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February 11, 2020

Outrigger canoes have been an integral part of Polynesian culture for many years.  Used for transportation, fishing, recreation and racing, they have much historical significance and are deeply rooted in cultural heritage.  

Outrigger canoes first arrived in Hawaii around 200 AD, some large enough to hold up to 80 people, and were filled with essential items like edible plants, water and animals to ensure a somewhat safer voyage for the brave explorers who took off in search of land. By following the migration patterns of birds seen flying overhead, explorers soon discovered the Hawaiian Islands.

The harsh terrain of the land, including jagged volcanic lava rock, steep cliffs, howling wind and waves, made it very difficult to transport anything, so outrigger canoes became a necessity for tasks like fishing and transporting goods and people. When native Hawaiians found giant Koa trees on the Big Island, they soon discovered they could build an entire canoe hull from a single piece of wood. While the outrigger canoe has gone through many phases over the last 2,000 years, Hawaiian outrigger canoes specifically remain built for battling conditions in the open ocean and are recognized for their unique shape, design and lack of extra ornamentation or decoration.

Since setting out on the ocean was still a very dangerous and risky task, building a new canoe involved the work and dedication of many people as well as frequent cultural and traditional practices. First, a kahuna, or Hawaiian priest, had to search for the perfect site and tree by following the ‘elepaio, or Hawaiian forest bird, into the forest. Since the ‘elepaio was attracted to rotting Koa wood, if the bird began pecking at the tree, that meant the wood was not solid and the tree would be useless for the strong structure it took to build a canoe. Once finding the perfect tree, the kahuna would then gather the canoe builders and workers, staying throughout the building process to offer prayers and blessings.

Once the tree was transported back to shore, which often required the effort of hundreds of men over several days, the hull was finished in a special halau, or canoe shed. One of the most highly honored members of the ancient Hawaiian society was the canoe carver, or kalai wa’a. Black paint, made from a mixture of plants and charcoal, was then added to the outer layer of the canoe to help keep it waterproof. For the Ali’i, or royalty, hens’ eggs were used to make the paint shiny and glossy. The final act of building the canoe was the sacrifice of a dog and pig, which symbolized the tearing apart of the billows of the ocean and the rooting of the canoe into the open sea, respectively. Noho, or canoe seats, were often named after the paddler instead of the position number, and specialized wood artisans were given the task of making the paddles, all of which were customized for each owner and displayed proudly inside the paddler’s home.

 


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