Guest Voices: Hawaiian Celestial Navigation

Our guest post this week is by Doug Herman, Senior Geographer for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

The discovery of the Hawaiian Islands by Polynesian voyagers over a thousand years ago is one of the greatest human adventures and feats of navigation.  Not only did these sailors cross 2500 miles of open ocean in crafts made with stone-age tools, but once they found these islands, they sailed back and forth to their South Pacific homelands (the Marquesas, and later Tahiti) many, many times.  Each trip required finding tiny dots of land in the midst of a vast ocean.  How did they do it?  Just as various cultures in Africa relied upon star knowledge to travel, we know today that in-depth star knowledge was the essential part of traditional Polynesian navigation.

Pius Mau Piailug and Harry Ho, Honaunau, 1992, courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

When Native Hawaiians built the Hokule‘a voyaging canoe in 1976 with the plan to sail to Tahiti using traditional methods, Hawaiian star knowledge had long been lost.  Oral tradition holds that transoceanic voyaging to and from Hawaii ended in the 13th century.  So Pius Mau Piailug, a navigator from the tiny Micronesian island of Satawal, was recruited to guide the Hokule‘a.  Mau successfully made landfall in Tahiti, and the Hokule‘a has since voyaged all over the Pacific, finding islands using traditional navigation.  A new generation of Hawaiian navigators emerged under Mau’s tutelage, and more voyaging canoes have been built.

The Hawaiian Star Compass, courtesy Polynesian Voyaging Society

Navigating by stars requires learning the rising and setting positions of stars in eight directions of the sky.  Because each star is useful only when near the horizon, the navigator must know a series of stars for each position.  Mau knew the paths of over 160 stars.  Knowledge of ocean swells was used when the stars were not visible.  Latitude can be found using pairs of stars that set together.  Voyagers would aim upwind of their destination island, and having reached the appropriate latitude, sail downwind along that line until landfall was made.

Hawaiian navigator Nainoa Thompson has used Mau’s knowledge and the fragments of Hawaiian star lore to create a new star guidance system for today’s Hawaiian voyagers. Na Ohana Hoku Eha, The Four Star Families, divide the celestial sphere into four sections that run from North to South.  Using names from Hawaiian history and folklore, this new star-knowledge system restores Hawaiian star names into the vernacular of today’s voyagers, making the night sky relevant to today’s Hawaiians.  By memorizing these “families” and each member star as well as their relative positions, navigators can determine which stars should be overhead even if they are obscured by clouds.

Na Ohana Hoku Eha (The Four Star Families)

Kekaomakali’I (The bailer of Makali’i): Makali’i is one Hawaiian name for the Pleiades star cluster.

Kaiwikuamo‘o (The Backbone): This starline is called “Backbone” for it runs from the North Star, Hokupa‘a (Fixed Star) to Hanaiakamalama, the Southern Cross.

Manaiakalani (Maui’s Fishhook): The magic hook of the Hawaiian demigod Maui shares many of the same stars as the constellation Scorpius and was named Manaiakalani.

Kalupeakawelo (Kite of Kawelo):The four stars in the kite of Kawelo are named after four prominent chiefs of the islands: Manokalanipo, chief of KauiKeawe, of Hawaii Island; Pi‘ilani, of Maui; .and Kakuhihewa of O‘ahu.

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One thought on “Guest Voices: Hawaiian Celestial Navigation

  1. This is so cool! So much skill! I had no idea the incredible level of complexity and depth of knowledge required to navigate by the stars.

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