Culture & Tradition: Ancient History

by Terry Wallace

old Hawaiian canoes at Diamond Head

I have read and heard many say, “Why must we do this,” or “why is such-and-so done this way?”

One of the answers is “Culture and Tradition.” However, if you need expert advise on technique or construction, you are better off with the likes of Walter, Tay, the Foti’s and many others. I paddle and teach the way I do because real coaches the likes of them taught me years and years ago. Recent progress adjusts our techniques, but the basics are still muscle the canoe forward by paddling.

The author is a Hawaiian History instructor & M.A. candidate in Military History, thesis on Hawaiian Military history, 1790-1810.

Culture: the acquired ability of a people to recognize and appreciate generally accepted esthetic and intellectual excellence.

Tradition: the handing down of opinions, doctrines, practices, rites and customs from age to age by oral communication.

The Hawaiian Outrigger Canoe was developed by the indiginous people of pae ‘aina (Hawaiian Islands) for two thousand years. Outrigger canoes and their counterpart, double-hull, have developed over time mainly for open ocean conditions in the Hawaiian Islands. Canoes were used in many ways, just as we use automobiles today. From racing cars to heavy trucks for moving goods to busses for transporting people. In Hawai‘i, the ocean was the highway for those who could afford it. Outrigger canoes used for fishing were relatively small with a small crew of two or three. These banana-shaped canoes had a large bottom to hold the catch. This small size and curved shape is also useful for surfing as they are very maneuverable and the shape lessens the chance of pearl-diving.

Racing probably started when fishermen challenged each other to be the first in to offer prize fish to their chief. A racing canoe and crew was expensive. The racing canoe was called hei hei wa`a and was similiar to today's racing canoes. This was also a term of endearment to a beautiful woman; long and sleek with a widening rear end. One nickname for Ka‘ahumanu was “Hei hei.” She was considered the most beautiful woman anywhere (at age 18) by Vancouver when visiting Kamehameha. Often, noho (canoe seats) were named for a particular paddler who occupied that seat rather than #1, #2 etc. One of the favorite paddlers of Kamehameha was a Ho‘okele (steerer) by the name of Kainaliu. His name lives on at an ahupua‘a (land division) and community by the same name in Kona, Hawai‘i Island. Kainaliu literally means “bail the bilge,” Ka being the bailer, so we know he was at least in the canoe. By the way, Kona means leeward and there is a Kona district on every major Hawaiian Island except Maui. Waikiki and its adjacent areas is the old Kona side of O‘ahu.

Chiefs raced against each other, often betting on the outcome. This betting practice eventually led to banning of racing by Ka‘ahumanu under influence of the missionaries.

Long before the missionaries arrived, Kamehameha lost interest in canoes when he foresaw the coming of Western Trade. He also found Western sailsets more efficient with the ability to sail closer to the wind using fore-and-aft sails with gaff rigs and ketch sail shapes. Western vessels could carry more goods with a similiar sized crew of a double hull. Kamehameha became, after uniting the islands by warfare, primarily a trader. The thousand peleliu double-hull and outrigger canoes built for the amphibious invasion of Kaua‘i then sat rotting in O`ahu sun. Most of these were made of koa trees from Hawai‘i Island, denuding the forests. However, many were carved from other woods, including driftwood spruce from Northwest America.

our racing koa canoe, Ka Io

Today’s racing hulls are also specialized. Regatta racing in Hawai`i State is strictly in hollowed out koa wood canoes. These are often shaped in the “Tahitian Style” with low gunwales. Shape, length and weight requirements are rigid in Hawai‘i, mainly based on “culture & tradition.”

Open ocean long-distance racing canoes have higher gunwales often with a pronounced tumble-home. Long-distance racing is practiced in a variety of shapes and materials from koa to graphite, ho‘eono (OC-6) to ho‘ekahi (OC-1). At the Moloka‘i to O‘ahu races, one will see this variety of shapes, from fat-assed Malia to long and sleek “racers.”

References: The Hawaiian Canoe by Tommy Holmes, Hawaiian Antiquities by David Malo, History of the Hawaiian People by Abraham Fornander, Ruling Chiefs by S.M. Kamakau and my late teacher Mary Kawena Pukui.

When frustrated: Malie a me waianuhea o ka uka.
Stay calm & cool like a misty mountain breeze.

Na ‘ike mo‘olelo a me ha‘awi na hana hou mai?
More “culture & tradition” another time?

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