Skip Navigation

Home Blogs Lessons from the Canoe Blog Series: Blog 1

Lessons from the Canoe Blog Series: Blog 1

Pacific | August 18, 2021

This blog is one of a series of three blogs focusing on themes related to Indigenous education and cultural heritage transmission in Pacific island communities, steeped in the context of the modern Pacific voyaging movement.

Stock image of boat with sail on ocean


Voyaging by canoe in the Pacific Ocean creates connections across space and time. Spatially, it allows people from distant islands to interact with each other and was at one time the only form of transport. Temporally, voyaging connects people to the past, present, and future. The tradition provides contemporary voyagers with opportunities to encounter oceanic conditions experienced by the Austronesian peoples who ventured forth from Taiwan starting approximately 5,000 years ago to initially settle and continue travelling between nearly every land mass in the Pacific Ocean. Voyaging represents a common source of pride among Pacific island peoples, who are connected ancestrally through the distant travel made possible by this enterprise and who now celebrate it as an enduring example of Indigenous ingenuity.

As direct beneficiaries of the revival of voyaging in Hawai'i that started in the 1970s with the double-hulled voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a, current participants in voyaging through the Honolulu-based non-profit organization the Polynesian Voyaging Society are reminded to be ever-cognizant of those who came before us. We, like many of our fellow members of 'ohana wa'a (“canoe family,” or a network of voyaging practitioners) throughout the Pacific, have kuleana—that is, both privilege and responsibility. Wa'a (canoes) each have unique spiritual and cultural significance, but what they share in common is that, without people, they cannot fulfill their intended purposes. Pacific voyaging canoes, including those from Hawai'i, are made of natural materials held together by intricate lashings of plant-fiber-based rope. One term for these lashings in the Hawaiian language is hoa wa'a, which can be translated as “canoe companions” and which also serves as a term for the human crew members of a canoe. Hoa wa'a literally (as the fiber lashings) and figuratively (as the crew) hold a wa'a together. Wa'a need people to sail them to truly be wa'a, and voyaging only persists as a cultural practice when people do it. To continue voyaging, people need to teach it and learn it. Voyaging shares commonalities among Indigenous pedagogical approaches highlighted by Indigenous education scholars, including:

  • Being place-based: Place-based learning situates knowledge in relationship to locations, experiences, and groups of people.
  • A focus on experiential learning: Experiential learning entails observation, action, reflection, and further action.
  • Intergenerational learning: Intergenerational learning honors the relationship between older and younger members of a society in knowledge transmission.
  • Holistic and personal learning: Holistic and personal learning values academic or cognitive knowledge but also self-awareness, emotional growth, social growth, and spiritual development.

While REL Pacific has previously shared insights about place-based learning (see Integrating Place-based Education Into Classroom or Distance Learning During the COVID-19 Pandemic and Supporting Pacific Island Communities Through Place-Based Education), this blog series will focus on the three other commonalities of experiential, intergenerational, and holistic and personal learning in voyaging education contexts in Hawai'i.

Education is Experiential

Generation X is generally considered the first generation to grow up with access to computers.1 In Hawai'i, it is also the first generation in more than a century to have grown up with access to intact Indigenous voyaging traditions. Before 1975, there were no known voyaging canoes in Hawaii. As of 1975, there was one voyaging canoe: Hōkūle'a. Today, there are more than 10 interisland and deep sea voyaging canoes throughout the Hawaiian archipelago and many more throughout other Pacific island communities. Many of these canoes are directly connected to formal and informal education programs and provide key experiential components for these programs.

Voyaging education is experiential in that it requires students to connect with their surroundings, since the majority of voyages are spent immersed in a wholly oceanic environment between islands and wa'a (canoes) are navigated using only natural inputs and human faculties. Nainoa Thompson, the president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and progenitor of a contemporary form of Hawaiian wayfinding, learned experientially from his wayfinding mentor Pius “Mau” Piailug, who was from Satawal in Yap State of the Federated States of Micronesia.

“ I had the best of two worlds,” said Nainoa. “I had science and technology, and Mau who comes from the completely Indigenous side, in that, ‘You see what I see, but the difficult thing... you got to feel what I feel.’ ” 2

Research has found that experiential learning is beneficial for a variety of types of students, ranging from non-science majors in postsecondary science education 3 to preservice teachers. 4 Although the COVID-19 pandemic may continue to socially isolate educators from their students and students from each other, experiential learning can still take place when students deepen their understanding and development of personal relationships with their environment, specifically the earth's oceans and climate.

Ocean and climate literacy are essential for more than just practitioners of voyaging. Oceans and climate influence human lives, and humans in turn influence the earth's oceans and climate. Understanding these influences, being able to recognize them, and eventually being able to communicate about them to make informed, responsible decisions based on this understanding and recognition form the foundation of ocean and climate literacy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with the help of science educators, developed the Ocean Literacy Framework 5 and the Climate Literacy Framework 6 to support educators, students, and communities on these fronts.

In the Polynesian Voyaging Society, although we learn about the ocean and climate through Indigenous perspectives and voyaging experiences, we are taught that the earth is everyone's wa'a. This makes all of humanity hoa wa'a (canoe companions), and the coming generations of students the earth's next wayfinders.

To learn more about some of the Indigenous voyaging education programs in Hawai'i (and to access some of their educational resources), please visit the following websites:

Additional information and associated educational resources for some of the Indigenous voyaging education programs in other Pacific island communities is available through the following websites:


1 Sandeen, C. (2008). Boomers, Xers, and Millennials: Who are they and what do they really want from continuing higher education? Continuing Higher Education Review, 72, 11–31.

2 Ka'anehe, R. J. (2020). Ke a'o malamalama: Recognizing and bridging worlds with Hawaiian pedagogies. Equity & Excellence in Education, 53(1–2), 73–88.

3 Prestholdt, T., & Fletcher, V. (2018, December). The value of experiential learning: A case study with an interdisciplinary study abroad course. Bioscene, 44(2), 17–23.

4 Lee, J. F. (2019). Enhancing preservice teachers' professional competence through experiential learning. Journal of Education for Teaching: International Research and Pedagogy, 45(3), 353–357. https://www.tandfonline. com/doi/full/10.1080/09589236.2019.1599507

5 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (2020, February). Ocean literacy: The essential principles and fundamental concepts of ocean sciences for learners of all ages (Version 3). ED608847.pdf

6 U.S. Global Change Research Program. (2009). Climate literacy, the essential principals of climate science: A guide for individuals and communities. english.pdf


Darienne Dey

Connect with REL Pacific