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Lessons from the Canoe, Part 3: Education is Personal and Holistic

Pacific | October 29, 2021

This blog is the last 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. Author Darienne Dey serves as a research associate for REL Pacific and volunteers as a crew member with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. For more about Darienne, check out her Polynesian Voyaging Society crewmember profile and her bio on the REL Pacific Meet Our Staff page.

According to Mau Piailug, "To be a palu, you must have three qualities: pwerra, maumau, and reipy (fierceness, strength, and wisdom). ... The knowledge of navigation brings all three" (Thomas, 1987, pp. 163–164). 1 In Mau's Refaluwash (Carolinian) culture, a palu is a fully initiated navigator. Palu is also a Hawaiian word, which can mean relish (intended to enhance something), bait (meant to attract resources), or softness. Between the three Hawaiian definitions of palu, softness or soft-heartedness (na`au palupalu) might seem to contradict the characteristics of fierceness, strength, and (possibly) wisdom, but this very quality in Mau enabled him to use his teachings to enhance what was known about voyaging practices among other Pacific island peoples and to attract interest in these practices and other facets of Pacific island cultures so that they might be restored and indefinitely sustained. Mau's embodiment of Refaluwash qualities of palu contributed to his personal success in his community, while his Hawaiian qualities of palu contributed to his holistic impact on communities across the Pacific. Hae (fierceness), ikaika (strength), and na`auao (wisdom) are also valued traits in various Hawaiian cultural contexts, including voyaging, but the specific values that guide crewmembers within the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) and much of the broader `ohana wa`a include aloha (to love), mālama (to take care), `imi `ike (to seek knowledge), lokomaika`i (to be kind), na`au pono (to be just), and olakino maika`i (to live healthily). 2 We all come with our own strengths and challenges, but we all seek better lōkahi (harmony, balance) as grounded, well-rounded, and whole crew members to contribute to the literal lōkahi of the wa`a (canoe) and figurative lōkahi of our crew, `ohana wa`a, and broader communities. Therefore, our education in this Indigenous cultural context is both personal and holistic, properties that can inform and enrich classroom instruction by aiming to help students grow up to be well-rounded adults who contribute to the success of their communities.

Before ever voyaging, many of us initially focus on the three qualities of being a wayfinder according to Mau, in the order of wisdom, strength, and fierceness. In terms of wisdom, our interdisciplinary curriculum consists of scientific and mathematical principles integrated with Hawaiian and other Pacific island cultural concepts and maritime contexts. We study aspects of astronomy, meteorology, oceanography, geography, and biology and learn to code these types of natural inputs using the mental framework of a sidereal compass rose, the Hawaiian star compass (which is based on the Refaluwash paafu or sidereal compass rose); we calibrate ourselves (that is, our hands for measuring arc angles) and learn to make certain types of algebraic, geometric, and trigonometric calculations, an enterprise referred to in academia as ethnomathematics; 3, 4 we memorize and use both English and Hawaiian (and sometimes other languages') terminology for what we observe, use, and do aboard a wa`a kaulua (double-hulled voyaging canoe). Though highly varied, these studies and concepts are not disparate: they are all necessary for understanding voyaging and wayfinding. While the quality of wisdom may seem most similar to what students might learn in schools, it focuses on the interrelationships between subjects, a perspective that allows for holistic growth of the learner and a useful concept to keep in mind as we educate our students.

Next, we focus on strength or the physical aspects of voyaging. We learn seamanship, how to prepare ourselves for the kinesthetic demands of sailing for days or weeks, and undergo fitness assessments. For some of us, the anticipated physical challenges of voyaging present a timely wake-up call for changing our lifestyles for the better on land so that we can fully participate and contribute on the ocean. While schools generally offer health and physical education courses and intra- or extramural sports, a view of students as holistic learners calls for the recognition of teachers' and students' physical well-being as necessary aspects of their performance as people and of physical activity as an integral part of education. 5 The third trait of a wayfinder, fierceness, is usually the next to be tested. Typically, through interisland training sails, crew-members-in-training face their initial fear horizons. In the Hawaiian archipelago, the channels between islands can be even more treacherous than the open seas, providing the perfect (from an educational perspective) microcosm of voyaging scenarios that can be experienced over a weekend. According to Mau, "If you are not fierce you are not a palu: you will be afraid of the sea, of storms, of reefs; afraid of whales, sharks; afraid of losing your way" (Thomas, 1987, p. 163). 6 Fierceness functions to counter both the rational fear of physical harm that might be inflicted by natural causes outside of one's control and the less rational (though commonplace) fear of failure. In education contexts on land, similar feelings of self-doubt or anxiety often manifest when students 7 (and even parents 8 and educators 9) engage in mathematics, for which constructively directed "fierceness" has been prescribed in the form of Productive Persistence. As one of the major concepts driving the Carnegie Foundation's mathematics course pathways, Productive Persistence has contributed to increasing student pass rates in developmental math courses by more than 30 percent. 10 Productive Persistence focuses on students' beliefs, mindsets, and habits regarding mathematics rather than simply their existing skills in the subject. Students who persist (or have pwerra or hae) in the face of content that is challenging or frustrating are more likely to succeed in their developmental math courses and do so more quickly. 11

Within the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), where Mau's Refaluwash voyaging and wayfinding traditions are based, most voyages last less than a week due to the relative proximity of islands and atolls. However, in the eastern (and southern) Pacific Ocean, archipelagos and lone islands can be thousands of nautical miles apart, requiring multiple weeks of voyaging. Over such long expanses of isolation, such fierceness can (and has) become problematic. Instead of being directed outwardly, in the form of having conviction in the face of adversity, it can be misguidedly directed between crew members. Even during Hōkūle`a's maiden sail between Hawai`i and Tahiti in 1976, such dissonance (and even violence) developed among crew members that Mau returned to his home on Satawal (within Yap state in FSM) as soon as the wa`a made landfall in Tahiti, and he vowed not to continue helping Hawaiians regain voyaging or wayfinding traditions. Fortunately for us, he did return, but even as recently as Hōkūle`a's Worldwide Voyage (2014–2017), we still struggle with (and sometimes suffer because of) our fierceness.

Like other Indigenous and marginalized communities, many voyagers are dealing with inherited generational trauma from a colonialist history. When stripped of our creature comforts at sea, we are left with ourselves and both the collective and personal trauma that we harbor. To further complicate matters, the majority of us have mixed heritages that include both colonizers and the colonized among our kūpuna (ancestors). However, as suggested by the Samoan proverb "e fofo e alamea le alamea" ("the cure for alamea is alamea") 12, 13 shared by REL Pacific Researcher Dr. Natasha Saelua, solutions lie within our Indigenous communities. Voyaging can be good for us, and research, some of which was conducted by PVS crewmembers, has found positive associations between voyaging (or sailing, in general) and holistic health and overall well-being. 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 Research also suggests that Indigenous holistic pedagogies can be used to increase cultural inclusivity in learning and teaching environments, 19, 20, 21 for example, through the four dimensions of communication, collaboration, community, and inculturality. 22 Cultural responsiveness can be leveraged by teachers to not only develop fierceness or persistence, but also to increase engagement with and promote learning among students. 23

Voyaging over 12,000 nautical miles aboard wa`a kaulua has taught me to understand and appreciate more than ever the significance of PVS' aspirational values of aloha, mālama, `imi `ike, lokomaika`i, na`au pono, and olakino maika`i. We are meant to be fierce, strong, and wise as Pacific wayfinders, voyagers, and educators have been for millennia, but we (as individuals and communities) also need to strive to be loving, caring, curious, kind, just, and healthy to ensure that our cultural and educational practices continue beyond this generation. In many ways, conditions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic mimic those of a long, treacherous voyage with no end in sight. Changes in daily routines and increases in social isolation and life stressors have posed major social-emotional challenges for many. But when we do make landfall, we will undoubtably be fiercer (in positive ways), stronger, and wiser than we ever thought possible and will hopefully usher forth a better world for our students.

1 Thomas, S. D. (1987). The last navigator: A young man, an ancient mariner, the secrets of the sea. McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing.

2 Kuhololoa. (2011). Our vision. Polynesian Voyaging Society Archives.

3 Furuto, L. H. (2014, April). Pacific ethnomathematics: Pedagogy and practices in mathematics education. Teaching mathematics and its applications: An international journal of the IMA, 33(2), 110–121. teamat/hru009

4 Nicol, C., Q'um Q'um Xiiem, J. A., Glanfield, F., & Dawson, A. J. (Eds.) (2019). Living culturally responsive mathematics education with/in Indigenous communities. Brill.

5 REL Pacific. (n.d.) How to Grow Teacher Wellbeing in Your Schools. Institute of Education Sciences. Retrieved from Schools.pdf

6 Thomas, S. D. (1987). The last navigator: A young man, an ancient mariner, the secrets of the sea. McGraw-Hill Professional Publishing.

7 Tomasetto, C., Morsanyi, K., Guardabassi, V., & O'Connor, P. A. (2021, February). Math anxiety interferes with learning novel mathematics contents in early elementary school. Journal of Educational Psychology, 113(2), 315-329.

8 Kiss, A. J., & Vukovic, R. (2020, November). Exploring educational engagement for parents with math anxiety. Psychology in the Schools, 58(2), 364—376.

9 Szczygiel, M. (2020, September). When does math anxiety in parents and teachers predict math anxiety and math achievement in elementary school children? The role of gender and grade year. Social Psychology of Education: An International Journal, 23(4), 1023-1054.

10 Silva, E., & White, T. (2013). Pathways To Improvement: Using Psychological Strategies To Help College Students Master Developmental Math. Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved from

11 Ibid.

12 Alamea is the crown-of-thorns starfish. When stung by the spines of the alamea, Samoan fisherman turn it over so that its spongy feet touch the stung area to let the alamea heal its own sting.

13Larson, M. (2013, February). Alamea outbreak threatens American Samoa's coral reefs [News release]. National Park of American Samoa.

14 Mau, M. K., Minami, C. M., Stotz, S. A., Albright, C. L., Kana?iaupuni, S. M., & Guth, H. K. (2021, July). Qualitative study on voyaging and health: Perspectives and insights from the medical officers during the Worldwide Voyage. British Medical Journal Open, 11(7), 1–12.

15 Shehata, C. L., Anthony, N., & Maskarinec, G. G. (2007, March). Maintaining balance for a long voyage. Pacific Health Dialog, 14(1), 213–217.

16 Schijf, M., Allison, P., & Von Wald, K. (2017). Sail training: A systemic review. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 9(2), 167–180.

17 Fletcher, E. (2020, February). Sail training: Using acculturation to activate a sociocultural or natural pedagogy. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 29(3), 341–357.

18 Fletcher, E., & Prince, H. (2017, March). Steering a course towards eudaimonia: The effects of sail training on well-being and character. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 17(3), 179–190.

19 Morcom, L. A. (2017, June). Indigenous holistic education in philosophy and practice, with wampum as a case study. Foro de Educación, 15(23), 121–138.

20 Warren, E., & Quine, J. (2013, October). A holistic approach to supporting the learning of young Indigenous students: One case study. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 42(1), 12–23. 10.1017/jie.2013.9

21 Nabobo-Baba, U. (2012). Transformations from within: Rethinking Pacific Education Initiative. The development of a movement for social justice and equity. The International Education Journal: Comparative Perspectives, 11(2), 82–97.

22 Dreamson, N., Thomas, G., Lee Hong, A., & Kim, S. (2016, March). Policies on and practices of cultural inclusivity in learning management systems: Perspectives of Indigenous holistic pedagogies. Higher Education Research & Development, 36(5), 947–961.

23 Nicol, C., Q'um Q'um Xiiem, J. A., Glanfield, F., & Dawson, A. J. (Eds.) (2019). Living culturally responsive mathematics education with/in Indigenous communities. Brill.


Darienne Dey

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