That was Mau, yeah. That was Mau. People weren't happy with that, that he had given this knowledge somewhere else. But he had his reasons.
Jo Reed: Why do you think he did decide to impart this knowledge outside of family island, his own culture?
Na'Alehu Anthony: I heard from many people as to why he chose to do that. And I asked him that in the interview sets that we did in Satawal in 2005. And his primary motivation was that he's a very astute observer. That's what navigation is. And he could see around the corner of what was coming when it came to Westernization in his islands. And that there was a religion flowing through and there was this new economy flowing through and that was going to bring Western goods and services and a cash economy, which would change the construct of this collective, to this individualistic economy, which changes the whole idea of how you do what you do every day. And that he knew that navigation would wane in his island and it had to be planted somewhere else so that it could persist past it being lost in his island group. And so he wanted to make sure that it would move forward at any cost. And so that meant that he took it outside of the family, outside of the island, and put it somewhere where people would embrace it.
Jo Reed: Herb Kane , Shorty Bertelmann, Ben Finney and others built the Hokule'a; They were looking for looking for a traditional navigator. How did they find papa Mau?
Na'Alehu Anthony: It's kind of this bizarre story. It was one of the stories that was just meant to be. Mau had taken a job, it's my understanding, Mau had taken a job on a fishing boat teaching fishermen how he fished traditionally. And that they were merging this Western concept of how they fished. And he was in Honolulu at one of the docks in port while they were taking on supplies. And there had been a Peace Corp worker who Ben Finney and Herb Kane knew, who had lived in Satawal with Mau. And so they were looking around for a Polynesian navigator, they Finney and Herb Kane, and they couldn't find anybody in all of Polynesia. They're searching all these small atolls. And somehow word got back to this Peace Corp worker and he said, "Oh, I know a navigator. His name is Mau Piailug. He's down at the docks." And so they went to go and talk to him. And my understanding is that just the ferocity of his character led them to believe that he would be a great candidate to help them in this quest to take this canoe to Tahiti.
Jo Reed: So, in 1976 he's the navigator as this boat, as the boat that they built, Hokule'a, sails from Hawaii to Tahiti, how many miles is this?
Na'Alehu Anthony: It's roughly 2500 miles and it was 30 days. And by all accounts everyone is in agreement that he rarely slept. The issue of navigation is memorizing where you came from to know where you are. And so if you sleep, then you have a little piece of missing information. Those three hours that you slept you don't know exactly how far you went, or exactly what direction you were going. And because it was a novice crew, Mau said that he was really nervous so he would sleep much less than he normally would, so that he could keep track of all the direction and all the miles to make sure that he was accurate.
Jo Reed: And in a lot of ways it wasn't a happy voyage.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Yeah. Yeah.
Jo Reed: There was conflict between scientists, who were typically not Hawaiians, and Hawaiians, who were there for cultural reasons not scientific pursuit.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Mm-hm. It was a very early lesson that I think voyages subsequent to that had to take into account, that the goal had to be one single goal. And that on this voyage there were two separate goals I think. In a scientific strains of wanting to know how many calories people were burning, and whether or not this was possible to make it just like it was a thousand years prior, and that there were these native Hawaiians onboard who saw this as this reawaking of a pathway that would give them, not only cultural pride, but would start to build these bonds back that existed in the Pacific as one nation. And that those two goals are fine to have when you're separate doing your own thing, but as you get onto one canoe for 30 days, one is going to push into the other as you go. And it's hard to be on a boat for 30 days anyway,
Jo Reed: I want to shift focus now and talk about your project. We're here because you made a film, Papa Mau:The Wayfinder. Let's talk about the origins of that film. How did you come to this project?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Okay. That's a good question. I'm a crew member on board the canoes. So, I've sailed with Hokule'a for many years. And so I knew about this story for a long time. What I do in my filmmaking role is a lot of times I'll do oral histories and just capturing stories that are in or around our community that maybe people haven't had the opportunity to pass onto others. So, that would be one of our major initiatives in the filmmaking aspect. We came together one night at dinner and starting talking about just doing an oral history with him to get his thoughts about what 30 years of this relationship that had built with Hawaii and Micronesia through him was like, and what he thought it did, and how it may have changed either of the cultures from his perspective. So that sent us on this 6-year journey to make the film that we came up with.
Jo Reed: What brought you to film? And documentary film on top of that?
Na'Alehu Anthony: The canoe. I was a crew member first. I was a crew member before I was a filmmaker. And it was just this really interesting set of circumstances. I hadn't intended it that way. I didn't go to film school. I still haven't gone to film school. But what it allowed me to do in an edit and evoke emotion from a viewer and find all of these things that you can do in the medium that you can't do anywhere else, I think is what took me there.
Jo Reed You are, aside from being a documentary filmmaker, also a voyager, which I would imagine, gave you access to him. So, he was willing, perhaps, to talk to you on film where he might not in other circumstances?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Right. The process, any time you engage an elder in this process of capturing a story, there's always a bit of relationship building that has to be done. I was fortunate in that he knew who I was and he knew that I was part of the canoe family so that broke down a bunch of barriers, but, you still go through this process. When he was in town in Honolulu for his diabetes treatment he would stay for a month, maybe a month and a half at a time. So, I'd call the house that he was staying at and ask if I could come by. And I would just come and bring him fish, and poi, and some drink. And he'd always want something that he's not supposed to have like juice or anything with sugar in it. And I'd come and we'd just talk. And we'd talk and talk about anything. And then I waited for him to ask, "Well when we are going to start shooting interviews?" And, "When are we going to start to have these conversations on tape?"
Jo Reed: And that's how you moved forward from that point on?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Yeah. There's all these kind of bridges you cross in the process that in that initial conversation I hadn't really thought of until we started to come upon it. Something simple, like his English was really good, but do you interview someone in his best capacity to be eloquent in English? Or do you allow him to choose and speak his native language is Satawalese. And so when we got there to this bridge, I thought, no we should ask him, we should see, and he wanted to do it in Satawalese, so that meant we had to have somebody translating as we went, which we figured out. And the next question became, well, where would you want to interview him to make him most comfortable and set the scene that would be most representative of what he's talking about. And so that meant going to Satawal which opens up a whole nother set of questions as you kind of move forward.
Jo Reed: The original voyage was in 1976, and you use footage from that voyage in your film. Where did you get that?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Oh my goodness! One of the Hawaiians who was the first crew member, who is still a crew member, who is one of my dear friends, in 2007 we were sailing on Hokule'a to Satawal to honor Mau. And he and I were on the same watch. He was my watch captain and it was the two to six watch. So two in the morning to six in the morning. Not a lot to do. You're mostly staring and you're not doing any maintenance. It's nighttime. You're quiet. But you talk a lot. And so I was telling him about this project and this documentary and we knew each other, but you get to be really good friends on these kind of experiences, 40 days of sailing. And in the middle of it he said, "Oh, you know, I shot a bunch of eight millimeter film footage on the voyage. Would you like to use it?" And I just licking my chops thinking like, "Well, sure. How much of it did you shoot? Does it exist? Where is it?" He says, "When we get home I'll get you the box," right. And so true to form, we're home a week and he brings me this old, dusty, crusty box that hadn't been opened since the '70s. And he'd shot 32 or 33 eight millimeter film reels on a little handheld eight millimeter camera that he had only watched after he had it developed and then put it away. It had never been transferred. It had never been on any envelopes. He had the original letter that he sent to Kodak when he had it developed. And I just couldn't wait to see it. I took it to the place that would do it in Hawaii and they transferred everything. And then we started looking at it and it was just this treasure trove of all these images of these early guys, and early footage, and them building things, and fishing, and doing all this other stuff. And so that became the real thread that I could use to tell the early story. Initially, we didn't know how far back we'd have to go, nor could we go that far back without the images, so.
Jo Reed: That was amazing.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Yeah. Some really amazing stuff.
Jo Reed: Because you have the original footage, we get to see the Hokule'a arrive in Tahiti in 1976…and what a reception it received!
Na'Alehu Anthony: Right. Just unbelievable reception. I think it was more than three quarters of the whole island showed up.
Jo Reed: Seventeen thousand people.
Na'Alehu Anthony: There's all these photos from the top of the mass looking down where all you can see is a sea of people. You can't see any water. And for Tahitians too, it was like this dream had come true and this bond was being forged that these unintended consequences of what would become this voyaging movement to relearn and reignite that fire.
Jo Reed: But, it wasn't particularly happy for Mau. He was very disappointed in his crew.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Yeah. I alluded to it earlier. There's an ethic onboard the canoe. There's a way you behave when you're at sea, in that you are putting each other's lives in each other's hands. And that you have to have that bond of family before you can go to sea successfully. And they didn't have that. They were coming from two different schools of thought, the crew. And as things got tumultuous, Mau was worried that that would jeopardize the voyage and therefore each others' lives. And that's not how you behave. It's an ethic thing. And so he said that he didn't want to participate going home and he left.
Jo Reed: That must have been quite a blow for the crew members.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Absolutely. It's not something that people talk about. If you look at it in the film, the way we handled it, it was because every interview that we sort of to broach the subject of why he left and what happened on board, people were very selective about what they talked about. And we tried not to open old wounds with crew members, but you have to address that he left in order to know how important it was that he came back. So, you had to address it in the film, you couldn't just gloss over it.
Jo Reed: But by 1980, Papa Mau has came back, but as a teacher now of traditional navigation.
Na'Alehu Anthony: He wanted to make sure that he planted this seed somewhere else, but that wasn't initially how it was going to work out because he didn't have any students. And that when he came back, then he could really engage some of these Hawaiians as students. And luckily there were those who were just waiting for him to come back. Shorty Bertelmann from the big island who was just, he has the bite of the film. He was just so excited that he could finally learn from somebody and he said it was like having an ancestor you could finally talk to. That explains the whole thing.
Jo Reed: Well in 1980, the Hakula's makes another voyage to Tahiti with Mau's student Naimoa Thompson as the navigator. It was so interesting that when this voyage was completed, it really helped reignite an entire revival of Hawaiian culture. Language, art, music, chants.
Na'Alehu Anthony: You see that in 30 years later now, where the traditional chants that are being used are chanted by crew members. That there are crew members who will run a watch all in Hawaiian, that you will have all of these pieces of culture that had been kind of isolated to go, "Oh, this is your piece of culture that you're going to work on. And this is your piece of culture." But now they're all setting to sum together on these larger projects where we see the usefulness and how it must've engaged people many hundreds of years ago to thread it all together.
Jo Reed: Let's fast-forward, it's 2001, the 25th anniversary of the original sail and Shorty Bertelmann, who had been on that first sail and his brother Clay, both students of Mau, decide to build a traditional canoe as a gift to Mau.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Clay had been talking about it for years. And Clay had built his own canoe to service the big island and the people there to engage their students in navigation and that the canoes, in terms of what they represented culturally, as well as what they represent strictly visually, were so powerful that he wanted to provide a cultural icon that Mau could use to help reignite what was going on in Micronesia and help teach. So, they went on that process to build that canoe for Mau.
Jo Reed: Clay, unfortunately passed away before the canoe was completed, but the canoe was completed. And it was sailed to Satawal. And I have a sneaking suspicion you were on that boat.
Na'Alehu Anthony: I was. I was. I sailed 45 days through Micronesia.
Jo Reed: What an experience that must have been for you, because talk about wearing two hats. Clearly you had to be a crew member, but at the same time you're also being a filmmaker.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Yeah. It's probably the most difficult dual role that we have onboard the canoe, because you see people working and you're automatic thought is to go and help in the work. But then you're stuck just documenting people sitting around if you're always working. So you have to find that balance and make it okay with yourself. And then explain it to other crew members that the shooting is part of the work and at the fruits of those labors will help to resonate the values of the canoe set much further out than just the 13 people on board.
Jo Reed: Were the people on board very accepting of this?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Pretty much. They're all my friends. They're people that I spend time with on and off the canoe, and they're my family, and so they understand that we're working on these projects and it was important to document. I think that the fact that I finally finished and that they get to see the fruit of the labor is going to make it a lot easier for me moving forward in subsequent voyages because they know that we're going to finish. They know that we're capturing good images for the sake of making this story more viable for more communities.
Jo Reed: Forty-five days using traditional navigation. What was that like?
Na'Alehu Anthony: Can I tell you just a short story?
Jo Reed: Please, do.
Na'Alehu Anthony: These islands, they're not islands that you see in Polynesia Proper. They're very, very small. The highest thing on the island is a coconut tree. The target we're looking for is a mile long by half a mile wide Satawal, right. And there's no other islands around it. So, really quickly, if you're looking for Hawaii you have the big island, which is 13,000 feet high, and this massive amount of land. So your target is a lot larger because you can see it from so far away. Satawal, the textbook says you can only see it from nine miles away. And the navigator on Hokule'a was one of Mau's students, Nainoa Thompson. And it's only, I think it's less than 300 miles. But it's a very small target to hit, and so you have to be very accurate and sure enough it was like the final test for these guys, right. They've been all over the Pacific. They found Rapa Nui and all these places, but this is the final test, you're coming home to see your teacher. And as we set out to sea, this storm comes up behind us, it's this massive storm. It's the best storm footage I've ever gotten on any of the voyages. Just came down. It's the high wind. And it sat on us for a couple of days. And so your wind patterns are messed up. Your ocean patterns are messed up. And we couldn't even see the sun rising it was so dark. So, you don't have any other visual clues that you would normally have in trying to find these islands. And this is a small target. And so he had to, I know he had to feel his way there, he had to do his best and use all the things he's learned the 30 years prior to going to bring this canoe home to see his teacher. And I mean you wouldn't even believe it unless you were there, but he brought this island up right between the two hulls. He was dead-on. It wasn't like he was sailing by and there it is on the side off the starboard. It was right between the two hulls. It was the most amazing thing I've ever felt. That he didn't need those clues anymore. He had now graduated into this other realm of how to navigate.
Jo Reed: That's amazing. And you presented.
Na'Alehu Anthony: We presented this canoe.
Jo Reed: You presented the canoe. But then there was a ceremony. The ceremony of pwo, in which people are made master navigators, it's like the mantle is passed on. Now was there any issue about filming that?
Na'Alehu Anthony: There was a Nat Geo crew there. They were hanging out. And that's a much longer story. But at that point, I was coming back, right. I had already shot there previously a couple years prior, so I knew everybody. And I still went through the process and I asked Mau if I could shoot. And he said, "Yes, of course." I think he wanted it documented as much as possible because this ceremony hadn't happened on Satawal, except for the last time when Mau was brought in as a navigator, right. So, this is a very rare event. It doesn't happen every week. It doesn't happen every decade. It was 50 years prior on Satawal that it had been done. And he wanted to make sure that it was captured, to at least put on video, what it looked like and what it was. So, yeah. So, they did this whole pwo ceremony and it's not only the actualization of being able to physically navigate, but it's being a light, or a beacon, or a leader, in your community. That's there's much more depth than just, okay you're a navigator, you can go out to sea and find these islands.
Jo Reed: Well, it's about the responsibility of, the way I saw it was you're also given the responsibility as keeper of this knowledge and the responsibility of making sure this knowledge is preserved and passed down.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Absolutely. He's basically first and foremost charging them that have to be teachers. This knowledge has been passed down for arguably 3000 years to him through his grandparents, and the grandparent before that, and before that. And he's standing there at the edge of this cliff looking around. Who's he going to pass it on to? And that this ceremony says formally to these individuals, "You are now charged with this. You're standing on the cliff and you have to find the next set students to make sure that this is an unbroken chain."
Jo Reed: And what do you want people to take away from this film?
Na'Alehu Anthony: If they can take away that one person can make a difference and change the trajectory of a whole culture, then imagine the power of what we do if we work together.
Jo Reed: Spoken like a true crew member. Na'Alehu, thank you so much. It was a wonderful film.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Thank you very much.
Na'Alehu Anthony: Aloha.
Jo Reed: Aloha.
That was Na'alehu Anthony, he was talking about his film Papa Mau: The Wayfinder.
Papa Mau died of complications from diabetes on July 12, 2010.
You've been listening to Artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpts from Holua from the CD The Legend, performed by National Heritage Fellow Ledward Kaapana, used courtesy of Rhythm and Roots Records
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