by Becca Nelson '20
On February 5th, we were honored to have Nainoa Thompson, president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, deliver the 7th Annual Schneider Memorial Lecture. The lecture series is named in memory of Stanford climate scientist Dr. Stephen Schneider. As a professor, Dr. Schneider inspired countless students and was a fierce advocate for action on climate change. Many thanks goes out to the other organizations that cosponsored this event: the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the Haas Center for Public Service, and Hui O Nā Moku.
After the auditorium filled with people, we greeted Nainoa Thompson with a traditional Hawaiian welcoming chant led by members of Hui O Nā Moku:
“Auē ua hiti ē, Ua hiti ē ‘o Hōkūle’a ē
Auē ua hiti ē
Hele’e ka wa’a i ke kai e, Ho’okele wa’a lā ‘ino e ‘A’ohe e pulu wa’a nui ē
Auē ua hiti ē
E lauhoe mai ka wa’a i ke kā
I ka hoe
I ka hoe
I ke kā
E pae atu i ka `āina lā
E pae maila i ka `āina ē, Auē ua hiti ē!”
The words echoed through the auditorium, creating a feeling of solidarity. “I don’t have a lecture. I have a story,” Mr. Thompson began. Indeed, during the next two hours, Thompson shared with us an inspiring narrative that braided together his lived experiences as a Native Hawaiian navigator, Hawaiian history, the words of this teachers, and his intersectional perspectives on sustainability. This summary will do not justice to his rousing and eloquent delivery. I left the auditorium that night feeling moved and thankful to have had the opportunity to listen. I highly encourage you, to view our video recording of his lecture here.
“The investment in the power of the young is the best investment we can make,” Thompson said, reflecting on how the dialogue on social-environmental issues has changed over his lifetime. “Sustainability was not a word when I was in school,” he said. In Hawaii, however, sustainability has very deep cultural roots. Thompson shared with us the history of Hawaii, describing how the Polynesians developed innovations in navigation and went on long ocean voyages. According to Nainoa Thompson, Native Hawaiians created a sustainable society. He described it as “a system of balance and protection”.
Thompson discussed how colonialism led to losses of life and cultural knowledge about navigation. He recalled how his grandmother was discouraged from speaking Hawaiian in school. Thompson became one of the first Native Hawaiians to practice Polynesian navigating since the 14th century. He learned how to navigate the Hōkūle’a, a type of double-hulled canoe, without using any modern technology. He emphasized the importance of the Hōkūle’a in fostering Hawaiian culture. Describing his experiences as a Pwo navigator, he said, “[On the Hōkūle’a], we found a place we could be Hawaiian…To restore identity is to restore self-worth”, and asserted that the Hōkūle’a is the “light of our people”.
“When do we learn everything our instincts believe? When do we learn our values?” Thompson asked us. He was very humble in telling the story of how he became involved with the Hōkūle’a voyages: “This story is about miracles. I happened to be there at the right place and time.” He emphasized the critical role friends, family, and teachers played in shaping his values and commitment to navigation. From his father, he learned about the importance of having courage, helping others, and having a vision for making change. He expressed a deep gratitude toward Pwo navigator Mau Piailug who taught him essential navigation skills and to Eddie Aikau, a surfer and lifeguard, who was lost at sea in his attempt to rescue Thompson and the rest of the Hōkūle’a crew after the vessel capsized. “Navigation knowledge is power, is sacred”, Thompson said, “Hōkūle’a is not a canoe, it’s a school. The crew is not a crew, it’s a family.”
As a navigator, Thompson developed an appreciation of mālama or “care-taking”. A friendship with astronaut Lacy Veach inspired him to him to look at mālama from the perspective of taking care of the earth. Veach and Thompson found kinship in their love of voyaging. Veach saw earth as the goldilocks planet, unique in its capacity to harbor life under the right environmental conditions. When discussing sustainability, Veach told Thompson “You can’t protect what you don’t understand.” Thompson realized that the ocean sustained Hawaiian culture, evoking linkages between cultural and biological diversity. “If humanity is going to be well, then the earth has to be well. For the earth to be well, then the ocean has to be well,” he said. On his worldwide voyages, Thompson began spreading messages about the importance of healthy oceans, highlighting the environmental impact of plastics in the ocean and climate change. He emphasized the importance of making sustainable changes through bringing different communities together and building lasting relationships. “Where are you going and why?” Thompson asked us, “Navigate by you values, by your beliefs, by what you stand for.”
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