On the western shores of Ko Olina, just north of Honolulu, native Hawaiian storyteller “Uncle” strokes his long beard and paces around a campfire with his hand on a tall, crooked walking stick. He’s sharing tales of his ancestors through mo’olelo – the verbal storytelling tradition of Hawaii – and guests at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa, are on the edges of their seats.
"Uncle" shares mo'olelo around the fire — Photo courtesy of Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa
Uncle – a term of respect for older men – recounts the legends and lore of the islands, from the adventures of a Hawaiian princess to the shenanigans of the mischievous Menehune (little people who live in the forests around the islands). He and other cast members at the resort share how the Polynesians discovered Hawaii while exploring the Pacific in their double-hulled canoes without the aid of instruments or a compass.
Before the missionaries arrived and the islanders learned how to read and write, history was passed from one generation to the next through art, hula or storytelling. And that’s how Aulani shares it too, for the most part, including at a recently-launched luau that focuses on Hawaii’s legendary canoeing origins.
The new KA WA‘A luau (wa’a is Hawaiian for canoe) highlights the canoe voyage that brought settlers to the ‘Ewa Loa plains surrounding Aulani. “We have many stories to tell and each unlocks more of the magic of Hawaii,” says Kahulu De Santos, Hawaiian cultural advisor at Aulani. “It’s our responsibility and privilege to be able to pass these stories down to future generations and the canoe has inspired that sense of discovery for us.”
Aulani's new luau shares Hawaii's canoeing traditions through hula — Photo courtesy of Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa
In fact, a curiosity about the discovery of Hawaii and how native Oceanic sailors managed to find it in the vast Pacific Ocean was the inspiration for the building and sailing of the Hōkūle‘a. A full-scale replica of a double-hulled voyaging canoe, the Hōkūle‘a was built and sailed for the first time in 1976 to determine if it was possible for Polynesians to navigate between Tahiti and Hawaii on an intentional course – not just by chance – only by way of the stars.
“The voyage was dual-faceted,” says Nā'ālehu Anthony of the Pacific Voyaging Society. “We wanted to see anthropologically and scientifically if we could sail unaided, without instruments, 2,500 miles. A voyage had not been done at this level for many hundreds of years so there were questions in the minds of Hawaiians and Polynesians about if it was even possible.”
The crew of the Hōkūlea on their voyage to circumnavigate the earth — Photo courtesy of Nā'ālehu Anthony
It was possible. Sailors on the Hōkūle‘a learned how to navigate using their star compass (essentially the mental compass in their brains) that includes memorizing the stars, ocean swells, rhythms of the waves and other wayfinding techniques used to guide their course.
Arriving in Tahiti a month after setting sail, the Hōkūle‘a helped reawaken the cultural connectivity around Polynesia, according to Anthony. “Stories about Hawaii’s discovery were previously passed on only in mo’olelo, but the Hōkūle‘a experience validated that oral tradition,” he says.
The Hōkūle‘a continues to sail today. Most recently, in 2013, Hōkūle‘a and her sister canoe Hikianalia embarked on a journey to circumnavigate the earth, sailing over 60,000 nautical miles. That journey is scheduled to conclude in 2017. “Their goal is to encourage and raise awareness for a more sustainable world while sharing the Polynesian culture,” Anthony says.
That strong sense of historical Polynesian culture continues to be highlighted throughout the Hawaiian Islands. It’s what most visitors love most about coming to Hawaii. There is a sense of place that is perhaps unlike any other in the U.S.
Disney cast members share the stories of old Hawaii — Photo courtesy of Lauren Keskinel
Back at Aulani a one-sixth scale model of the Hōkūle‘a sits on display near the main lobby as a reminder of and tribute to Hawaii’s rich heritage of exploration. Disney also made a $25,000 contribution to The Friends of Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘iloa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the perpetuation of canoe building and preservation of the Hawaiian tradition.
Children rush by the Hōkūle‘a replica, scurrying about on a hunt for the Menehune that Uncle told them about. They are participating in the Menehune Adventure Trail, essentially a scavenger hunt to find these mystical creatures throughout the resort.
Little do they know that one is hidden inside a tiny keyhole just across from the canoe. Given that the Menehune are believed to have been master builders, perhaps this is not a coincidence. At least I’m sure that’s what mo’olelo (and Uncle) would tell us.