The Hōkūle‘a (“Star of Gladness”), Hawai’i’s famous voyaging canoe, recently left Salem, after porting here for a couple of days. Fueled by a passion for sharing a message about Mālama Honua, a concept that loosely translates from Hawaiian into English that means “Caring Together for Island Earth,” she has sailed over 170,000 nautical miles since 1975. At 62 feet long and 20 feet wide, the Hōkūle‘a is a performance-accurate deep sea voyaging canoe built in the tradition of ancient Hawaiian wa‘a kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoes, thousands of years old). She’s been on a global journey for the past three years, traversing 26,000 miles of ocean by wayfinding — navigating by stars and the observation of nature. No GPS. No compass. No sextants. Knowledge of stars, waves and other elements in nature guide the way. With one more year to go, this is epic.
Theirs is a story about courage and strength — physical, yes — but also cultural and spiritual fortitude. In the 1970s, Herb Kawainui Kane (1928–2011), PEM’s longtime artist-friend, had a dream about rebuilding an ocean-going canoe similar to the ones his ancestors had sailed 600 years prior. He shared his vision, founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society and with a very committed group of like-minded individuals from varied cultural backgrounds and professions, together they built the vessel (based on Herb’s design), and from there, learned how to sail and navigate the ocean without any modern instruments.
In 1976, Hōkūle‘a sailed to Tahiti. As shared on their website hokulea.com, “When Hōkūle‘a arrived at the beach in Pape‘ete Harbor [Tahiti], over half the island’s people were there, more than 17,000 strong, and there was a spontaneous affirmation of what a great heritage we shared and also a renewal of the spirit of who we are today.” Navigation traditions that began then continue to be revitalized. And, at the same time, Hawaiian language, dance, chant and other expressions of Native Hawaiian culture are also being realized. In this vein, members of the crew raise awareness of Polynesian maritime culture and ocean conservation as they circumnavigate the entire globe, by exchanging stories, culture and song.
Salem’s connection to Hawai’i and other islands in the Pacific extend back more than 200 years. The Peabody Essex Museum has world-renowned holdings collected in Hawai‘i, beginning in 1799 by sea captains of Salem trading ships through today. We house about 3,000 Native Hawaiian objects, in our collection of more than 22,000 items from the Pacific Islands. Salem and Hawai‘i share some common links, including families from this part of New England who developed close trade and personal ties with families in Hawai‘i. Included in this list is a prominent Salemite, Stephen Henry Phillips, who served as Attorney General for the Kingdom of Hawai‘i under King Kamehameha V from 1866 to 1873.
So, when members of the Salem community greeted the Hōkūle‘a at Salem’s Central Wharf two weeks ago, horns were blaring, flags were flying, and loud rounds of “Huzzah!!” were shouted from those of us on land greeting the vessel. In response, the crew of the Hōkūle‘a blew their conch shells because in the Native Hawaiian tradition, one doesn’t travel into unknown territory without a clear message of welcome. After the crew docked, they chanted in Hawaiian before coming onto the land. This is an important cultural protocol they’ve explained, in part, as the crew’s formal expression of gratitude for the local hospitality and also in recognition of ancestral ties across time and space.
While we are all, in fact, living embodiments of our ancestors, bringing that cultural value to the fore really resonated. For me, at that moment of call-and-response, thousands of years of history collapsed and coalesced with the present. And that time-travel element of past-meets-present continued the next day when we all went behind-the-scenes at PEM. As curator of the collection, I was lucky enough to spend the morning with the crew in storage, looking at mostly 19th century objects from their home communities. We looked at a variety of objects, mostly from Hawai’i, including fish hooks, a gourd container, a feather cape, a woven mat and more.
I selected about 25 artworks of the highest quality, many of which had been on exhibition previously, but won’t be on view again for a few more years when we mount a new installation of the collection. Embedded in all of these objects I selected are complex histories of power dynamics, creativity and knowledge.
A book of kapa (bark cloth) samples collected by Captain James Cook during one of his three voyages to the Pacific is a rich case in point. Captain Cook was the first European to arrive in Hawai’i in 1778, having circumnavigated the globe on a voyage of discovery — a quest that lasted from 1760 to his death in 1779 — seeking to explore and document new lands, plants, animals, people and their cultural traditions. Cook’s crew collected about 2,000 items of significance, and museums and private collectors were eager to acquire these new “curiosities.”
Our Captain Cook “sample” book contains about 40 small swatches of kapa, a papery cloth made from the fibrous inner bark of the paper mulberry tree. It clothed Hawaiians for generations before Westerners arrived in the Islands, and was also used as blankets and in religious rituals. A time-honored artform that continues today, kapa is pounded into long sheets that are often covered in intricate stamped or dyed patterns, with varying textures, colors and thickness. This sample book is more than sampling — it’s a veritable visual feast so palpably connected to the maker and her creativity and mad skills. At the same time, I can’t help but also connect this swatch book to its collector, Captain James Cook, whose discovery of Hawai’i brought about irreversible changes to the Hawaiian people, including the near-loss of language, land and religion. And yet. And yet there I stood with living proof of resiliency. With descendants of this brutal trauma who know themselves through the art they still know and make, language they still speak, sing and teach, and the knowledge of their forebears that brought them to this day. By sailing to Salem by the stars. Epic doesn’t begin to cover it.
Cat Fuller, a member of the crew, wrote a fantastic blog post about her experience with the objects at PEM “Touching the Past”. Cat explains firsthand the personal impact of handling these treasures, so many miles from home. Indeed, my belief, my manaʻo, is that the personal connection of people to objects helps to maintain them as a part of the living culture. These connections feed each other, suspending time and sustaining relationships beyond oceans.