Moana has allowed the world to meet a brave Polynesian seafarer. A fictional character of course, but not far from reality. In the past, Polynesian women played an important part during the great voyages and today they’re still very active on board the double-hulled canoes sailing in the Pacific.
The lights go out… rustles rustle… first lights on the screen… the necks are stretched forward and the eyes of the children sparkle… here it is, the film starts ! Moana appears on the screen and the dream begins ! Since it was released in November 2016, Moana –Vaiana in France, Moana in Tahitian- has broken records, overtaking her elders Anna – Frozen– and Raiponce – Tangled– during the very first day on screens. A month later, the film had already been viewed by more than 600 million spectators, arriving 4th at Disney’s box office behind The King Lion, Frozen and Zootopia.
This is nothing surprising as the film ticks all the boxes required to make a blockbuster : paradisiacal settings, high-technology at the service of the plot, the story of a charming heroine who embarks us on hectic adventures full of pitfalls in a country located in the popular imagination, that is, in Polynesia…But in Moana, no love story whatsoever, and neither Prince Charming, but an initiatory journey in the wake of the ancient Polynesians. This is precisely what makes this animated film a modern and original cartoon that makes little Polynesian girls dream and sing.
How many girls dreamt when they saw Moana steering her va’a –canoe- with her hoe –paddle- like the ancients, or when they discovered the adventures of the independent heroine, this playful little girl who becomes a young rebel determined to save her people even by breaking the tapu –taboo- forbidding them to venture past the local reef ?
The popularity of this heroine and her story is undisputable and even in the most remote islands of French Polynesia people are still humming over and over the tunes that accompany her adventures, and since the release of the songs in the Tahitian language the craze has been even more intense. This is an unprecedented success thanks to an efficient marketing plan –the film has been dubbed in 45 languages among which the Tahitian language- but also because Moana appeals to the most sensitive part of the spectators, the link to their past, to their origins.
1976, the revival of traditional wayfinding
On May 1st 1976, in Honolua Bay on the island of Māui, Hōkūle’a the Hawaiian double-hulled canoe is about to sail to Tahiti. Her goal is to get to Tahiti using only traditional navigational methods in order to demonstrate that New Zealander Andrew Sharp’s accidental settlement hypothesis is wrong, and to restore the Polynesians’ pride after proving their ancestors were great seafarers.
On board, 13 men guided by Mau Pialug the navigator from Satawal, in the Caroline islands, and captain « Kawika » Kapahulehua. They carried out their mission on June 4th 1976 when Hokule’a arrived in the harbour of Papeete amid the warm cheers of some 17 000 people celebrating their new ’aito –heroes-… There was no woman on the first leg from Hawai’i to Tahiti that took 34 days, but for the return to Hawai’i, two pioneer women were on board : Keani Reiner from Kāua’i and Penny Rawlins Martin from Moloka’i. They showed the way, and prepared the place for more women on board the traditional canoes of modern times.
Since this navigational feat, several double-hulled sailing canoes have been built to promote traditional voyaging ; among them Makali’i, and Hawai’i Loa (from Hawai’i), Gaualofa (from Samoa), Haunui and te Matau a Māui (from New Zealand), Marumaruatua (from Cook Islands), Uto Ni Yalo (from Fiji), Hinemoana, and of course Fa’afaite i te ao mā’ohi (from Tahiti). More and more women sail on board those traditional canoes for various reasons. We’ve met those ’ihitai – crewmembers – who sail across the Pacific aboard those « sister canoes ».
Women and traditional voyaging
While the legends of great mythical navigators like Māui, Hiro or Ta’ihia can be found in reference books, there is nothing of the kind about female navigators. Of course this doesn’t mean that women were absent from the great navigations that resulted in the settling of the Polynesian islands, nor that their part was secondary.
Indeed in the seafaring world, and undoubtedly even more during the great migrations, women were important, not only because whole clans departed to settle new territories, but also because they had their own essential parts to play on board, otherwise, how could we account for the fact that Hina-ke-ka –ke ka, tatā in Tahitian, is a bailer-, was the Hawaiian goddess of canoe bailers ? She is also known under the names Lea or Hina-ku-wa’a – wa’a is va’a in Tahitian-.
Besides there are many legends that mention women standing at the prows of the canoes ; for instance, in the legend of Rata –Laka- one of the most famous Polynesian seafarers. When his people fought against a giant clam, his mother lead the fleet to bring the remains of the victims of the sea monster back to their island.
Tradition also has it that Rū and his sister Hina-fa’auru-va’a discovered the islands. An old chant narrates that Rū was at the rear while Hina was at the front ; she first saw the islands, now known as the Leeward islands, that her brother then named Maurua –now Maupiti-, Porapora –Bora Bora-, Taha’a and Havai’i –Ra’iātea. Similarly, in the legend of Kupe the navigator who discovered Aotearoa –New Zealand- his wife Hine-i-te-aparangi, is said to be standing at the rear ; she was the one who first sighted the island.
In Tahitian, the name Hina-fa’auru-va’a means that Hina steered the va’a ; this is further proof that for the ancient Polynesians, there was no absurdity in having a woman assuming a key role on board, and also that their role was significant.
In Ra’iātea, a pass bears the name of Hina who started beating tree bark into tapa on this island. According to the legend, even if Hina liked this island she still loved sailing and one night when the moon was particularly beautiful, she decided to visit it. She settled up there, on the moon, abandoned her canoe and never came back on the earth. From then on, Hina-i-fa’auru-va’a became Hina-i-a’a-i-te marama meaning Hina who settled upon the moon…
Encounter women ’ihitai
Hau’oli Smith-Gurtler is one of them ; as a true woman of the sea, Hau’oli is an experienced rower who first boarded Hōkūle’a in 1992 for the « No Na Mamo Voyage ». Says Hau’oli « trying to get on a voyage was tough », and before Hōkūle’a got through modifications, « you had to have strength and muscle… Steering with the hoe in rough weather was difficult, and hoisting and lowering mast, spars and sails was physically demanding ; you had to have stamina to keep up with the Uncles ! »
Like Teiratohu from Aotearoa, some got involved in the canoe world inspired by their elders or because they were curious ; others came to traditional sailing by accident like Georgia or 68-year-old Elizabeth who still sails and has no intention to stop soon ! As for others like Māori Rereahuhete, traditional sailing is a way « to be part of the large Polynesian family, reconnect with our ancestors, and with the spiritual side of waka ».
One common point to those women ’ihitai is they are all aware that their mission goes beyond the va’a itself, and this is even more true since Te mana o te moana fleet was set up. Those women are engaged in their own communities where they transmit traditional skills like wayfinding but also promote the preservation of their culture, their environment and the values that are central to social well-being. For Samoan Ivanancy Vunikura, Māori Gina Mohi, Fijian Agnès Sosoko, or their seasters, their approach would be meaningless if not in close connection with their island communities.
In Tahiti too there tend to be more and more women on Fa’afaite, the only « traditional » double-hulled canoe of French Polynesia. As an example, from March 15th to April 5th Fa’afaite toured the Austral islands in order to promote the protection of the ocean and the sustainability of resources. Six ’ihitai did the whole voyage that lasted 3 weeks ; half of them were women, and for the return leg, 8 out of the 15 crew were women. In fact, three women -–Moeata Galenon, Fatiarau Salmon and India Tabellini- have started training to qualify as maritime captains and hope to motivate new recruits. Undoubtedly, more and more Tahitian women get interested in sailing canoes, train as best they can and inspire others ; so, join in !
As this article gets to its end, Hōkūle’a is about to close her 3 year-long journey around the world. When she returns to Hawai’i, two sister canoes will accompany her : Hikianalia, her Hawaiian sister and Fa’afaite. Hikianalia arrived from the Marquesas to Papeete on April 12th ; her captain was Kala, daughter of navigator Kālepa Baybayan. She’ll probably be captain again for the return to Hawai’i. As for Hōkūle’a, no doubt, two women will hold the most important posts : Pomaikalani Bertelmann will be her captain and the navigator will be Ka’iulani Murphy.
Keani, Penny, Pomaikalani, Hau’oli, Ka’iulani, Kala, and the others, thank you for what you did and what you’re still doing in order for women to have their place on board, side by side with men, like the outriggers of traditional canoes !
Teuira Henry, Ancient Tahiti
Edward Tregear, The Maori-Polynesian comparative dictionary
Colin Richards, The Substance of Polynesian Voyaging
Ben Finney, Richard Rhodes, Paul Frost and Nainoa Thompson, Wait for the west wind