Navigating culture

Anna Marbrook just picked up silver at the New York Festival for the epic documentary, Te Mana o te Moana. I was lucky enough to be working at Zoomslide when they were pulling this project together. It made an indelible impact on me. This is my favourite story.


Charles Goldie and Louis Steel’s Delecroix-inspired conception of Pacific navigation.

It’s about a flotilla of waka sailing the length and breadth of the Pacific. These waka are not the single hulled war canoes that most people might associate with the term. No. They’re 70 foot, double hulled, twin-rigged sailing vessels; modern replicas of the first vessels that ever brought humans to Aotearoa.

In the 1970s, an eccentric English/Kiwi doctor called David Lewis ventured into the Pacific and connected with the last of the great Pacific navigators, including the now legendary Mau Piailug. Together they made numerous multi-day journeys across the Pacific, including from Tahiti to Aotearoa, navigating by star paths, swell patterns, and sea life.

In summary, the knowledge contains a vast catalogue of stars, swells and marine life. It includes the islands that each star sits over, and times and positions for which this holds true. As you approach your destination, swell patterns indicate the direction of land, and various species of marine life give more details. Some birds return to land at the end of the day so if you see them flying at sunset, that’s probably your destination. Obviously, there’s a little more to it. Lewis tell it well in his book We the Navigators.

Pacific Voyagers - Hawaii 2011

Waka Haunui, 70 feet of high tech tradition. Photo sourced from Pacific Voyagers

The point is that for centuries this knowledge was a central component of Pasifika culture, but was almost a lost art just a few decades ago. To be a navigator required young men to devote their lives to it, in an almost priestly or even chiefly fashion. By the time Mau Piailug showed David Lewis how it was done, the kaupapa was almost forgotten. Mau – according to Lewis – was among the last.

I’ve heard some navigators question Lewis’s contribution. Maybe there were more navigators around than he knew of. But either way, one thing’s for sure: it’s not dead now. Te Mana o te Moana is the clear proof of this. Lewis picked up at least one honorary doctorate for his empirical contribution to Pacific anthropology.

The now-thriving kaupapa of navigation gives a lot of benefits to a lot of people. Obviously, it matters to the Pacific communities who have reclaimed a vital cultural dimension. It also matters to newcomers to the Pacific, like me. Knowing that people were systematically exploring the Pacific for thousands of years before Cook turned up gives me a profound insight into where – and what – my turangawaiwai might be. And the waka themselves present compelling examples of what innovative sustainability can look like.

I’m a bit sentimental. Every time I go to the beach I see imaginary waka making first landfall. And every time I watch Team New Zealand (who are doing rather well at the moment) in their high tech catamarans, I see – in addition to high tensile, carbon fibre derring do – a proud design tradition stretching back through centuries of Pacific cultural development.

UPDATE: Te Mana o te Moana screened on Maori TV but is not currently available on demand. I hope that changes, but in the meantime, you can get a sense of life on an ocean voyaging waka in another show by the Anna, Heather and the Zoomslide team: Waka Warriors. This is a reality format, but in a way that feels well aligned with tikanga Maori and the Maori TV kaupapa. By that I mean that while it’s competitive, the competition couldn’t be further removed from the bitchy, snide abuse of a celebrity chef or a group of gold diggers. It’s good!

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