Welcome the Hōkūleʻa

The National Library of Medicine in partnership with the Ke Ali`i Maka`ainana Hawaiian Civic Club of Washington welcomes the Hōkūleʻa to our nation’s capital May 15-24, 2016.

The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage

The Hōkūleʻa, a traditional Polynesian voyaging canoe, arrives in Washington as part of its Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage.

In Hawaiian, Mālama Honua means “to care for our Earth.” That philosophy underpins the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage.

View Transcript

[Nainoa Thompson:] 7,000 years ago the first really Oceanic people came out of China, and came out of Taiwan. Then you get to Polynesia, this Oceanic country bounded by Hawaii in the north and New Zealand in the southwest, and Rapa Nui in the east, 10 million square miles, bigger than Russia, and it was discovered by these extraordinary people. They were really the astronauts of our ancestors. They were the greatest explorers on the face of the earth.

[Narrator:] Unaided by modern instruments. These extraordinary explorers discovered and settled every livable land mass in the Pacific, relying solely on a complex understanding of the stars, the winds, the waves, and other cues from nature. ~ Guided by this traditional wisdom and perspective, Hawaiians mastered the science of living sustainably on islands. ~ Western expansion, however, brought not only new ways of seafaring but a shift in perspective on how to interact with the natural environment. ~ Eventually, traditional practices and worldviews were nearly forgotten. But a group of determined individuals got together in the 1970s to resurrect indigenous wisdom by building a traditional canoe and sailing it in the way of the ancestors. ~ Hokulea's first voyage to Tahiti reawakened a cultural pride, identity, and an intimate connection to place. ~ In a generation Hokulea has sailed over 140,000 nautical miles to reunite the world's largest Oceanic nation. ~ Today, Hokulea voyages around the planet with a message of malama honua, or caring for Island Earth, with a firm belief that blending traditional and modern technologies will help us find our way to a healthier future.

[Nainoa Thompson: ] Hokulea to us as we go around the world has this enormous potential to go to 40, 50 countries in the planet, to be with the great navigators on Earth, and I'm not talking about those in canoes. I'm talking about those who are doing things to give kindness and compassion to the Earth and those who live on it – those navigators. ~ We're not going to change the world but we're going to go and build a network of people around the earth who are going to change it, and our job is to help them be successful.

The voyage, which began in 2013, is intended to grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world. As the Hōkūleʻa and her sister vessel the Hikianalia sail across Earth’s oceans, their crew and interested followers seek to better understand how indigenous and local wisdom can help us solve some of the greatest global challenges we face.

The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage will conclude in 2017, when a new generation of navigators take the helm and guide Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia back to Polynesia after their journey around the globe.

The National Library of Medicine and the Hōkūleʻa

The NLM’s Native Voices exhibition explores the interconnectedness of wellness, illness, and cultural life for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians. As part of the exhibition, a scale model of the Hōkūleʻa graced the entrance to the Library from 2011-2015, a reminder to all to respect traditions and to look beyond our horizons to learn from others.

NLM celebrates the Hōkūleʻa's Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage and acknowledges its significance as an icon of Hawaiian culture and health.

The Native Voices Exhibition

The Native Voices exhibition examines concepts of health and wellness among contemporary American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians. Honoring the native tradition of oral history, the exhibition features personal stories from native people across the country.

Native Voices was on display at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda from 2011-2015. Through a partnership with the American Library Association, the exhibition is now traveling to 104 sites nationwide through 2020.

Native Hawaiians and the Native Voices Exhibition

200+ interviews with native peoples comprise the core of the exhibition, including 22 testimonials from the Native Hawaiian community. The video above provides excerpts from these 22 testimonials.

The Traveling Exhibition

Through more than 200 interviews and colorful, informative banners, the Native Voices traveling exhibition presents a unique collection of perspectives that both educate and inspire visitors. The video above provides an overview of the traveling exhibition.

The videos below highlight the first four stops on the Native Voices nationwide tour.

The Spirit Lake Dakota Nation welcomed the Native Voices traveling exhibition to Cankdeska Cikana Community College in Fort Totten, North Dakota (October 2013).

The opening of the Native Voices traveling exhibition in Anchorage, Alaska (June 2014) was co-hosted by the Southcentral Foundation, Alaska Native Heritage Center, and National Congress of American Indians.

The traveling exhibition opening at The Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii coincided with the Center’s 155th Heritage Day celebration honoring its founders (July 2014).

The Chickasaw Nation hosted the Native Voices traveling exhibition at a working art studio and gallery in Sulphur, Oklahoma, where Native artists paint, sculpt, and weave (August 2014).

Native Voices Mobile Apps

Download the official app for the Native Voices exhibition.


Through beautiful streaming video and an interactive art gallery, the exhibition's app explores the interconnectedness of wellness, illness, and cultural life for Native Americans, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians.

Note: the app requires a high-speed Internet connection to enjoy the streaming video.

Traveling Exhibition Schedule

Hawai'i and the Voyaging Canoe

Long before Captain Cook and other Europeans set foot in Hawai'i, the natives of Polynesia traveled between island groups in voyaging canoes. The sturdy twin hulls made them particularly well suited to long ocean voyages in certain seas and weather.

The ancestors of Native Hawaiians sailed in search of more hospitable and healthier lands to settle, to avoid conflict with rival tribal groups, or to explore the open ocean. Traditional navigators relied on acute powers of observation to set their course by ocean swell patterns, star paths across the sky, the flight of various bird species, and even the smell of the breeze or the taste of seawater.

An Icon of Hawai'ian Culture and Health

Double-hulled voyaging canoes like the Hōkūleʻa were used for millennia by Polynesians for long-distance travel between widely scattered island chains across the vast Pacific Ocean. The Hōkūleʻa was built according to the best understanding of traditional designs and completed its first major voyage, a 5,000-mile round trip between Hawai'i and Tahiti, in 1976. Since then, the Hōkūleʻa has made voyages throughout the Pacific, including trips to Japan, Alaska, and the west coast of the continental United States.

Renaissance of the Hōkūleʻa

The ancient tradition of the voyaging canoe was revived in the 1970s by a group of canoeists and historians. They built a full-scale replica of the double-hulled canoe, based on what designer Herb Kane and others concluded such a canoe would look like. In 1975 they christened the canoe the Hōkūleʻa (the Hawaiian name for the star Arcturus), meaning "Star of Gladness." The team then set out to prove that a double-hulled canoe could make long sea voyages using only sail power, and navigating solely by the stars and subtle clues carried on the wind and waves.

Herb Kane

Historian and artist Herb Kane was a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the general designer of the Hōkūleʻa, and the captain of its launch. His artwork depicts life and canoeing in ancient Hawaii as well as contemporary Hawaiian culture.

The following audio clips are from an interview Dr. Donald A. B. Lindberg, former director of the National Library of Medicine, conducted with Herb Kane in 2009.

Founding the Polynesian Voyaging Society (1:41)
[Lindberg:] We’ve talked about a number of things, but of course central to it all is your being a founding member of the [Polynesian] Voyaging Society.

[Kane:] I had done all the research necessary to retrieve knowledge of how these canoes were built. And I had done construction drawings of the different types of Polynesian canoes. And then after those were done I did paintings showing the presence that these vessels had on the water with people on their decks. And on one of the trips back here I presented the paintings to the state foundation on culture and art and they purchased the lot.

I knew how the canoes were built, I didn’t know how they performed. And there was quite a lot of argument at that time in the early ‘70s among various students of ancient Polynesia as to whether or not they performed well enough to make long voyages, and whether the navigation was adequate enough to hit island blocks – island groups – if not actual islands. So I decided the only way to find out how they performed was to build one. I moved back here to build that canoe. And I designed it. I was the chief builder and I was the first captain on it to take it out on a shake-down cruise throughout the islands to see what it needed if anything, and to train people.
Nianoa Thompson (2:05)
I picked up Nainoa because very close to my beach house was a park in which his canoe club parked their canoes and they practiced. I had a hobie cat and a smaller double canoe – sailing canoe. So I got to know the people in that canoe club and through Nainoa I got to know Pinky.

And Nainoa would come over sometimes in the evening…walk over…and treated me sort of as an uncle. One night I was out sitting on the sea wall when he came by, looking at the stars, so I started pointing out navigation stars to him. And he was fully attentive. And then I got the use of the Bishop Museum planetarium and their lecturer, Louis Valier at the time, to set up the planetarium and drill us on star rising and setting places and how that appeared at different latitudes. Nainoa was always bright-eyed and bushy-tailed so I knew we had a live one there.

[Lindberg:] He’s a nice person.

[Kane:] Yeah, we’re friends.

[Lindberg:] I complimented him when I interviewed him about his importance in this voyaging society thing and he said “now wait a minute, you should understand when all that started I was in high school.”

[Kane:] Right. Yeah. But he’s become…some people have different talents and he has a particular talent for land-finding. He has always found land. After the first voyage – I put him on the return voyage back from Tahiti to Hawai’i and after that he went off to Micronesia and studied with a traditional navigator there. And now over the years he has been training others.
Renaissance of South Pacific Cultures (1:40)
[Lindberg:] You know I must confess that I was first introduced to you and your work by a visit to the Hawai’i state art museum. And I was just dumbfounded by painting the one that they have – a famous one. And it stayed with me for a year. That started a real revolution didn’t it?

[Kane:] It was sort of a cultural revolution that resulted in a sort of a renaissance of Hawaiian culture but also cultures throughout the South Pacific also. People got more interested in reviving their own culture and the canoe was a great center for focus on it because without the canoe there would be no culture. And I could sense a strong interest on the Hawaiian community.

I went round giving talks about why we were building the canoe; that it was an icon of mutual ancestry among all Polynesians. And that an experience in it would remind people of the qualities that their ancestors would had to have possessed: inventiveness, pushing the limits of stone, neolithic technology to its finest hour, and the ability to create sea-going vessels and navigate them. And how the canoe is a central object in the culture, and how no culture can exist without its objects.
Voyaging and Health (1:49)
[Lindberg:] At first we didn’t understand, at least I didn’t understand the actual meaning of the voyaging in the sense of building a self-respect back into the people, and thereby the connection with health. I was interviewing a native healer up at Waianae and he said, essentially, if you don’t have self respect, for yourself or the people you’re with, you don’t take care of yourself, you don’t pay attention, you don’t follow doctor’s orders, and you don’t stay well. So he made the connection very directly.

[Kane:] And there is something to that. Here, diabetes and overweight are major problems for Polynesians throughout the Pacific. And I think of course that’s because of the introduction of modern foods, high-calorie foods, a lot of sweets.

[Lindberg:] The idea of wanting to be healthy and self-respect, I must confess I just didn’t think about it until the Hawai’i experience but it makes sense to me does it seem to work out that way in your observation?

[Kane:] It does because one of the things that Dr. Aluli on Molokai’i --

[Lindberg:] Emmet Aluli, I actually met him.

[Kane:] Emmet Aluli. He started the weight loss program that simply meant going back to the original foods.

[Lindberg:] The pre-Cook diet.

[Kane:] The pre-Cook diet. And this was later taken up by another physician in leeward Oahu, called Shintani I think his name was.

[Lindberg:] Yes, it is Shintani.

[Kane:] And some Hawaiians who faithfully followed that diet benefitted from it very much.

Building the Model

A 1/6-life-size model of the Hōkūleʻa was commissioned by the National Library of Medicine. The model was build by Tay Perry and Jay Dowsett of Honolulu to the general specifications of the 1976 Hōkūleʻa. The model is 10 feet long, compared to the 60-foot-long Hōkūleʻa.

Native Hawai'ian Materials

The Hōkūleʻa model is made entirely from native woods and materials, except for the lashings.

The sails are made from Lauhala, which are leaves of the hala tree (Pandanus tectorius) which have been pounded and woven. Lau means "leaf" in the Hawaiian language.

Listen to model builders Jay Dowsett and Tay Perry talk about the woods used to construct the model.

'Ahakea (0:40)
[Tay Perry:] This is called 'ahakea. It’s also an endemic wood to Hawaii. It only grows in Hawaii, and it’s natural color is this yellow, so the gunnel part of the canoe, what we call the mo'o is made of that wood.

If you look at the pictures of the Hōkūle'a the whole top front structure is about this color of yellow, and scientific name of this is Bobea elatior, hard to come by but not endangered because there’s just no commercial use for it, so it’s not really commercially taken. But with Jay and some of our members being partial Hawaiians, we have native gathering rights, and the Bishop estate has been very good about letting us do that.
Hau (1:14)
[Jay Dowsett:] Hau. [Tay Perry:] Hau.

[Jay Dowsett:] This is our balsa wood. For our racing canoes we would use this wood for those 'iakos, those cross members that go to the ama, which is the second hull, and hau is an interesting plant. It’s just – it’s like a weed – lowlands – loves water, and there’s nothing ever straight about it, so the key to here is when you walk into a hau forest you have to be able to identify the section of branch that has the proper curve to it that would fit your canoe, then you go and you chop that out and take it back. You have to drown it for about three weeks to get rid of any possible bugs that are inside the wood and then once you bring it out and it’s cured – it’s been salted and cured, it makes for a wonderful, wonderful piece of wood, but it’s – if you feel this, you can feel how light it is, but it’s still quite dense unlike balsa. Balsa you can actually crush this one you cannot.

[Tay Perry:] And net floats were made out of that and also paddles because it’s strong wood and it’s light. It’s name is Hibiscus tilliaceus and it’s all throughout Polynesia and it grows naturally in many places. It’s called indigenous.
Koa (1:30)
[Jay Dowsett:] A lot of the parts of the canoe are made of Koa, but the hulls are going to be the most dominating thing that you see. Koa is what most of the canoes were and still are made today as far as the traditional –

[Tay Perry:] Wooden canoes.

[Jay Dowsett:] – Wooden canoes, right – Is it rare? No, but it is nevertheless a beautiful wood. Now there are other acacias throughout the world. There’s one in particular that’s in Oregon and another one in particular that’s in Australia and both of them have tried to call it acacia koa something, and unfortunately they can’t do that because koa only exists in Hawaii. So any other acacias that might resemble this have to use another name. So when people ask you is that koa, that means it has to have come from Hawaii.

[Tay Perry:] The beauty of the wood would not be seen in the old canoes because they had a concoction made of various saps and oils and charcoal that ended up looking like a black lacquer, so all of the old pictures that you see of canoes were black. The scientific name of koa is Acacia koa. It’s a definite species. It’s endemic to Hawaii. It was durable and it was big enough to make a canoe out of, and it grew – it was easier to work than some of the other large trees, and it would last a reasonably long time if properly cared for.
Kukui (0:54)
[Tay Perry:] This is the first time we have ever worked with this wood, but it was so pretty when we milled it, we thought – it’s a native wood, and it would be very serviceable for what we were doing, and it’s called kukui, which is also known throughout Polynesia as a candlenut. The scientific name is Aleurites moluccana.

[Jay Dowsett:] That was what we used on the pola.

[Tay Perry:] This is the deck, yeah, the pola, and it was brought to Hawaii we believe by canoes, but there’s some controversy on that. We think that since the kukui or candlenut was so important for their lighting, for all of the stuff that they used it for --[Jay Dowsett:] It was huge as far as medicinal use.[Tay Perry:] Yeah, so we think that it was brought by voyagers from their ancient homelands.
Milo (1:17)
[Tay Perry:] This wood is milo.

[Jay Dowsett:] To me this is like Hawaiian cedar. Smell this. If you smell this, the smell is just heavenly, so when we’re sanding it and we’re working it – awesome, awesome to work it. It’s also really wild as far as colors so –

[Tay Perry:] It grows down at sea level area.

[Jay Dowsett:] Yeah. It’s a real pretty presentation because you can have anything from blonds to yellows to reds and pinks and purples in it as well as the dark browns. So when you have something like that on the canoe or in a bowl – whatever you’ve made, whatever you fashioned –some people mistake it for a kind of a miniature hau [tree]. It’s relatively short and stocky, and the leaf has that kind of traditional almost like a spade shape, like a spade off of a card, has a kind of orangey-white flower to it, and then a little nut that when the nut opens up, it begins to flower. But it’s pretty ironic because it’s beautiful wood and it grows in just some terrible places as far as –

[Tay Perry:] It is not an endemic tree to Hawaii, but it is an indigenous tree meaning that it probably came to Hawaii without human help, and the name of that is Thespesia populnea.
'Ohi'a (0:42)
[Jay Dowsett:] 'Ohi'a is an interesting tree. This is a tree that usually starts growing at about the 1,000-foot altitude or better, and it’s pretty gnarly. It’s not something that grows generally speaking straight unless it’s in competition. And the wood is incredibly heavy, incredibly dense, and unfortunately has a nasty habit of even after you try to dry it out as best you possibly can, it will have the habit of twisting and cracking, so it’s a wood that you’ve got to be careful with.

[Tay Perry:] It’s extremely strong wood. Even twisted and cracked wood is still usable. It’s also endemic to Hawaii.

The Oke Ceremony

Watch the Oke Ceremony that was performed at the delivery of the Hōkūleʻa model to the National Library of Medicine.