Voyager guided rebirth of Cultures
by Gary T. Kubota, Star Advertiser of Honolulu
The way-finding navigator from an island of less than a square mile who ushered in a renaissance in open-ocean traditional native sailing across the Pacific has died.
Mau Piailug, 78, died Sunday night and was buried yesterday (Hawaii time) on his home island of Satawal in the western Pacific, said Kathy Muneno, a spokeswoman for the Polynesian Voyaging Society.
Piailug was the navigator who reintroduced Hawaiians to traditional Pacific navigational methods using the stars, moon, wind, currents and birds to find distant lands.
In 1976 he was the navigator sailing aboard the double-hulled sailing canoe Hokule'a on its historic voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti.
The Hokule'a voyage supported the assertion that Polynesians were capable of long-distance voyages centuries before European explorers.
Piailug had suffered from diabetes for many years.
Polynesian Voyage Society President Nainoa Thompson said Piailug's contribution to restoring the cultures of Pacific islanders was immense.
"Thousands of people are sharing in the sadness," Thompson said. "His contribution to Hawaii and humankind is immeasurable."
In the mid-1970s, Piailug chose to share his knowledge of Pacific way-finding with native Hawaiians when the island cultures here and in Micronesia were experiencing rapid westernization.
Piailug hoped that by sharing his knowledge, the information would be stored elsewhere and would be shared with his people in the future.
The historic Hawaiian voyage to Tahiti in 1976 helped to restore pride in Pacific island cultures and built bridges among various Pacific island cultures through double-hulled canoe voyaging.
Besides Hawaii, other island cultures have formed voyaging societies to promote native voyaging, including in Taiwan, New Zealand, Samoa, Fiji, Guam, Saipan, Palau, Chuuk, Pohnpe, the Marshall Islands and Tahiti.
Satawal island resident Thomas Raffipiy recalled as a youth the night when Piailug consulted with his family and made the decision to help the Hawaiians.
Traditionally, the knowledge was passed down through the family and did not cross cultures.
"It was a decision that he didn't take lightly," said Raffipiy, Piailug's nephew. "He was among the youngest of the surviving navigators and hoped the knowledge stored somewhere with someone would come back. ... Everything he said has come to pass."
Ben Finney, a founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, said Piailug was driven to help by his vision of what needed to be done to revive native cultures through sailing, including Satawal islanders.
"He said, 'That's exactly what we need,'" recalled Finney, a former professor at the University of Hawaii.
Finney said Piailug became well known among Polynesians from New Zealand to Hawaii for the generous way in which he shared his knowledge of way-finding navigation.
"He was really an aid giver of ancient knowledge," Finney said.
Piailug's work came full circle during the 2007 voyage to his home island of Satawal, when Hawaii crews delivered the double-hulled canoe Alingano Maisu as a gift to Piailug.
That year, for the first time in a half-century, Piailug held a "Po" ceremony to induct master navigators into the Weriyeng school of navigation. The group included five Hawaiians and about 10 Micronesians, including his son, Sesario Sewralur.
Sewralur, the captain and navigator of the Alingano Maisu, teaches native navigation at a community college on Palau.
Thompson said to honor Piailug, the Hokule'a plans to sail around the Hawaiian Islands in the near future with crews of young people.
"It's a very important time to focus on all our teachers, honor them and celebrate them," Thompson said. "We know how much he loved Hawaii, and we know how much he loved the people."
Piailug is survived by more than a dozen children and numerous grandchildren.
And this: by Emma Brown of the Washington Post:
Mau Piailug, who died July 12 at 78 on the western Pacific island of Satawal, was one of the last masters of the nearly lost traditional art of using stars, sun and wind to find safe passage across the ocean.
In 1976, Mr. Piailug made international headlines when -- using nothing but nature's clues and the lessons he'd learned from his grandfather, a master navigator schooled in traditional Micronesian wayfaring -- he steered a traditional sailing canoe more than 3,000 miles from Hawaii to Tahiti.
The journey was a project of the Honolulu-based Polynesian Voyaging Society, co-founded by anthropologists interested in the enduring mystery of how the Pacific's scattered islands, often separated by hundreds of miles of water, had become populated by peoples who lacked nautical technologies such as the compass and sextant.
Many scientists had believed that Polynesians, unable to navigate across vast seas, had arrived on various islands by accident when their boats had floated off course. Mr. Piailug's feat showed instead that indigenous peoples could indeed have deliberately explored and colonized Pacific islands.
Featured in a National Geographic special, the journey also showed the world that traditional navigation was rooted in profound skill. Among Pacific peoples, who were fast becoming westernized, it led to a resurgence of cultural pride and a renewed interest in ancient wayfaring skills.
"The rebirth of non-instrument navigation came about largely due to this man, Mau Piailug," said former Smithsonian secretary Lawrence Small at a 2000 ceremony in Washington honoring Mr. Piailug (pronounced Pee-EYE-lug).
He became an eager teacher, breaking with tradition to share among cultures his closely guarded navigation secrets that had traditionally been passed down only within families.
Among his students were Nainoa Thompson, a Hawaiian who became a master navigator, has many students and has completed long ocean-crossings; and Steve Thomas, a California native who made a documentary and wrote a 1987 book ("The Last Navigator") about the months he spent learning from Mr. Piailug in Micronesia.
Mr. Piailug feared that the powerful pull of Western culture on young Pacific Islanders would eventually lead to the extinction of traditional wayfaring, Thomas said Monday.
"He understood that he had to teach without restriction and without hesitation and spread as many seeds of interest as possible," Thomas said. "He taught me without holding back."
Mau Piailug was born in 1932 on Satawal, a low-lying island that stretched a mile from end to end and is now part of the Federated States of Micronesia in the western Pacific. His grandfather was a palu, a master navigator, and he chose Mau to follow in his footsteps.
Mr. Piailug's lessons began when he was a child. His grandfather had him sit in tide pools to learn the ocean's tug. Later, when Mr. Piailug begin traveling on the Pacific's wide swells and became seasick, his grandfather tied him to the stern of a canoe and dragged him through the water to cure him.
Mr. Piailug memorized the night sky's star map and learned how to read moving clouds and the ocean's swells and reefs. At 18, he was ceremonially initiated as a palu.
He used his skills largely to catch fish and turtles for his family until 1973, when he visited Hawaii at the invitation of his niece and her husband, a former Peace Corps volunteer named Mike McCoy. McCoy took Mr. Piailug to an early meeting of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, where plans were being made for the groundbreaking journey to Tahiti.
McCoy volunteered Mr. Piailug as a navigator, according to a story in the Honolulu Advertiser, and Mr. Piailug didn't protest.
A double-hulled canoe called Hokule'a, manned by 15 Hawaiians, departed on May 1, 1976. It arrived in Tahiti just over a month later despite a period of becalmed seas and mutinous behavior by some crew members, who were unhappy with the journey's white organizers.
According to news reports, Mr. Piailug had more than a dozen children. A complete list of survivors could not be confirmed.
In 2003, Mr. Piailug was the object of a Coast Guard search when he was two weeks overdue on a short 250-mile jaunt between the islands of Palau and Yap.
He and his crew were located by an Air Force C-130 from an Air Force base in Guam; after enduring strong headwinds from a typhoon, they were tired and thirsty -- but they were right on course and just 30 miles from their destination. They finished the voyage under their own power.
"I wasn't worried. I knew right away that it was the weather," said Junior Coleman, a Hawaiian who had previously sailed with Mr. Piailug, in an interview with the Honolulu Advertiser. "I told people to remember who is involved here. He's the Yoda of the Pacific."