Inventor Ano Lee has been given a coveted Kahu award for a summer enrichment program designed to teach kids about the seafaring history of the Polynesian people. Kids enrolled in the 6 week program build a replica of a traditional sea-going canoe, while learning how their ancestors navigated the open ocean with nothing but the knowledge of the stars, currents, and ocean swells. Dedicated to the preservation of Hawaiian culture and the education of native Hawaiians, The Office of Hawaiian Culture (OHC) gives the Kahu award every year to a person who has acted to help protect Hawaiian culture and traditions.
Traditional Polynesian navigation techniques were used for thousands of years to make long voyages across huge distances of open ocean. Navigators were revered, passing on their wayfinding techniques and vast knowledge of the sea by oral tradition, often in the form of songs. By sharing this knowledge from master to apprentice, these early sailors settled islands across the Pacific Ocean.
Lee was always fascinated by stories of these early navigators and has been sharing that enthusiasm with students for the past 4 years. The unique summer program teaches underprivileged and at risk students how to build a traditional ocean going canoe, in the double-hulled style, used by Polynesian sailors for many millennia. In addition, the kids learn how to navigate using nothing but the stars, winds, currents, bird species and waves. Ano teaches the kids how to make and use traditional stick charts, an ancient mapping system that relies heavily on ocean swells as a means of navigation.
“We learn some really cool facts about about early sailors and what it took to explore the ocean,” says 12-year-old Nate Acosta. A participant in the very first program, Nate says he looks forward to the class all year and plans to spend every summer at Lee’s maker commune.
“The stick charts are the best part. I’ve been practicing making them ever since Ano taught us about them. While it isn’t exactly a real chart, I’ve got one that shows where the school, the beach, and the convenience store is from my house. It took a lot of courage to go out to sea with nothing but the stars and a stick map to guide you. I don’t think people appreciate how smart our forefathers were. They spread out over thousands of miles without GPS or radios to call for help if they got lost. It makes me feel proud to learn how clever and brave they were and how much you can do without fancy equipment if you know what to do. I wouldn’t know any of this if it wasn’t for Ano. I love this program. Also, there are lasers everywhere around here. Ano lets us have all the Manimal we can drink and there’s tons of chips to eat. Best of all, we don’t get in trouble when we swear; this is the best summer camp ever!”
“Hawaii has been very good to me and I’ve had a few major successes in the past few years,” says Lee. “My pineapple drones are revitalizing pineapple farming on the isalnds and my sharknet system is keeping sailors and surfers safe. The least I can do is give a little something back. I see myself in a lot of these kids. Many of them haven’t had the easiest lives and I try to be a positive influence and resource for them. I tell them every year that summer may end, but the class never does. They’re always welcome here if they need to talk, or just want to build something.”
The kids don’t just get a history lesson at Lee’s camp, they get a mentor and hands-on technical and fabrication experience. The culmination of 6 weeks of ancient history, printer programming, and boat assembly is a day-long voyage to Kaunakakai on Moloka’i. There, the kids have lunch, show off their work, and answer questions from the curious before returning home. The excursions have become a popular event over the years and garner a lot of local media attention. At the end of the summer, the boat is auctioned off with the proceeds going towards the kids education.
“Although we use upgraded materials and have the latest navigation equipment available in case of emergency, these kids get a feel for what it would be like to explore the ocean 2,000 years ago. We use the old ways, following the terns and the shearwaters to find our destination even if we’re sitting in massage chairs and listening to music from a state of the art sound system while we’re doing it. Besides that and the cooler, microwave, and underwater cameras, you’d have a hard time telling our canoes apart from something the ancient mariners might have used. My greatest hope is that I’ve inspired at least one of these kids to keep the circle going and one day they pass on the knowledge they got from this program. I don’t think it gets any better than that.”