Navigation & Wayfinding in Hawai'i

Posted by Staff Writer on Monday, June 7th, 2021 at 12:17pm

Wayfinding and navigation are some of the essential parts of the Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures. Polynesian voyagers were one of the first people to travel long distances in early ages, so navigation was crucial and an integral part of places like Hawaii's historical and cultural heritage. 

"Before the invention of the compass, the sextant and clocks, or more recently, the satellite-dependant Global Positioning System (GPS), Pacific Islanders navigated open-ocean voyages without instruments, using instead their observations of the stars, the sun, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues to direction and location of a vessel at sea," Hokule' 

 As recently as 50 years ago, the deep knowledge of navigation and wayfinding had been forgotten almost everywhere. The modernization and influx of foreigners in Hawaiian land made it challenging to perpetuate Hawaiian practices like navigation. 

 Nainoa Thompson is one of the leading modern-day Polynesians to revive the practice of wayfinding and lead open-ocean voyages across the Pacific. He was a Wayfinder on significant expeditions on the Hokule'a in 1980 and 1985-87. He began teaching students of wayfinding all across Polynesia in 1992 and continues to perpetuate it today!

With famous efforts throughout Hawai'i like the Hokulea and the Polynesian Voyaging Society, navigation and wayfinding have been re-learned and become a fundamental component of the regeneration of Native Hawaiian knowledge. 

We spoke with Dr. Roy R. Gal, Associate Astronomer at the Institute for Astronomy, the University of Hawai'i at Manoa, to understand the significance of navigation in Hawai'i.

What is the significance of the history of navigation in Hawaii?

Dr. Gal: Celestial navigation and astronomy are inextricably linked but also separate. Without navigation, the islands of Hawaii would not be inhabited. All of the Pacific - Polynesia, Micronesia, Hawaii, and more - required navigation. 

With celestial navigation (and other tools like reading the waves, understanding bird behavior, winds, etc.), the Polynesian voyagers traveled across much larger distances and much earlier than Europeans. So navigation was essential and is an integral part of the historical and cultural heritage of Hawaii. There is great info about it on the PVS website

How does the study of stars and navigation coexist?

Celestial navigation requires a thorough understanding of traditional astronomy - the apparent motions of the night sky, how the stars visible to us change with latitude, etc. Voyagers had an incredible mastery of this knowledge - I would say more than just about any professional astronomer today! 

We are used to using computers and looking things up in databases; they had this information stored mentally and could visualize their location on Earth using it.

Where could people go to learn more about the history of navigation and astronomy in Hawaii?

Dr. Gal: For navigation, the Polynesian Voyaging Society website is excellent. If you want in-person visits, PVS has activities and workshops. The ʻImiloa Astronomy Center in Hilo has wonderful exhibits on both voyaging and astronomy, and there is, of course, Bishop Museum. 

We at the Institute for Astronomy (IfA) host public events, like our Mānoa and Maui Open Houses, AstroDay in Hilo, and public talks and celestial event viewings (once COVID restrictions are eased). These are posted on our website and our Facebook and Twitter feed (@UHIfA). 


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