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Herb Kane | Ask the Experts | Pose Your Question

SpacePortrait by Herb Kawainui Kane
Portrait by Herb Kawainui Kane.

Painter and author discusses the recreated Polynesian canoe Hokule'a and Pacific Islander culture in the following interview. To listen to it, you will need to download RealPlayer.

Q: Can you tell us why it was important to build the sea-faring canoe Hokule'a? Why is the canoe important to young Hawaiians today?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Many Hawaiians, at first, did not understand why it was important. But once they saw the canoe and especially once they had an opportunity to sail on it, it became important to them. It was like a sudden revelation. It was like a sudden contact with their own ancestry, their past. And this has been the case whereever Hokule'a has gone. It has evoked the same kind of response from Polynesians.

Q: What other aspects of Hawaiian culture are connected with the canoe? Are there elements that have been revived by interest in Hokule'a?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) One of the interesting things about Hokule'a is that it, I feel, acted as a stimulus to the general revival of Hawaiian culture. The renaissance that was going on at the time and is still going on, generally quite quietly. And I think the reason is because the canoe was central to the culture. Everything else really relates to the canoe. So the canoe, the voyaging canoe lies at the heart of the web of Polynesian culture. Obviously, because if it were not for the canoe, the culture would not exist, nor the people. And people began to understand this. If they didn't understand it intellectually, they began to understand it intuitively, that the canoe lay at the heart of the cultural web. And this is one reason why they took the canoe so immediately to their hearts. And since that it was important, [since it] had an importance that could not really be put in to so many words, it has been described as a symbol. It's described as a symbol of the mutuality of all Polynesian peoples, as a symbol of their common origins and their common ancestry. And this provides a sort of an emotional glue that brings the people together. So the canoe has been a vehicle in that regard, too. Not just in its ordinary business as a sailing vessel. We see it in the context of the Polynesian culture as a space ship. You could really call it the space ship of our ancestors, because with it, they made explorations that were, in the context of their culture, just as staggering as our efforts to go to the moon and other planets today.

Q: How were Pacific Islanders different from people who lived in other parts of the world?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) The Polynesians were the first deep water sailors, open ocean sailors. They accepted the ocean as their world. Europeans and Chinese were coastal sailors primarily, because they did most of their sailing with the friendly presence of a continent on their beam. They always knew where land was. Until the time of the Vikings, no other sailors in the world really ventured far out of sight of land. And even the voyages of the Vikings were quite short by comparison with the voyages of the Polynesians. So there's a great difference in attitude between sailing with continents, along the edges of continents, exploring along the edges of continents, or cutting across from one continent to another, as in the Indian Ocean. There's a great difference between that and sailing from island to island across the largest ocean in the world.

Q: It's thought that the Polynesians developed a portable agricultural system. How do we know that? What does that tell us about their purpose for voyaging?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Well, we know that they had. We know that they had developed a horticulture [that] enabled them to carry plants across great distances, and [we also know that they had developed a system] simply because the plants were there when Europeans arrived. The sweet potato was widely distributed throughout Polynesia for example, as were plants and animals of southeast Asian origin, widely distributed. And wherever those plants could survive, they were found. Why they voyaged -- now that must remain within the realm of speculation. And we don't have anything in our myths to tell us why. But so there we have to rely somewhat on the sciences of archeology and linguistics to point the way. They do point out a fairly good path -- leading back toward southeast Asia.

Q: How did the Polynesians know that they were going to need to bring plants with them?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) I think at a very early time in their explorations, when they were still in the Indonesian area, they learned that uninhabited lands did not grow the kinds of plants that they were accustomed to. The plants were as much a part of their culture as their tools and as their myths and traditions. So they had to take the plants with them along with their best tools, transporting by canoe all of those things that were needed to seed another Polynesian culture on an uninhabited island. At least 26 varieties of plants were brought to Hawaii from the South Pacific, [and they have] had to have been brought here. The coconut, sugar cane -- [neither] will float to Hawaii. And it's been proven by computer simulations that the currents between here and Tahiti are such that they could not arrive except by human agency. And now we know that this human agency arrived possibly as early as 100 A.D.

Q: When did you first hear stories or myths of Polynesian origin and voyaging?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) My father was a great storyteller, and he was born and raised in Waipio Valley on the island of Hawaii. And when I was a small boy, he took me down to the beach and told me the story of Moikeha, who had -- with his brother Olupana and their mutual wife Lu'ukea -- sailed to Tahiti of the Golden Haze many generations ago. And how Moikeha had returned and founded the dynasty back in Hawaii. And how his sons had sailed to the South Pacific and returned. It's a very well-known legend. And if you go back earlier than the legends, you get into the fabulous period of the myths. And those speak of voyaging, how the goddess Pele came to Hawaii from the South Pacific. And she came by canoe, a canoe led by her elder brother in the form of a shark. Many of these mythical elements have meanings [that] we have lost today, which doesn't mean that they're not history. It's just that we've lost the meanings. They symbolize things, and even if the meanings are gone, the symbols remain and tell us something about the people who made the myths. So myths are very important. Because they are the body of myths of a people, a self-portrait of that people. They tell you a great deal about the attitudes, the world view, the social structure, the culture of that people. One of the interesting things to me is how similiar the myths are around the world among all primal peoples, which shows that people are really very much alike. They've become different among modern people. Moderns make myths too. But the tendency today is not to concern ourselves with a mythology of the past, but to develop myths of the future.

Q: Looking back at the history, how do you perceive Captain James Cook in relation to other European explorers or missionaries who came to Hawaii?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) I think we're fortunate in one respect, and that is that Cook was a trained observer and he had trained observers with him. And among his men were several who were sympathetic to what they saw, empathetic to what they saw. And through artists like John Weber and through the writings of Samuel and King and Anderson -- unfortunately, Anderson died just before they arrived in Hawaii -- but through their eyes we have windows in which we can look at the original culture. These windows would have been shut to us completely had the first contacts been made by illiterate pirates or traders who were here just to scam the people and take what they could, and not make any record of it. [They would have changed] things, but not [made] a record of what was here before they made the changes. The unfortunate thing of course is that regardless of who came, they would have brought what Cook brought and that is tuberculosis, venereal disease and other diseases that devastated the population. [They devastated the population] to the point that when Vancouver, who was here as a midshipman with Cook, [a] young midshipman, where he came back thirteen years later as a captain of his own expedition, was appalled at the devastation that had gone on among the population.

Q: Do you have any thoughts on the idea that the Europeans stumbled upon Paradise and in discovering it, destroyed it?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) There was an inevitability about the contact. First of all, it was inevitable that the contact would have been made sooner or later. And secondly, it was inevitable that the contact would be vastly destructive to the Polynesians. Not just to the Polynesians, but to any primal peoples who came in contact with the modern culture. The primal culture could not withstand the modern culture. The primal culture depends very much on the status quo. Contact with Europeans shatters that status quo, and does so irrevocably. And along with it come the disease microbes, which destroy great numbers of people. So there was this inevitability about it.

Q: Why is it that the Europeans had such a hard time believing the stories they heard about how the Polynesians came to the islands?

A: (Listen in Real Audio) Many Europeans had difficulty believing that the Polynesians could have explored such a vast area. Polynesia is, after all, the size of North and South America combined, but it's mostly water. It was incredulous to most Europeans -- again, being continental peoples and originally continental, sailors of the fringes of continents. It was incredulous to them, rather incredible to them, that the Polynesians could have done this. Cook believed differently. Cook believed that they could do it. Cook saw enough about their seamanship and their navigation capabilities. He picked up a Tahitian navigator, Tupa'ia, and took him along with him until the poor fellow died in Batavia. But on all their travels throughout the South Pacific, whenever they would ask Tupa'ia, "Where is Tahiti?" Tuapaia would think for a moment and point, and he would always point in the direction of Tahiti. This astonished the British. And so Cook perceived that they did have an adequate system of navigation, but it was one that was home oriented rather than place oriented, as the modern navigation system was. One that did not depend on longitude, latitude and instruments.

There was a self confidence [that the Europeans had] when they went out to colonize the world, a self confidence because of their superior technology. A technology which had largely developed in Europe, although its origins may have been in the Far East. Their superior technology gave them a feeling of being innately superior. And this gave great self assurance and feeling of superiority that enabled them to over-awe, along with their technology, the primal peoples that they came in contact with. They were not ready to believe that this group of primal peoples, the Polynesians, had done this remarkable feat of exploring and settling this tremendous area of ocean. And so it was [that] they would -- being Eurocentric - they came up with Eurocentric answers to how it was done. So the idea of a sunken continent was one idea that was launched. Other ideas were launched. There was a great reticence, which still exists some today, to believe the Polynesians could have done what they did.