Nainoa Thompson, as president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, played a starring role in organizing the years-long journey—but he says it’s not over yet.

By Interview by Lauren Paige Kennedy; Produced by Lauren Phillips
October 13, 2017
Courtesy of Polynesian Voyaging Society and Ōiwi TV

Nainoa Thompson, President, Polynesian Voyaging Society

In June 2017, Thompson and a team of crewmembers, including scientists and adventurers, returned to home port on O‘ahu, manning the legendary boat Hōkūle‘a and its support vessels after an incredible three-year journey circumnavigating the globe. The mission of this epic excursion: to spread the message of Mālama Honua—to care for our Island Earth.

The voyage isn’t finished yet, though: Here, Nainoa explains why we’re only just getting started.

Coastal Living: Where did all this begin?

Nainoa Thompson: If you really begin at the beginning, it goes back to our founders, our teachers. They’re all gone now. They are the ones who envisioned Hōkūle‘a in the ’70s, who came together and constructed the canoe. They were the ones who not only constructed the canoe, but gave it vision and its purpose to protect indigenous culture, native Hawaiian culture and Polynesian culture, because we were rapidly losing language, rapidly losing cultural practices. … I want to make sure anyone interested in this story understands that we are actually second generation. We come behind them. So much of the vision, much of the mission, much of the values, essentially, was created by them. Simply, they said, “Sail this canoe and protect what you love.”

CL: It took 16 years to decide to take this journey. Why did you and your colleagues at the Polynesian Voyaging Society finally agree to do it?

NT: The difference was, on the Earth, we were creating a new language. We’d never ever heard that language before: hypoxia, dead zone, acidification. Sea level rising. The melting of polar caps. Bleaching. And the stories of islands being drowned and whole communities in the Pacific having to move. … The difference in that meeting in 2008 wasn’t the question whether we should go around the world; it’s a question of what if we didn’t.

CL: What was the purpose of the Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage?

NT: The mission was to build community. We believe in diversity, we believe it’s important that many get exposure to the Earth. It wasn’t just a physical voyage. It was a voyage in building a larger culture of people that’s not based on race, that’s not based on the color of your skin. That’s based on values.

CL: How did the crewmembers embody this mission?

NT: They treated the world with respect. They treated the people of the world with respect. They would go to the communities ahead of time and ask for permission to come to native people’s lands. You get respect when you treat people with respect, and that’s the only way you can build a global community around the same set of values: as long as you show [that] you respect who they are and the places they live in.

CL: What comes after Mālama Honua?

NT: The voyage is not over. In many ways, it just started. Hōkūle‘a went around the world, and it was able to see what it saw in the natural environment and [see] that science is correct, that the world is changing. We’re changing the earth and it is changing us. I’ve been to the Great Barrier Reef, the biggest largest single living system on the earth. If we can’t protect that, what can we protect? That kind of understanding can be very depressing, but at the same time, we’ve found thousands of people, strangers—we don’t know them, they don’t know us—who are doing amazing things on the earth within the context of their particular home on the earth.

CL: What’s the next step in the voyage, then?

NT: There’s new culture on the Earth. It’s about values. And it’s the greatest movement that I know of, ever, in human time. It’s us moving toward caring for the Earth. That’s not Hōkūle‘a’s success, but we found it because we sailed. It gives us not just hope. It tells us what other ingredients might work. You’ve got to keep voyaging. You’ve got to keep exploring. You’ve got to keep learning. You’ve got to keep training new leadership. You need to impact education. You need to make connections around the world. And you need to foster and strengthen this movement of values. And so, from that point of view, I think it was highly successful, but at the same time [it] says your work just started.


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Responses edited for clarity and conciseness