Gift from the Past, The

Gift from the Past, The

Rumford, James

When European explorers first ventured into the Pacific in the early 1500s, they found people on all the major islands. How had the people gotten there? It was a mystery to the Europeans. They had no idea that they had happened upon a people who were the greatest explorers and navigators in the world-a people so skilled that they needed no maps or instruments to find their way across the vast ocean.

Mau Piailug [pea-eye-luke] was born in 1932 on Satawal, a tiny Pacific island no wider than a mile. When Mau was still a little baby, his grandfather put him in a tide pool as though he were putting him in a cradle. There the sea gently rocked him back and forth to the rhythm of the tides. This was not unusual. The people of Satawal are people of the sea-just as much at home on the water as they are on land.

So it is no surprise when I tell you that the grandfather couldn’t wait to take Mau sailing when the boy was older. They had wonderful times together, but whenever Mau got seasick, his grandfather would tie him to the back of the boat and drag him through the waves. This was not meanness. This was the traditional cure!

When Mau was six, his grandfather began to teach him about navigation-about how to find his way on the ocean. He started by telling Mau about the stars. Mau would struggle to put the difficult words into his head. To help the boy, the grandfather made a star compass out of a circle of coral rocks. In the center his grandfather put a little canoe he had made of palm fronds. Then he explained how the stars rose in the sky and traveled from east to west. If Mau learned this star compass and could follow the path of each star, he would never get lost at sea.

As Mau grew older he spent his evenings in the canoe house. There he asked the elders to teach him about navigation. In this way, and with his grandfather’s help, he learned the paths of more than a hundred stars. He also learned that when clouds covered the sky, he could use the direction of the ocean waves to guide his canoe. He learned how to follow the birds toward land when they headed home in the evening, and he studied the creatures of the sea, for in times of trouble they, too, could help him find land.

When Mau was 11 or 12, he was so eager to learn that he was sent to a master navigator, a palu, who lived on a nearby island. And when Mau was 18 or so he was made a palu, too, in a special ceremony called pwo. During the ceremony, Mau was dusted with turmeric. Its bright yellow color was like sunlight covering his body and signified the knowledge he had been given. Then Mau drank a special potion to show that this knowledge had gone inside him. Now strong in mind and heart, there was nothing he feared from the sea.

One day, Mau and his crew were out sailing and spotted what looked like a floating log. Suddenly, their boat was lifted high out of the water-teetering on the back of a sleeping whale! Mau, the palu, did not panic. He told his crew to wait. Slowly the whale submerged, setting the boat back down in the water.

Another time, a typhoon swept him and his crew far off course. Mau studied the stars and the ocean swells and found the strength to keep going until they came upon a deserted island. But as they tried to reach shore, their canoe sank on the reef. Mau and his crew swam to safety. For seven months they lived on that island until they were rescued. Not once did Mau let his crew think of giving up. He was the palu, the man responsible for everyone’s safety.

For the next 20 years, Mau sailed his canoe in the old way. He fished. He raised a family. He took pride in being a palu. But during those years Satawal was changing. An elementary school was built on the island, and the children turned to books instead of their elders for learning. They no longer came to the canoe house to seek wisdom, and the pwo ceremony was stopped. On island after island across the Pacific, the old navigators died without passing on their knowledge. And Mau was now afraid that this would happen on Satawal, too.

Then in 1974 an amazing thing happened. An American friend invited Mau to Hawai’i. There Mau met a group of people building a voyaging canoe. With this canoe, they hoped to bring the ancient way of navigation back to life by sailing to Tahiti without maps or compass. They hoped to prove that the peoples of the Pacific once had the knowledge to sail great distances without getting lost.

The canoe they were building was called Hokule’a [hoe-coo-lay-ah], and it was a beautiful boat. But for all its beauty, it was useless, for there was no one who could sail it in the ancient way-that is, until Mau arrived.

Mau was asked to be captain of the Hokule’a. It was an honor, but Mau did not know if he could make the 2,500-mile journey to Tahiti. He did not know the seas, the winds, or even the stars that far south.

So with some fear, Mau set sail from Hawai’i in 1976 with his crew. The voyage was easy at first while Hawai’i’s towering volcanoes still remained in sight, but once these landmarks disappeared below the horizon, it was up to Mau to find the way.

But Mau was a palu, and he found courage in the teachings of his ancestors.

For 33 days, Mau seemed never to sleep. He watched the changing colors of the sky and the sea. He felt the temperature of the air and the water. He tasted the saltiness of the ocean and listened to the sound of the waves slapping against the hull. All of these were like road signs guiding him to Tahiti.

When the Hokule’a arrived safely in Tahiti, reporters spread the news across the airwaves. Soon it seemed as though the entire world was cheering and praising not just the crew of the Hokule’a but all the peoples of the Pacific.

Now it was Mau’s turn to pass on what he had received, and he gave freely the gift of his fathers. He taught all who would listen, and peoples all over the Pacific began building canoes and rediscovering their past.

Mau is in his seventies now. He is back on Satawal, and there he has found students eager again to learn the ancient techniques. With patience, he is slowly creating a new generation of navigators. And with each lesson he gives, his students learn to respect the past. Without such respect, it is impossible for them to sail confidently into the future.

I will reach behind.

I will reach ahead.

These are the words of an ancient Satawal chant, telling the people to accept the gifts of the past and be ready to pass them on to the future.

Copyright Carus Publishing Company Sep 2004

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