(ABOVE) On a lake created by Mendenhall Glacier just outside of Juneau, Hokulea crew members paddle with Tlingit master carver Wayne Price in his yaakw, or traditional dugout canoe. Once extending past where the lake stands today, the glacier has been receding several hundred feet each year, underscoring the global environmental crisis that is at the core of Hokule'a's voyaging mission.
At the base of a wooded mountainside overlooking the Chilkat River in Alaska's southern panhandle, a circle gathers around a black gravestone near what was once a Native village. Some of the assembled are dressed in red-and-black capes sewn with button designs, fur headbands, painted woven hats and other regalia of the Tlingit (pronounced something like "Klinkit"), who are believed to have lived in this region for at least ten thousand years. Others present are clad in matching polo shirts with a small logo of a sailing canoe, rubber deck boots and Hawaii-themed ball caps. Someone starts strumming an ukulele, and a few voices reverently break into "Aloha Oe," Queen Liliuokalani's ageless ballad of loving farewell: "One fond embrace/A hoi ae au (‘ere I depart)/Until we meet again ..."
Those same words, Aloha Oe ("Farewell to Thee"), are inscribed at the bottom of the stone marker, just below the Killer Whale clan crest and Tlingit names of the eminent Alaska Native leader Judson Brown, who came to rest here in 1997 after a lifetime of blazing the way for resurgent Indigenous rights and culture. The Hawaiian phrase on Brown's headstone is "absolutely a reference to his love for the Hawaiian people," Judson's granddaughter Gail Dabaluz tells the group. "Granddad had so much fun with the Hawaiians, and he believed our cultures were closely linked." Included in the circle are two of Brown's daughters, several granddaughters and a few other descendants. The others are crew members of the storied Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokulea, docked a few miles down the road in the postcard-pretty harbor town of Haines, or Deishu ("end of the trail"), to use its original name. The celebrated vessel has journeyed to Alaska-the farthest north she has ever been after almost fifty years and several hundred thousand nautical miles-especially to honor Brown and two other late Native leaders, Byron Mallott and Ernie Hillman.
Members of a cultural delegation from Hawaii await Hokulea's arrival at Auke Bay outside Juneau.
Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) leader and master navigator Nainoa Thompson-looking every bit the down-low celebrity in all-black windbreaker and cap-recounts the canoe's story to the group in his distinctive introspective cadence: How Hokulea was conceived in the 1970s to prove that Polynesian seafarers had the mastery to discover, settle and purposefully sail across vast distances among islands-something Native Hawaiian traditions avowed but academics of the time had discounted. How the craft had been designed as a best-guess re-creation of a pre-contact, double-hulled Hawaiian voyaging craft-what Thompson sometimes calls "the spaceship of our ancestors"-except that Hokulea was constructed out of fiberglass and other contemporary materials for speed and durability. How in 1976, under the guidance of Mau Piailug, one of the last great navigators remaining in the Pacific, the budding Hawaiian voyagers had successfully sailed Hokulea along the 2,400-mile ancestral route between Hawaii and Tahiti, guided only by nature and the stars (Hokulea, the Hawaiian name for Arcturus, means "star of gladness," a beacon to Polynesian navigators). And how, along the way, they lit the flame of an Indigenous cultural renaissance throughout Oceania.
Local Indigenous leaders in treasured clan regalia formally welcome the Hawaiian canoe to Deishu, or Haines, and Auke Bay. "It makes us happy to see your faces today," one of the elders told the crew. "You lift our spirits by coming to our land and bringing your culture and ancestors with you."
Having accomplished their original goal and then some, PVS founders turned to a new dream: building another wa'a (canoe), but this time using only traditional materials, including wooden hulls. For years they scoured the forests of Hawaii, but they were unable to find any native koa trees both big and healthy enough to become Hawaiiloa's twin fifty-seven-foot hulls.
His voice catching, Thompson tells Brown's family how that experience left him in despair about the future of Hawaii and the planet. "Not being able to find those trees anywhere in our forests, and coming to terms with just how much had been taken from our people, was one of the most depressing moments in my life," he says. "I was paralyzed by it."
Then Hokulea's designer, artist Herb Kane, brought up an idea. He remembered an account by a naturalist sailing with early Hawaii (and Alaska) explorer Capt. George Vancouver, who described seeing a large canoe on Kaua'i made of pine, which they knew didn't grow in Hawaii. Inquiring about the canoe, they were told the log for the hull had been "a gift from the gods" that washed ashore. Kane reasoned that it must have drifted down from the Pacific Northwest, and thus there was a cultural precedent for Hawaiian canoes being built of wood from that region.
The Moananuiakea Voyage launch events in Juneau brought together many of the Pacific's leading traditional wayfinders, including master navigator Tua Pittman from the Cook Islands.
In the early 1990s, Kane introduced Thompson to Brown, who then collaborated with Mallott and Hillman to give the Hawaiians two massive, four-hundred-year-old spruce trees for Hawaiiloa's hulls. The extraordinary gift established a close bond between the two cultures, particularly given that, in Northwest Indigenous traditions, great trees are regarded as a village's "forest children." "We believe there is no separation between us and the forest," Brown told Thompson at the time. "These are our children we're giving to you, so take good care of them."
A few years later, in 1995, the Hawaiian voyagers brought the forest children back to Alaska in their new life as Hawaiiloa's regal hulls. Meanwhile the two men had forged a deep kinship, culminating in Brown formally adopting Thompson into his Killer Whale clan. "We gave you wood to help you make your journey to your ancestral homelands. You gave us much more," Brown said during Hawaiiloa's visit. "You have shared with us your civilization, your spirit, your dreams. You have taught us that we can strive for and achieve the same kinds of things in the revival of our civilization."
"Judson shaped so many of the things that I believe in most," Thompson tells Brown's family. "And it was a relationship based on giving-he would say that it was based on aloha-and on the message we have to give humanity: that we are one family. I miss him so much, but I see him in all of you."
Now, Hokulea is here on a "Heritage Sail" to honor the memories of Brown, Mallott and Hillman with visits to their home villages. The journey is a prelude to the big event set to happen the following week in Juneau: the official launch of Moananuiakea ("The Great, Expansive Sea"), an epic, four-year "voyage for the planet" that will circle the Pacific. All told, the canoe will travel some forty-three thousand nautical miles-longer even than her voyage around the globe a decade ago-with a rotating roster of four hundred crew members. With planned stops in more than three hundred ports, the voyage aims to mobilize ten million "planetary navigators" to work together for a better collective future.
"This is about not just the oceans but about choices and actions to help build a future that is healthy for our children," Thompson had said when the Moananuiakea voyage was announced. "We're trying to reclaim our relationship to the Earth."
Hokulea berthed at Auke Bay a few miles north of downtown Juneau. The bay is the traditional home of the Aak'w Kwaan people, one of several Tlingit bands that have coexisted in the area for centuries. PHOTO BY PHILAMER FELICITAS/ POLYNES IAN VOYAGING SOCIETY
The afternoon before, the Haines waterfront had echoed with the sound of painted drums and Tlingit songs of welcome as Hokulea's unmistakable upturned bow tips, or manu, appeared around the farthest point of the bay, escorted by two local traditional canoes, known as yaakw (pronounced something like "yawk"). Arriving after a ten-hour journey through the mountain-lined waterways of the Inside Passage from Ernie Hillman's home village of Hoonah, the canoe made a wide circle along the beach before gliding to a stop at a small floating dock.
Waiting on the platform was a welcome party of several dozen dignitaries from the local Chilkat and Chilkoot tribes and beyond, many decked in treasured clan regalia. By tradition, the crew remained on the canoe as one of the tribal elders called out to ask who they were and why they had come to Deishu.
"We are the crew of the voyaging canoe Hokulea," responded crew member Moani Heimuli, who served as captain for the leg from Hoonah. "We are just a few but we represent many, including those of the past and those who are yet to come. We are excited to learn your stories so we can help hold them and pass them on to future generations. So mahalo, mahalo, mahalo for having us here." "Gunalcheesh!" several in the crowd shouted in response, an often-heard Tlingit exclamation that literally means "thank you" but is also a general call of approval, something like "hear, hear!"
Among the Native leaders offering welcome remarks, youthful Chilkoot Indian Association tribal president James Hart, himself the great-grandson of a Hawaiian emigrant, recalled that he was just five when Hawaiiloa visited in 1995. "Now we have our children here to witness you all," he said. "We think of you as our family, and it's very important that we keep these connections along the Pacific Ocean going to keep our spirits strong."
The conference leading up to the Moananuiakea launch in Juneau brought together Pacific educators, cultural practitioners, voyagers and others for several days of Indigenous exchanges and experiences, including this rainforest hike outside town.
That evening, a few hundred people packed into the local high school cafeteria for a community dinner in honor of the crew, with a homegrown menu of chunky salmon stew, crunchy herring-egg salad and other local favorites during this season of harvest ahead of the long, lean winter. Among the guests was Haines resident Kalani Kanahele, a former Hawaiian cultural specialist and language educator from Oahu's northeast coast, who married a woman from Haines and has been living here for the past sixteen years. Across the table, Kanahele shared that Hokulea's presence was emotional for him as a Hawaiian living so far from home. "Just having the chance to speak Hawaiian is so wonderful-I was almost starting to forget it," he said. "I can feel the mana [power] and aloha they bring."
After dinner, senior Hokulea navigator Bruce Blankenfeld, who is overseeing this Alaska sail and also helped lead Hawaiiloa's 1995 Northwest journey, was invited to say a few words. As soft-spoken as he is broad-shouldered, Blankenfeld talked about the lasting bonds that have grown between the Hawaiian voyagers and Southeast Alaska Native communities since the gift of the spruce logs. The coming launch of the Moananuiakea voyage in Juneau is going to usher in a "new paradigm of voyaging," he said, "one that expands the idea of our voyaging family in the Pacific to reach across all of its shores and Indigenous cultures."
Blankenfeld's sentiments were echoed by local resident Wayne Price, a Tlingit master carver and builder of traditional dugout canoes-a skill that had been all but forgotten after a century of cultural repression. "The whole Pacific Ocean got smaller today because you are here," Price said. "And what unites us all is Indigenous watercraft. All across the Pacific, we all had Indigenous watercraft of some kind, and I'm telling you it's the most direct connection back to the culture that we could ever ask for."
Master navigator Bruce Blankenfeld led Hokulea's "Heritage Sail" through Southeast Alaska prior to the main voyage launch. The sail honored three Native leaders who helped donate two huge logs to build the Hawaiian canoe Hawaiiloa in the 1990s.
After the gathering at Judson Brown's grave, the crew drives the twenty miles or so up a winding highway that follows an ancient trading trail along the river to Brown's ancestral village of Klukwan. Once home to numerous large communal clan houses, Klukwan is regarded by many as a kind of symbolic capital of the Tlingit culture, one of three main Indigenous ethnicities of Southeast Alaska, along with the Haida and Tsimshian. Known as the "eternal village," the town of less than a hundred full-time residents is today believed to have been continuously inhabited for several thousand years.
A large wall painting of stylized figures in the curving, splayed-out "formline" style of Native Northwest art marks the entrance to the village's Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center. (Jilkaat is the Native spelling of Chilkat, and kwaan means the people of a place.) The center opened in 2016, after a decades-long struggle by the Klukwan community to keep ancestral treasures from being sold off to dealers and museums, and to construct a proper facility to keep them in the village.
Among the sacred heirlooms kept there are several magnificent examples of Chilkat weaving, famed for its complex techniques and stunning formline patterns. Lani Hotch, founding director of the center and an accomplished weaver herself, explains to the group that the art form was nearly lost when the last of Klukwan's traditional master weavers died in 1986. A lifetime Klukwan resident whose father gave her a Hawaiian name after being stationed in the Islands, Hotch was also present during Hawaiiloa's 1995 visit. She told the voyagers then that, just as the Hawaiians had done in searching for the canoe's hull logs, she and several other local women were forced to look for help outside of their own people to keep the weaving tradition alive. In a turn of reciprocal symmetry, they received that help from Cheryl Samuel, a weaver from Hawaii who had analyzed Chilkat techniques.
Polynesian Voyaging Society president and chief navigator Nainoa Thompson joins relatives of his late friend and mentor Judson Brown at Brown's grave site near Haines.
Hotch points to a pattern on her dress that she says represents the salmon-rich Chilkat River, source of life for her people for millennia. "Our people used weaving to represent the owner of a place," she says. "But to me this means more that I am of this place-it is the river that owns me."
At the heart of the Heritage Center is a room created to resemble the interior of a clan house, the large plank longhouses that traditionally sheltered up to a hundred people. Showcased inside the multilevel room are a large painted wall panel and four carved house posts from the early 1800s that are considered to be some of the finest examples of Indigenous Northwest art in existence. Adorned with spectacular imagery of clan heroes, crest animals and origin stories, the pieces originally came from the celebrated Whale House built by a prominent Klukwan chief. According to Hotch, one story goes that when the chief learned about the American president's White House, he commissioned the grand structure as a kind of capitol for his own influential clan.
For decades the Whale House treasures were the subject of painful disputes over attempts to remove them from Klukwan to be placed in a museum. Eventually, Hotch and others were able to garner funding to build the Heritage Center to house them and similar village heirlooms properly. But even the decision to put them on display here was not without controversy, since by tradition such at.oow, or sacred clan objects, are supposed to be displayed only for ceremonial occasions. It was eventually agreed that they could be shown at the Heritage Center, but in deference to tradition, no photography would be allowed.
Wayne Price demonstrates for Hokulea crew members how he uses a hand adze to shape a cedar log into a dugout canoe, chip by chip. "Building Indigenous watercraft is our fastest way back to the culture," says Price.
Hotch tells the Hokulea group that the Klukwan community remains committed to preserving the village's heritage and natural environment, which she says is under threat from a proposed Canadian mining operation upstream. "This is our homeland here, from mountaintop to mountaintop, as our ancestors would say," she says passionately. "Our people defended it, and we still do because one of our values is that we are stewards of the air, the land and the sea. We need to let our voices be heard because we don't have another home to go to, and we're going to do all we can to protect it."
Wearing his signature jaunty seal-fur beret and a dimpled grin, Wayne Price stands in front of Silvercloud, his historic Officers Row home on the former grounds of Fort Seward, a US Army base built at the turn of the twentieth century in the wake of the Klondike gold rush. Resting on Price's front lawn are a pair of wooden yaakw canoes painted in Tlingit black and red. One is a traditional dugout that Price hand-adzed out of a cedar log; the other he constructed of layered spruce strips.
From the fort's hillside vantage, he points down toward the shoreline where a Native village once stood, one of five that used to exist in the area before devastating epidemics introduced by outsiders claimed many lives-a terrible history that Hawaiians and many other Indigenous peoples share. Before then, Price says, each village would have forty to sixty canoes-the community's lifeblood and sacred objects in their own right.
In his University of Alaska workshop, Price shows master navigator Shorty Bertelmann from Hawaii Island how he drafts out plans for a dugout.
But then the Army arrived to administer the region following the United States' 1867 purchase of what had previously been called Russian America. The soldiers' mission was to safeguard American interests and newcomers, including quelling any perceived "restlessness" by the Native peoples. Part of the military's standard procedure, Price says, was to destroy a resistant village's canoes first. "That's why there were almost no dugouts left," he tells the crew. "It's our history and we can't forget it, but it's a different time now. Today you young people have the chance to write a new chapter for all our people and bring our traditions back."
By the time Price began carving yaakw several decades ago, there was no one left to teach him the tricky process, which involves shaping and hollowing out a massive log chip by chip, then steaming it open further. He shows the crew a small wood model of a traditional dugout that dates back to the 1880s. Its carver, he says, left him all the clues he needed to teach himself the craft.
"I think it's the biggest challenge a woodcarver can ever take on, to build a boat that's safe on the water," Price says solemnly. "Carving totems is great-it keeps our stories and culture alive-but in the end all you do is stand them up and look at them. But when you build a dugout, you're gonna have your wife in there, you're gonna have your children in there. Lives depend on your work, and that makes a big difference in everything you do."
While Price fashioned his metal adze blade from a heavy-duty truck spring, traditional carvers used blades of stone.
In recovery himself for the past couple of decades after experiencing a life-changing vision in a sweat lodge during a carving retreat, Price explains that today he uses his work to combat the epidemics of alcohol and drug abuse that have devastated Native communities. To date he has completed some fifteen dugouts, often working twelve-hour days, seven days a week for as long as six months to finish. "When you start a dugout, you've got to dedicate your whole life to its creation," he says. "And each one has been a completely different adventure. Just like people, no two dugouts are the same."
He holds up his adze, a simple metal blade lashed to a hook-shaped stick. (In pre-contact days the blade would have been fashioned of sharpened stone.) "I don't know when the first one of these was made," he says, "but I do know that the adze is what enabled our people to make our clan houses and totem poles, the dugout canoes, all the artwork." The tool is almost universal to Native cultures, he points out, and Hawaiians also used them to build their great canoes. "The history and the foundation of our cultures is all right here," Price says.
The crew is all set to take up Price's invitation of a friendly paddle around the harbor, but first the weighty canoes must be wheeled a few hundred yards to the water's edge. As the crew puts their backs into the job, Price teaches them the call-and-response paddling cheer that he has been spreading among Alaska's growing number of Native canoe groups as "a pure exclamation of joy" without any specific translation (similar to the "chee-hoo!" cry one often hears at events in Hawaii). "Can I get a hoo-haa?" he calls. "HOO-HAA!" all respond.
Hokulea crew member Maleko Lorenzo, draped in a bear-claw lei gifted to him by a local Tlingit elder, blows the canoe's pu (shell trumpet) in answer to the bellowing call of sea lions basking along the fjord-like Lynn Canal between Haines and Juneau. The spectacular, eleven-hour journey took the canoe past glaciers, humpback whale and orca pods, bald eagles wheeling through the sky and more.
Out on the cold, glassy water, pointed paddles decorated with formline figures drive the yaakw forward. Then, raising their paddles, the two crews raft up alongside each other, forming a single craft reminiscent of Hokulea's two joined hulls. "It's an honor to welcome you to these Indigenous boats in our home waters," Price tells the crew. "It's an honorable thing you're doing, and our spirit will travel with you. Take our love with you wherever you go, and have a safe journey all the way back home to your families."
"Gunalcheesh!" exclaim a few. "HOO-HAA!" shout all.
A few days later, as the wee-hours northern summer dawn spreads across the sky, Hokulea casts off for Juneau, where a cross-cultural welcome ceremony awaits. A delegation of some eighty students and cultural practitioners from Hawaii has flown up to join local Native groups in welcoming the wa'a to picturesque Auke Bay north of the city.
A short way off the dock, the crew pauses for a moment to drop a small stone from Hawaii overboard into the fjord-like Lynn Canal as a token of the canoe's presence. With a chilly headwind blowing up the narrow waterway, Hoku catches a tow from her safety escort boat, Kolea, named for the Pacific golden plover that annually migrates 1,500 miles or so between Alaska and Hawaii in a single marathon flight.
Joining the crew on board is one of Byron Mallott's sons, Joey, along with Chilkoot tribal president James Hart and his brother Ted, captain of Price's spruce canoe. Also aboard as a local pilot is another canoe team leader, who goes by Jay-Z and rocks a long mane of straight hair. At first it bothered him when people called him the "Tlingit Fabio," he laughs, but he's learned to embrace it.
Three Indigenous delegates from Taiwan's Kaviyangan Paiwan Tribe (at left) joined cultural practitioners from Hawaii (at right), Alaska and many other Pacific locations for the Moananuiakea Voyage launch festivities, signifying the voyage's intent of expanding the Pacific wayfaring family across all the great ocean's shores.
The eleven-hour journey takes the waa past a parade of jagged, snow-tipped peaks, punctuated by several glaciers reaching down from the heights. Passing by Rainbow Glacier just outside of Haines, James Hart remarks that "it's a trip to see how much farther back the glaciers are each year," a potent reminder of the global crisis that summons Hokulea to voyage for the future.
Farther up the canal, basking sea lions bellow at the waa from an embankment, and in return a crew member blows the canoe's pu, or shell trumpet, back at them. "Good morning!" Jay-Z chirps as he takes a turn wrangling the canoe's hefty steering paddle against the chop. "The Hawaiians are in town!"
A few passing humpback whales, also annual migrants between Alaska and Hawaii, send up misty spouts, slap their flukes and occasionally breach straight up out of the water-their technique for scooping in huge mouthfuls of small fish at the surface. As the canoe nears the entrance to Auke Bay, the crew opens her distinctive crab-claw sails to catch the light breeze to shore. A group of orcas even makes an appearance as Hoku cruises into the bay, their tall dorsal fins slicing through the water.
Portraits of departed voyaging leaders and benefactors rest at the foot of the stage at the beachside welcome ceremony for Hokulea in Juneau.
On shore, a crowd of several hundred waits expectantly in a mounting drizzle as four yaakw from around the region, including Wayne Price in his dugout, circle the Hawaiian waa amid drumming and song before pulling alongside to ferry the crew to the water's edge. A tribal elder in a sky-blue cape embroidered with fearsome sharks formally invites the crew ashore, where a delegation from Hawaii drapes them with kihei (Hawaiian ceremonial shawls) and the local hosts bedeck them with Tlingit blankets. Clan leaders from the area offer words, songs and dances of welcome, and in return dancers from Hawaii's Kamehameha Schools perform several crowd-pleasing hula, even while shivering through the rain in their traditional skirts and malo (loincloths).
The climax of the protocol comes when the Hawaiian delegation performs a new song-considered among the most precious of gifts in both Alaska Native and Hawaiian cultures. Written by the Hookahua Cultural Vibrancy Group at Kamehameha Schools, the song pays tribute in Hawaiian and Tlingit to the Indigenous hosts of the region whose traditional settlement is located where Hokulea made landfall, the Aakw Kwaan. An excerpt concludes:
Seikunee e, Seikunee hoi: Seikunee ke alii o ka Yaxteitaan
(Seikunee, leader from the Dipper House) ...
Yanashtuk e, Yanashtuk hoi: Yanashtuk ke alii o ka Wooshkeetaan
(Yanashtuk, leader from the Shark House) ...
Hokulea e, Hokulea hoi: Hokulea, Sagu Kutx.ayanahaayi
(Behold the Hawaiian voyaging canoe, Hokulea-Star of Gladness)
Moana e, Moana hoi: Moananuiakea hoi e
(The great expanse of ocean-Moananuiakea)
He lei e, he lei hoi: He lei aloha keia no na Aakw Kwaan
(A song of affection for the Aakw Kwaan people)
"Gunalcheesh!" a chorus of voices cries out.
The next few days are a whirlwind of cultural communion at the conference of several hundred voyagers, educators, practitioners and others from all across the Pacific who have gathered to inaugurate the Moananuiakea voyage. It all leads up to a grand launch ceremony that has to be hastily relocated indoors to a college gym thanks to a bout of stormy Alaska weather. As always in the voyaging world, nature is in charge.
Hokulea raises her distinctive crab-claw sails beneath Mendenhall Glacier as she departs Juneau for the Moaninuiakea voyage. PHOTO BY BRIAN BIELMANN / SALT + AIR STUDIOS
The ten-hour ceremony evokes the atmosphere of a potlatch, the marathon ritual feasts that are a hallmark of traditional Northwest ceremonial culture, melded with a Hawaiian hoike, or hula celebration. When the moment comes to officially launch the voyage, Thompson issues an emotional plea to the audience both in the hall and watching via livestream around the world. "Humanity needs your strength," he says. "Hokulea needs your strength ... be with us and help show the world another way. Help us strengthen the most important movement in human history: to restore the only island that we have, which we call Earth."
After the weather clears a few days later, Hokulea quietly leaves the dock, bound for the remote village of Angoon, or Xutsnoowu Kwaan, ninety-five miles away. It's a place that has held special sadness for Southeast Alaska's Native communities ever since the original village there was destroyed by Navy shelling in 1882, following a conflict over restitution for the accidental death of a village shaman aboard a whaling ship. While they are in Angoon, Hoku's crew is set to participate in the launch of the first dugout yaakw to be built in the village since the tragedy, constructed with the help of village high school students as a healing project under the leadership of Wayne Price. The thirty-foot vessel has been named Cha Tleix Ti, or Unity.
En route to Angoon, apprentice navigator Lucy Lee records a video update from Hokulea's deck. "Throughout the last week we have had the immense opportunity to spend time in Juneau with our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and we are so thankful," she says into her headset. "But we are now on our way to Angoon, and we are eager to see what awaits us."
The Moananuiakea voyage, with its mission of global healing, has begun in earnest. Can I get a big HOO-HAA!?