Application of Indigenous Science ~ Mo’o Kiha Canoe Project
My husband Keola is a Kahuna Kalai Wa’a or, a Medicine Man of the canoes. In 1975 he built the Mo’olele, the first ocean going, double hulled voyaging canoe made in more than 150 years. The re-creation of the big sailing vessels triggered a cultural renaissance in the islands. The hundred years of colonization, missionization and plantation life destroyed 90 to 95% of the Hawaiian population in less than one hundred years. The rapacity of conquest left scant opportunity for preserving or perpetuating traditional ways. When Keola decided to re-create the voyaging canoe, he had only a sketch by an 19 century French artist to go by. There were no surviving models of the canoes not Elders who had ever built or seen one. Yet without canoes there would be no Hawaiians for the canoe brought them to the islands and shaped both their characters and societies.
The word for canoe is, ‘Wa’a’. ‘Wa’ refers to a segment of time and ‘a’ is the name for the Sirius star system – the origin of Hawaiian people. Interestingly, when Elders Hale Makua of Hawaii and Dr. Erick Gbdossou of Benin met, they discovered that their diverse cultures have the exact same words for the most ancient aspects of the culture. Both refer to the companion star of Sirius by the same name! Yet, western science only identified this star in our generation.
A few years ago, Keola and I visited Bella Bella, an Indian Reserve on the west coast of Canada. There we met a man who had been a Mason and was an expert in sacred geometry. He mentioned a geometric ratio called, the Golden Mean or Phi Ratio and recommended, ‘Serpent in the Sky’ a book on Egyptian culture and mathematics. It took a while but eventually I found a copy (this was pre-internet). I will never forget what happened when I gave the book to my husband. It was about 10:30 at night, we were in bed reading when suddenly he spoke in a very intense voice. “Apela, I got it. Listen to this, if the Phi Ratio is the mathematical formula for how life expresses itself then probably the Ancient Hawaiians who lived on the seas and in nature would think like that too. They wouldn’t have called it Phi, they might not have called it anything at all but they would have thought that way. Just think. This could answer the questions we could not find out about in the design of Polynesian canoes. A fish is made according to Phi principles. If I could design a canoe and apply the Phi ratio in as many design aspects possible then it could be possible to create a canoe that would be a perpetual motion ‘machine’. Once it got under way and was sailing, it would surf its own wave and would require no energy to keep going! Oh, fantastic,’ he said, throwing off the covers and padding downstairs and outside to his shop to put together a scale model to see how the application of Phi would change the design of the canoes he had made twenty years earlier.
Three days later the model was done. It was sleek stunning and did indeed alter the shape of the canoe. We were in love with it but then sad reality hit. There were no trees left big enough to make such a canoe and even making it out of modern materials would cost more than one hundred thousand dollars. Who would fund such a project? In a few weeks, Keola packed up the small model and put it away. Nearly two years passed.
Keola and I went for a ceremony with my Oneida people. During that ceremony, he asked the Ancestors and the Morning Star, permission to help heal his people. Within a few weeks of our return, people started showing up, volunteering their skills, others brought wood one was even a canoe maker from the Coast of Canada. Our dream project – to build a massive double hulled voyaging canoe – one that would incorporate modern features within a completely traditional design allowing the vessel to pass U.S. Coast Guard regulations and which could sail independent of a support vessel (which Hawaiians don’t usually have) had begun!
We started where we were at which is the first principle of Indigenous Science – everything we need is present in the nature around us. We began the construction in the garage – shop outside our house. Keola had made the first canoe, the Mo’olele or flying lizard, there in 1975 but ‘place and spiritual power’ are important aspects of Indigenous Science too and our house is built on a sacred site. My husband’s Hawaiian family has lived adjacent to a pond sacred to the great lizard later known as the Kihawahine – the spirit woman of fresh water, genealogy and conception. As recently as the 1800’s thousands of people witnessed the last appearance of this 36 foot black lizard in the pond. Because fresh water is so crucial for ocean people, the Kihawahine was revered. To even drop a piece of litter near this pond was punishable by death. When the Europeans arrived, the trashing of the site began and the last Holy Guardian of the site conducted the ceremony to call the lizard – probably in an effort to keep Hawaiians strong and to convince the Europeans of the efficacy and power of Hawaiian spirituality. The lizard came and received the traditional offering of awa – a sacred herb drink. The lizard rolled around in the water with delight! But this did not stop the colonizers from diverting the flow of water from the pond to their sugar cane fields. Subsequently, they land filled the pond. Since that time, water shortages have become common, people have forgotten their identity and West Maui, described as the ‘Venice of the Pacific’ became the semi- arid land it is now.
We did not know it when we began but Keola’s shop was the perfect place. Despite no funds and very limited space, we began to build a 62.5 foot long double hulled voyaging canoe that would take the community and future generations of Hawaiians throughout Polynesia and around the world. The people would no longer be isolated from each other or the global community. They would pick up where their Ancestors had left off!
We’re building the Mo’okiha (the doubly powerful Kihawahine) canoe in a totally voluntary way. In the first six weeks, we had 3,000 volunteer hours. Imagine the excitement. Hawaii has the highest cost of living in the U.S. Most local people must work 2 jobs – all in the low paying tourist industry – the only employer on the island. Nothing like this has ever been seen, It isn’t only natives, we have tourists, people from every culture coming by to help, that’s how it’s catching on. Because of the unprecedented support, the State and the County turned over a small park, adjacent to the sacred pond and right on the ocean. The Kihawahine, fresh water spirit, is guiding and protecting us. She surely must. To get 13 acres of oceanfront property – some of the world’s most expensive real estate, would be impossible otherwise. As of today, we have
put 6,000 hours into the canoe- the hulls, one representing the male sun and the other the female moon are just about done. The bottom of the canoe hull is the ‘kua mo’o or backbone of the lizard. It also refers to a body of stars used in open ocean, non instrument navigating. Next we will start on the I’ako (the curvilinear supports that connect the two hulls and serve as a foundation for a central platform which is akin to the planet venus). As you can see, the canoe is not just a boat. The design embodies principles of star navigation, oral history and worldview and Polynesian worldview is very sophisticated.
Francis Warther, Hawaiian Archaeoastronomer, writes:
Where are we? Who are we? for the ancient Hawaiian, to answer the first question was to realize the answer to the second. The Ancient Polynesian considered a very select geographical area of our planet called the ‘Tropic Region’ almost entirely ocean – the largest in the world, a unique marinescape…. This region had a limit, 1600 miles north and 1600 miles south of the equator, called the “Navel of Wakea” and each half, the north called Kane, the south Kanaloa, WERE MIRROR IMAGES OF EACH OTHER IN TIME, SEASONS AND CALENDAR NAMES.
[Hawaiian Identity and the Tropic Skies, p.1 Warther, Francis]
Polynesia islands straddle the equator. The north and south regions are identical and opposite. Water, winds and weather move in opposite directions. Summer in the north is winter in the south. The canoe with it’s two hulls and central platform represent the tropic lines and the equator.
“Only within the Tropic property line limits will the sun climb to the Zenith (Lolopua) directly overhead twice a year for each Tropic island. The sun will be directly underfoot about twice a year at the nadir for each island.
This astronomical fact was the basis for the unity of Polynesian mythology and provided the cosmic connection, the imprinting as it were, of the Heavens to the Sea and its Islands. The belief of Mana, the cosmological generating power of life and renewal capable of infusing a person or thing with immortal sustenance, is I believe, directly connected to the position of place under Heaven and the primordial sea.
[Hawaiian Identity and the Tropic Skies, p.1 Warther, Francis]
These perceptions, singular to the members of the Tropic community have a profound influence on the thought process and values of the society and its regulatory rules….a distinct Polynesian logic has been shaped by this cosmic reality – that position in the world influences and directs ones concept of space and time and even more profoundly the logic of thought processes.
. [Hawaiian Identity and the Tropic Skies, p.4 Warther, Francis]
Roy Wagner shows how the canoe design emulates the inner workings of the ‘tropic philosopher’. “his apprehension of knowledge is dialectical rather than rationalistic.” The Polynesian philosopher creates and uses “ a tension of dialogue, like an alternation between two conceptions of viewpoints that are simultaneously contradictory and supportive of each other. As a way of thinking, a dialectic operates by exploiting contradictions, against a common ground of similarity rather than by appealing to consistency against a common ground of differences after the fashion of rationalistic or linear logic.”
Warther goes on to point out the limits of linear logic to resolve multi-faceted problems and notes that conflict resolution (Ho’oponopono) has been central to Hawaiian culture placing kin, community and leadership in a balanced relationship to cosmic and ecological cycles and who patterned their social, politic organization on what they saw as priorities of order of the astronomical heavens.
Warther concludes with the statement that the survival of humanity depends on our ability to become members of the “Tropic Club”. That is to respond adaptively to the “mental equations contained in the logic of non-linearity passed to us by the Ancient Hawaiian culture.”
As we build the canoe, we are also building identity. Elders like Francis Warther come to the new canoe Hale (house) to teach and to share their wisdom. Hawaiian Elder’s Auntie Mahilani Poepoe and Hale Makua stop by to offer cultural insights, encouragement and love. The more we work the more we are being integrated into the web of life – the Aloha of ancient Hawaii – and the more synchronicities occur. Two striking examples of this come to mind.
When Keola built the first canoes in the 1970’s he was fortunate to find the remains of a partially completed ancient canoe in an a shelter cave. The canoe was falling apart but to his trained eye, the aged pieces of wood were a university that told him how certain cuts were made, what lines to use and even answered critical design questions about ropes and how they were attached but some things could not be answered. Ancestors came to him in dreams. He would fall asleep with a design question and wake up in the morning knowing the answer. But some things could not be solved and he had to make an informed, ‘best guess’ – choices that haunted him. Keola had incorporated all the ancient design features he knew in his canoes. Often he was ridiculed as the features made no apparent sense. The Manu or upright tips at the ends of the hulls were a good example.
Keola and three other adults took a group of eight children out in the Mo’olele. Suddenly a 40 knot wind hit. Ocean swells rose to twenty feet – extremely dangerous. The canoe was moving so fast that she passed the crest of the wave and slid down into the trough. Water began pouring onto the hulls and pushing them down under the next wave. An ordinary canoe would sink in this situation. Suddenly the brilliance of the ancient design shone through. The curved, points of the Manu came slicing up through the waves bringing the rest of the hull along with it! The children and crew made it safe to shore and after that, no one ever again doubted the minds of their Ancestors.
Keola was determined to regain and incorporate even more of the traditional designs into the Mo’okiha and finding out about the Phi ratio provided a key to guide in the construction of elements where the traditional knowledge was absent. But what if this was not accurate? He posed this problem to Kauai archaeo-astronomer, Francis Warther who shocked us with his response. Not only did ancient Hawaiians know about Phi, but had built Malae, an entire pyramid dedicated to the teaching of both pi and phi. Warther then produced a diagram which he happened to have with him!
Incorporates the “cosmic proportion” of:
SIX = SPACE TIME and two = FEMALE
FIVE=CREATION Three = MALE
Six divided by Five equals 1.2
1.2 is Pi over Phi squared
Pi over Phi squared is 3.1416 over 1.618 squared
These two harmonic proportions drive the universe. Both are contained in the data bank of Malae.
Warther and Makua point out that the Malae also integrates astronomical information. In this case the site is oriented to the constellation Pegasus as well as heliacal rising and settings of various stars and planets.
Nearing the completion of the hulls raised the question of spacing. How close or far apart would the hulls have to be to conform to the Golden Ratio? Keola worked at this question in many ways including consulting with Elders. No one knew. We prayed and we worried. One day a young German man and wife stopped by the canoe house. They had lived in Fiji for six years because they were building a canoe and wanted to learn about traditional Polynesian canoe design. The Elders had refused to share their teachings so they built an essentially western canoe with obvious Polynesian design elements incorporated. They were very hurt and discouraged but sympathetic to the historic wounds which stood between themselves and the Fijians.
Keola, master canoe maker of Hawaii, shared openly with this young man as he does with all people but he also had a hunch. Sure enough. The next day, just hours before
departure for Europe, the German man appeared at our door. He confessed to Keola that as he prepared to leave Fiji an Elder took pity on him and passed on one traditional design secret. It was all this young man had and he wanted to keep it to himself. He said that after meeting Keola, and not sharing what he knew, that it kept him awake all night so he knew he had to pass on the information. What he said thrilled us – it was the ancient formula for joining the hulls and… it conformed to the Phi Ratio!
So this is a good example of the way Indigenous Science and the Ancestors work to help us when we dedicate ourselves to remembering who we are. Because colonialism is a global phenomenon, we find ourselves receiving guidance from diverse sources – books, guests from other countries, dreams, oral history – that is because our Ancestors always believed in sharing. This is another reason why gatherings such as Coumba Lamba are so important. As we meet, we begin to put together the pieces of the Great Knowledge that each of us has. In the Great Forgetting the Knowledge was disbursed so that no one tribe would have all of it and so that the only way to restore ourselves would be by coming together as was done in Ancient times.
Tonight at Coumba Lamba there will be a ceremony with water and your ancestors. It’s the same type of Spirit and way that has been guiding and empowering us. It is an African ceremony with it’s own unique cultural aspects but emanates from the same source. I encourage you to join us and to remember our indigenous science of relations, peace and Aloha – the turning of the face to God – our Ancestral Remembrance.
Choctaw Grandmother, Pokni, Mary Jones, will now close this session with a prayer.
Pokni Mary Jones
CONCLUSION; Grandmother’s Blessing
I can feel there’s something here, there’s power here. If it wasn’t the power and the Spirit’s power, we all wouldn’t be here. I am so glad that I know her (Apela). She don’t
know I know her but I do and I’ve been working with her for the last 11 years. It’s somebody I have never seen (before working together) and I didn’t even know who she was. But it was a dream that brought us together, it was a rock1 that brought us together, it was the Spirit.
A depiction of Marys Rock
I’m glad they did; I worked with her and worked with this indigenous science thing. I don’t know much about the science things, I’m not well-educated to know science, but I know my Choctaw science. So my science and Western science; we can compare and I still believe my science because things are just about the same – white people’s science and Native people’s science are just about the same thing. What I learned, I learned by spirit. I don’t learn from reading or nothing like that. I learn from traditional ways. So,
1 In 1990 I had a dream of a special rock. A few months later I visited Choctaw Chief Jerry Jackson in Louisiana. I related part of my dream to him. He interrupted and said we had to call his Aunt Mary as she was the Elder who knew of these things. When Mary came into the room I felt as if I knew her and she later said that she felt the same with me. I told her my dream and she was shocked. She said, ‘I can’t believe it. You just dreamt my rock’. We have been close ever since. Kowianukosha is a little person, a nature spirit with great powers. He is also a trickster who throws this sacred type of stone at people especially healers to help them in their work.
that’s the Spirit that’s with me and I’m so glad to be here with you all. I don’t know what I can do or what I can say but I hope and pray that the Spirit takes care of you all and bring you all back together and give you all what you want, what you all need to be here together today, this week, all this time that you all spend together. Something good will come out. It might not be next week, or next year, but something good is going to come out of this. And this day you all remember it for your next generation. I’m glad to be here with you all and bless you all. Somehow all this touched me and I know so I’m going to pray for you all, all of us together this evening.
(Prayer in the Choctaw language) This session is officially closed. Thank you.