The Art and Craft of a Polynesian Voyaging Canoe

from Pacific Arts Magazine, May 2000 by Heu’ionalani Meph Wyeth

On the tiny island of Taumako (fig. 1) in the Solomon Islands’ eastern province of Temotu live some 500 Polynesians who may be the only people in the Pacific still capable of building and sailing traditional voyaging canoes in completely traditional ways. Dwelling outside the so-called Polynesian Triangle and off major shipping lanes, they have few of the conveniences or distractions of twentieth century life. Taumako has no roads, banks, motorized vehicles, shops, television, electric lights, or telephones. Communications from the world outside come over the island’s marine radio or by way of an occasional boat. The nearest inhabited islands are 100 nautical miles across a frequently rough and treacherous seaway.

Of necessity, the Taumako live as Oceanic peoples have for generations, by subsistence farming and fishing. Blessed with good soil, water, and reefs, their island provides them with most of life’s essentials. Gardens and sea furnish food; the forest gives material for shelter, household acoutrements, and canoes. As long as their population stays low and their lifestyle simple, they can live comfortably from their own resources.

Figure 2. An old tridacna clam shell adze blade lies on a coconut floor. Until recently, these blades were in common use in Taumako. Now, however, most carvers have metal ones. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

To use what the island offers, Taumako must still practice survival skills that people in more developed areas of Polynesia have all but forgotten. With no lumber yards, sawmills, or power tools, they must still cut timber with adzes (fig. 2). Lacking refrigeration, they must use traditional ways of preserving food and protecting it from vermin, no easy task in a warm moist climate. Having few plastic bags or bottles, they manufacture their own containers and carriers (fig. 3).

Figure 3. A new sago leaf basket drys in the sun. Because few metal or plastic containers make their way to their isolated island, the people make sturdy baskets like this for a variety of daily uses, including storage, transport of food and tools, and housing chickens. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

Many of these skills are also those that made them Temotu’s preeminent voyaging canoe builders. Therefore, when they decided in 1996 to build a canoe of the type that had last been used for transport some thirty years earlier, they still had the carving, weaving, and other expertise that the endeavor required.

Manufacture of these splendid craft requires a great many people to do a great deal of work, much of which might not be obvious to someone unaquainted with the dynamics of a subsistence economy. For example, when we asked Kaveia Koloso, Taumako’s Paramount Chief and Navigator, what is the first thing to be done when one wants to build a voyaging canoe, he replied, Plant a garden. Because people cannot fish or cultivate their gardens and work on the canoe at the same time, anyone wanting to enlist others’ help must feed them. This does not mean sending out for pizza; it means growing, harvesting, catching, cleaning, chopping wood for fuel, cooking the food, and then carrying it, sometimes far into the forest, to the builders. During the construction of Vaka Taumako, people rotated catering duties through the community so that everyone had both the opportunity to work on the canoe and the obligation to feed other workers.

Figure 4. Pounding coconut husks to prepare fibre for cord manufacture. Cord- making, like many canoe-building jobs, employs men and women, old and young. Children like the boys standing in the background gather green coconuts, remove their husks, and bury the husks in sand at the lagoon’s edge. After three or four weeks, adults dig them up and beat out the rotten skin, leaving the golden fibers ready for plaiting. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

The variety of construction jobs involved means that virtually everyone in the community pitches in. People of both sexes and all ages help prepare cord for lashing,(figs. 4 & 5), make ropes for sail rigging, ties, telltales, and plait the giant hawsers for hauling the canoe log down from the forest. They also cut the bush paths and provide the muscle power to move the hull and other timbers. Children gather and prepare coconut husks for cord-making, sharpen tools, carry messages, and manufacture the traditional anti-fouling paint from seaweed. Men carve the timbers and lash the canoe. Women weave the engine, the massive lauhala (pandanus leaf) sail, which propels the canoe both physically and spiritually.

Figure 5. Plaiting coconut husk fibre into kaha (cordage, aha in Hawaiian). A tepuke (voyaging canoe) will require approximately 1500 meters of such cordage to hold it together. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

According to Taumako tradition, this sail embodies their ancestor Lata, who built the first tepuke (voyaging canoe). In its elegant and aerodynamic shape, (fig. 6) they see Lata’s arms arching over his head and framing his face. As the propulsion mechanism of the canoe, Lata leads and carries his heirs over the wide sea.

Figure 6. The finished product! Vaka Taumako’s sail opens its wings to the wind for the first time. According to sail technologist Tony Marchaj, its elegant shape makes this sail a highly efficient airfoil. Windtunnel tests he conducted on sails like these showed them to be substantially more efficient than European and Arab types (Marchaj: 158-176). (Photo by Jim Bailey)

There is more to this than visual fancy. Polynesians in Hawai’i, Tahiti, Rarotonga, New Zealand, and elsewhere use Lata’s sail and tell stories of Lata (also called La’a, Rata, Laka, etc.) Embedded in these stories are instructions for future voyagers, protocols, geneaologies, and moral education. In some of these Lata appears as a male canoe maker, in others as a woman who controls winds, in still others s/he is a dancing spirit who lives in forest plants.

A common denominator in these complex tales is the concept of equilibrium, between male and female, between the individual and the human community past and present, and between humans and the natural world. Without this spiritual poise, no one can safely build or sail a canoe. It is therefore appropriate that men and women work together to create the sail. Women weave its panels; men sew them together. (fig. 7)

Figure 7. Men attach the sail to its booms. Woven by women, sewn and rigged by men, the sail, without which the tepuke will go nowhere, embodies the co-operation necessary to build a voyaging canoe. The twisted cords are of coconut fibre, the braided sail ties are from the bark of a tree in the mallow family (a relative of Hibiscus tilleacus, known to Hawaiians as hau). From similar trees came the material for sheets (sail hauling lines) and the huge rope used to drag the log down from the forest. (Jim Bailey)

Any female who grows up on Taumako learns to weave (fig. 8). Very young girls begin helping with simple jobs like making floor mats, and, by the time they are of marriagable age (15 or 16), can fabricate the baskets, sleeping mats, carriers etc. that a household requires. The panels that compose a sail being simply very long mats, experienced sail-weavers quickly taught younger women the technique.

Figure 8. Readying laufala (pandanus leaf, luahala in Hawaiian) for weaving a tepuke sail. The leaves that this woman is rubbing with a spoon have already undergone considerable preparation. Weavers first gather the green leaves, soften them by sliding them over hot coals, and remove their thorns. Next they split the leaves into strips of useable width. Women commonly plait sails in groups, both for cameraderie and to speed the labor. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

Figure 9. A young boy learns carving in the traditional Polynesian way, by watching and imitating his elders. By the time he is old enough to marry, he will have the skills he needs to make himself a house and a canoe, two necessities of Taumako life. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

Likewise, young men, most of whom begin learning woodworking as children, eagerly joined the carving crews. Even small boys helped out (fig. 9) sharpening tools, wielding adzes alongside the men, and plying the long bone needles with which their elders sew together the sail panels. When, as happens often in this cash-poor area, the number of would-be workers exceeded the number of available tools, (fig. 10) they learned by observation, or, on occasion, lightened the workmen’s load by providing entertainment.

Figure 10. Roughing out a hull in the forest. Once the log has been partly shaped and hollowed, people will drag it down to the shore for finishing. Lacking roads, ropes, and wheeled transport, the Taumako must work together to cut a path for the log, make hawsers of bark with which to haul it, and then pull it as a team. Truly it takes a village to make one of these canoes! (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

To compensate for their lack of the chisels, planes, saws, etc, that first-world carpenters need, Taumako use what they have ingeniously and skillfully. A typical tool-kit consists of a machete, knife, and, principally, an adze. Unlike most Polynesians, the Taumako have not forgotten the virtues of this versatile tool. (fig. 11). It serves them as, among other things, gouge, hammer, plane, scribe, chisel, and knife (fig. 12). So at one are these men with their adzes that they commonly go about their workday with one slung over a shoulder, where it rests as lightly and naturally as a piece of clothing.

Figure 11. With adze and ax, men of Taumako shape a log into a tepuke hull. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

Figure 12. Another use for kaha: a master carver lashes his adze blade to a handle. Tying the blade in this way enables him to make the precise adjustments in its angle that carving the interior of a tepuke demands. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

(A typical incident: during a food break, we saw a man pick up a branch about 0.5m. long and hack vigorously at it with his adze. The wood being the wrong size and type for any canoe part that we knew, we asked his son what the man was doing. He replied that his father had broken the lid for a plastic bottle, and was carving a replacement. Sure enough, in about ten minutes, the old man had fitted the bottle with a handcarved stopper. How eloquently this small event shows the difference between first-world and Taumako lifeways!)

Here we come to the substance of what the Taumako are doing, for they are not just making artifacts to display (fig. 13). In building canoes they are rebuilding their traditional voyaging way of life. For this endeavor the canoe serves as both means and metaphor. Thus they have chosen to represent their efforts to the world by the name Vaka Taumako (a canoe for Taumako, referring both to the people and their home) Project. Appropriately the canoe is a double-ender. Each end bears a schematic face of Lata, who gazes both ahead and behind. Like their ancestor, Lata’s heirs look behind them to see their way ahead.

Figure 13. The hakatu (outrigger struts) and lashing. Taumako call the diamond pattern in the middle of the lashings umu (oven, imu in Hawaiian) for its resemblance to a traditional cooking pit. Many such lashings require more than two hands for their accomplishment; yet another example of the ways in which voyaging canoe builders must work in concert. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

But how can anyone call this progress? Why should they want to revive a lifestyle that has all but vanished from the Pacific? (fig. 14) In part because the lifestyle that has replaced it has not satisfied them. Like their counterparts elsewhere, many Solomon Islanders, including some Taumako, have left their villages to seek economic advancement in towns. Unfortunately, when they leave their villages, they frequently leave their village values of co-operation, communal self-reliance, and humility behind as well. (Ironically, these very qualities were those that once enabled their ancestors to settle the earth’s remotest islands!) Adopting the worst aspects of an urban lifestyle, they all too often become shiftless alcoholics, drug abusers, and petty criminals. Abandoning subsistence farming and fishing for city life, they come to depend on exotic foods like rice, noodles, and corned beef. In towns throughout the Pacific, people whose forebearers have been fishermen for millenia now eat tuna from tins. Physical and moral health suffer the consequences.

Figure 14. A master carver uses an adze to make a sa foe (bailer – ka in Hawaiian – for a paddling (Hawaiian hoe) canoe). The average man’s carving tool kit consists almost entirely of adze and machete. (Photo by H. M. Wyeth)

How can building a canoe change this? The answer requires some explanation of the old voyaging system. Traditionally Taumako built canoes on order for the Polynesian inhabitants of the neighboring Reef Islands, where suitable timber does not grow. They then delivered the canoes to the master navigators and sailors there, who voyaged around Temotu and beyond. In their voyages, these men and women set up a complex exchange network of food, crafts, hospitality, marriages, rituals, storytelling, and so on. Maintaining this network required communal effort and provided community employment.

By restoring their ancient system, the Taumako hope to offer their young people gainful and stimulating work in a village environment. No longer will they have to go to town for economic advancement. Now they can learn both useful skills and cultural pride at home. Loss of this pride has caused serious social problems among Pacific islanders in this century; the Taumako do not want these problems.

An old saying has it that distance lends enchantment. To the Taumako, distance has lent something more vital. It has given them ingenuity, courage, integrity, and the ability to achieve much with little, qualities needed wherever people are venturing into unknown times or places. The isolation that has kept them out of the twentieth-century mainstream may well give them the opportunity to lead others back to the future in the twenty-first.


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