Ties to the Ocean
“The wa‘a shaped the Hawaiian people physically, intellectually and spiritually as much as the Hawaiians shaped the logs that became their canoes.”
—Renowned Hawaiian artist and historian Herb Kane.
According to the Kumulipo, Hawai`i’s sacred creation chant, everything in the universe is connected and everything in the universe has a consciousness. The Kumulipo describes the traditional Hawaiian view that man is the younger sibling of nature, and how it is the responsibility of man to look after the needs of nature, just as it is the responsibility of nature to care for the needs of man. When these responsibilities are met, man and nature achieve balance.
Perhaps nowhere is this balance more apparent than in the island people’s relationship to the ocean, and to the Hawaiian canoe, the wa`a. One of the most important tools in the culture and history of the islands, great double-hulled seafaring canoes were the vessels on which the original Hawaiians came to the islands from other parts of the Pacific in the first place. Once here, canoes were vital to the Hawaiians’ sustenance and survival, providing the means by which they could fish and travel between islands.
When Captain Cook arrived in Kealakekua Bay in 1779, he was greeted by some 1,500 canoes, a clear indication that the Hawaiian people centered their lives in and on the ocean. There were so many canoes, in fact, that Cook’s men thought they could walk to the shore stepping from canoe to canoe.
Fittingly, great ceremony was associated with every aspect of the canoe, starting with finding and hewing the perfect tree, a process overseen by a kahuna. The first Hawaiian canoes were crafted of koa wood, a species of hard wood endemic to the Hawaiian Islands and often found deep in the upland forests. After days of prayer and work, the chosen log would be hauled — some weighing thousands of pounds and measuring up to 70 feet in length — to a special shelter by the sea, where it was carved under the kahuna’s watchful eye and plentiful blessings into a sacred vessel that would eventually be launched into the water.