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Voyagers and Explorers – Celebrating Discoverers’ Day in Hawaii

Discoverers’ Day is Hawaii’s answer to Columbus Day, established in 1971 “to honor all discoverers, including Pacific and Polynesian navigators.” It is celebrated annually on the second Monday in October. The founding of Discoverers’ Day in Hawaii parallels the movement started in the 1970s in North America to change Columbus Day to Native American Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

It is hard to pinpoint exactly when Polynesian voyagers first reached Hawaii. Using the stars, sun and knowledge of ocean currents Polynesians found their way to the world’s most isolated island chain. DNA indicates multiple waves of migration to the Hawaiian islands, most likely firstly from the Marquesas and secondly from Tahiti.

Unless you work for the government, you still have to clock in on Discoverers’ Day, but the holiday can be celebrated by learning about and perpetuating Hawaiian culture surrounding seafaring and traditional navigation techniques. Here are some ways to do so:

Visit Ka Lae (South Point)

Ka Lae, also known as South Point, is the southernmost tip of the Big Island and the Southernmost part of the United States. It is believed that Polynesians made first landing and “discovered” Hawaii at Ka Lae. South Point Complex is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Kalalea Heiau is found on the South Point Complex, and is a fishing Heiau featuring navigational properties. Also within the South Point Complex is Papakolea Beach, the world’s only green sand beach. During the current pandemic, please be sensitive and courteous to the residential community of South Point.

Visit the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center website and practice backyard star navigation

Due to the current pandemic, ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center is temporarily closed. However, their database of resources for backyard astronomers features activities for all ages to learn more about astronomy and Hawaiian culture. A good place to start is Nā ʻOhana Hōkū ʻEhā (The Four Star Families). This activity will teach you the groupings of Hawaiian constellations that run north to south. Consider making a purchase through the online store or making a donation to help ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center perpetuate Hawaiian culture in the sciences.

Visit the Polynesian Voyaging Society website and discover the Hōkūle’a voyages

Perhaps nothing is more symbolic of Polynesian voyaging than Hōkūle’a, the replica double hull canoe. Hōkūle’a (“The star of gladness”) was built in the 1970s in the time of the Hawaiian cultural renaissance, when Hawaiian language and cultural teachings were being revitalized to save them from extinction via obsoletion. The maiden voyage of Hōkūle’a took her from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976. In 2013, Hōkūle’a embarked on the Malama Honua worldwide voyage, circumnavigating the globe and including more than 150 ports, 18 nations, and eight of UNESCO’S Marine World Heritage sites sailing through 2017. Photos and footage of the journey can be found on the site.

Read Voyagers by Herb Kane and Hawaiki Rising by Dr. Sam Low

Voyagers and Hawaiki Rising complement each other by talking about the historic past and the rediscovery of the  future in Polynesian voyaging. Voyagers was written and illustrated by Herb Kawainui Kane, and provides detailed descriptions of Polynesian voyaging techniques, canoes, and Hawaiian cultural practices. Many of the paintings featured in the book can be seen on display within the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel. The book has a film counterpart called Voyagers the First Hawaiians, but it can be difficult to get hold of.

Hawaiki Rising connects the past with the future of Polynesian voyaging. Author Dr. Sam Low holds an anthropology Ph.D. and sailed on three Hōkūle’a voyages. Hawaiki Rising tells the story of the men and women who created and sailed Hōkūle’a. The book describes the heartbreaking loss of crewmate Eddie Aikau, champion surfer who courageously labored to save his crewmates when Hōkūle‘a capsized, giving rise to the popular phrase “Eddie would go.” It also tells the story of Native Hawaiian Nainoa Thompson learning Polynesian navigational techniques from Mau Piailug of Satawal. A film equivalent was produced by PBS and directed by Dr. Low called The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific.

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