As Hōkūleʻa returns to Tahiti on the last legs of her Worldwide Voyage, we take a moment to celebrate earlier voyages and the crew who helped her find her way. This moʻolelo, written by documenter Sam Low, takes us back to Hōkūleʻa’s first voyage to Tahiti and Nainoa Thompson’s first impressions of the Tahitian people.
After arriving in Papeete on June 4th, 1976, Hōkūleʻa sailed south where she anchored for a time off the little village of Tautira. Above the lagoon, tall, deeply eroded mountains rose like knife blades to form the Vaitepiha Valley that sliced inland, channeling a shallow river that snaked between the peaks. The mountain slopes were green with ferns. Small fishing skiffs were parked in lawns and outrigger canoes were drawn up by the Bureau du Maire near where village women washed brightly colored pareos of many designs and hung them to dry in the yard.
“It was like going back in time,” Snake Ah Hee recalls. “It was so quiet and peaceful and the people were so nice. The canoe builders all live in Tautira and they were all champion paddlers. They had fishing boats and fishing nets. It felt like the old days.”
Hōkūleʻa was moored close to shore with an anchor astern and the bow tied to a coconut tree. There was to be a party for the crew, but Nainoa worried about the canoe. “The current is strong,” he thought. “What if the anchor drags and we damage the canoe?” Captain Kapahulehua agreed that Nainoa could stay aboard on watch. The sun began to settle over the nearby mountains. The canoe bobbed serenely. Nainoa enjoyed the twilight solitude.
“Finally, the sun went down,” Nainoa recalls, “and I saw this little girl, maybe four years old, on the beach. She had a flower in her ear and she was waving to me to come on shore. She just kept waving. So I went on shore and she grabbed me with hands so small that she could just hold two of my fingers.”
Nainoa followed his tiny escort down the dirt road toward the village. She walked barefoot, he with flip-flops that made a slapping sound on the road. The distant music of ukulele swirled through the sweet aroma of vegetation cut by the sharp tang of frangipani and ginger growing alongside the road. The little girl led him on. Nainoa had to bend slightly to accommodate her stature. Even so, she occasionally lost her grip on his fingers and he bent lower still to find her comforting tiny hand. He was uncertain about leaving the canoe and more so about intruding on the gathering that loomed in the glow of gas lanterns in a house down the road.
“She led me into a house with a dirt floor,” he remembers. “They had the whole crew in there and they were feeding them shrimp and steak and all kinds of food.”
The Tahitian men wore bathing trunks and tee shirts, a few of them emblazoned with an image of Hōkūleʻa under full sail – gifts of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. The women wore flowing muumuus or draped pareos and they moved in and out of the kitchen with plates of rice, taro, kimchi, poisson cru, steaming pork, beef, or baked fish arrayed on breadfruit leaves. On the lawn in front of the house, a group of men sat on homemade wooden chairs and played instruments and sang. For Nainoa, it was like stepping back into a distant dream of Polynesia – the music, the Tahitian language flowing through the trees, the laughter of his fellow crewmembers, the food, the colorful pareos. Wally Froiseth sat between two powerfully built Tahitian men, their dark faces bent toward him as he told a story using a smattering of French and Tahitian he had learned sailing among the islands. The men made a place for Nainoa on a wooden bench drawn up to picnic tables. They embraced.
The house belonged to Puaniho Tauotaha, the grandfather of current Hōkūleʻa crewmember Maui Tauotaha. Puaniho was one of the village elders – a fisherman, canoe paddler, and canoe carver – a man of immense physical and spiritual strength.
“Puaniho had powerful eyes,” Nainoa remembers. “He was very strong, powerful. You could be in the canoe house and there might be laughter and singing and people talking but when Puaniho got up to speak there was complete silence. I didn’t know what he was saying but it felt like an oration. And if he wasn’t doing that he never said anything. When he coached the canoe paddlers he hardly said a word. He was an extremely quiet man. Very religious, very disciplined. He was the edge of the old times.”
The party continued deep into the night. Heaping dishes of food replaced depleted ones. Glasses were filled. “Like we were family,” Nainoa recalls. “I was overwhelmed by how much the village people gave when they had so little to give. Somebody would stand behind you and if your beer glass was half empty they would fill it. They didn’t have floors in their houses, much less beer and steak to share. I felt awkward, we didn’t deserve all this.”
Only when Captain Kapahulehua gave signs that it was time to leave did the Tahitian hosts rise from their chairs to say goodbye. Plates of food were placed in hands to be carried back to the canoe.
“For me, Tautira is a symbol of the kinds of values that are important,” Nainoa says. “I learned from the people of Tautira that there are other ways to measure wealth besides the things that you accumulate. The people of Tautira are extremely happy when they see that we are happy. When they give to you they feel rich themselves. That is what Tautira is all about.”
The above moʻolelo was written by Hōkūleʻa crewmember and documenter Sam Low, author of Hawaiki Rising, Hokule’a, Nainoa Thompson and the Hawaiian Renaissance.