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Te Ara Vaka Moana
Ancestral Voyaging Vessels and Navigation in Oceania

Public Conference, February 16 and 17, 2023, Humboldt Forum Berlin

The largest ocean of the planet has for many centuries been the home of the most accomplished builders of seagoing vessels and the world’s finest navigators. Their vessels came in many different forms, with either twin hulls or massive outriggers, and using many different shapes of sails. They are referred to as proa or waa in Micronesia, vaka, va'a or pahi in Polynesian contexts, drua in Fiji or sailau in Milne Bay Papua, among others. When Europeans began venturing into the Pacific from the 16th century onwards, they did not find a single archipelago that was not inhabited or had been visited before them. Wherever Europeans began to settle over the coming centuries, however, Oceanian ancestral traditions were in jeopardy. The so-called 'civilising' mission, settler colonialism and imperial capitalism thoroughly displaced Oceanian craftsmanship and wayfinding knowledge. Over time, Western scholars began to systematically belittle the accomplishments of precolonial Oceanian peoples, discrediting their capacity to purposefully settle and voyage within the largest ocean of the planet.

Over the past few decades, projects all over Oceania have attempted to reconnect with ancestral traditions, to reactivate the knowledge of constructing sea-going vessels, and to study the arts of wayfinding and navigation. These projects have already successfully countered many prejudices of Eurocentric scholarship. They are also part of a future-oriented politics that seeks to re-establish voyaging networks that are at both independent from imperial powers in the region and ecologically sustainable.

However, the renaissance of Oceanian vessel construction and navigation is complicated. The disruption of colonialism has been so thorough that access to past knowledge is often difficult. The voyaging renaissance therefore ironically relies on living traditions as much as on a critical revaluation of the colonial archive. This includes, for instance, construction plans of vessels, colonial records of voyaging knowledge, and, not least, the material archive of Western ethnographic museums. This  archive is a problematic legacy. It was overwhelmingly amassed by colonial and neo-colonial actors in often highly asymmetrical constellations of power. Its injustices must be called. And yet, it also offers a valuable window to the past, not least for those engaged in the Oceanian renaissance of vessel construction and navigation.

The two-day Te Ara Vaka Moana conference is built around the invitation to Berlin extended by a team of researchers at the University of Potsdam to a delegation of Oceanian scholars and practitioners engaged in the voyaging revival. The delegation from Taumako in the Santa Cruz Group of the Solomon Islands, from Polowat and Saipan in Micronesia, from Fiji, Papua New Guinea and Hawai‘i will visit and study the Oceania collections of the Humboldt Forum and Ethnologisches Museum. These studies will feed into the Te Ara Vaka Moana conference hosted in collaboration with the Humboldt Forum and Ethnologisches Museum. In presentations, panel discussion and film screenings, the event wishes to complicate some of the received narratives of the voyaging revival in Oceania. It wishes to foreground and set into conversation traditions and projects that are otherwise not given a lot of prominence in current debates, in order to address some of the persisting open questions around precolonial Oceanian voyaging and world-making. Finally, the conference wishes to bring knowledge, reverence, and life to the major Oceanian vessels that are on display in the heart of Berlin: The Papuan ‘Luf-boat’, the Taumakoan Te alo folafolau, the Micronesian Walap, and the new Fijian Drua.

Conference Delegates and Speakers

Lolobeyong Benito (Polowat, Caroline Islands, and Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia). "Lolobeyong” means “the lucky one” and his name is derived after a particular chant that his father would use before entering into any gathering. The chant was meant to imbue love and peace among the members, so that even those in the group, that though they did not know who he was yet, the chant would open their hearts and mind. Born and raised on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, Lolobeyong, aka “Lolo”, is the only son of Master Navigator Mario Benito and his mother Rose Benito. Together with his parents, he had been raised to love both the ocean and the land and to explore the bounties of what both life on the ocean and on land can bring. Throughout his childhood, Lolo has watched his father teach and discuss traditional navigation as well as carve paddles and canoes. When he turned fifteen, he learned how to sail, how to tie the lashings on a canoe, and how to use the natural elements to his advantage. Lolo has a love for adventure and a thirst for traditional knowledge and his goal is to ensure that his ancestors’ and his father’s legacy is shared with the rest of Micronesia, to remind others of where they come from, and that these shared collectives of sailing and maritime traditions will unite all Pacific Island peoples together."

Mario Benito (Polowat, Caroline Islands, and Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, Micronesia). Mario Benito is a member of the Houpolowat clan, and its canoehouse, Utt Wenimai. He also belongs to Utt Wenipukuw. Benito was educated in the Weriyeng school of navigation and as a child, studied under some of the most famous and revered old-time navigators from Polowat, including Hipour and Manipy Onopey. As an adult Benito studied with the late Teo Onopey and Rainam Edward. A long time cameraman, photographer, and archivist of Polowat images based in Saipan, Benito was the lead photographer for the documentary “Sacred Vessels: Navigating Tradition and Identity in Micronesia” (1997) and shot for many visiting documentary teams over the past two decades. Benito serves as an informal ambassador of Polowat seafarers in Saipan, served as one of the coordinators and translators in the building of the Lien Polowat in 2012 and its sail to Guam and  itʻs final resting place at the Oceanic Culture Museum in Okinawa in 2013. In 2016, the pwo ceremony, which names navigators as masters, took place at Paseo in Guam, where navigators were staying for the Festival of Pacific Arts. Benito was one of five ordained by Grandmaster Navigator Rainam Edward of Polowat.

Delsie Betty Bosi (Taumako, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands). Delsie Betty Bosi is a teacher by profession. During the course of her teaching career, her interest circled arounds ways of preserving and conserving marine and land resources due to the rapid depletion done by logging and over harvesting of marine resources as a result of poor management or poor decision making by leaders in the community. She left her teaching career to work with women and youth in the community. Today, she is an Administrative Assistant of Holau Vaka Taumako Association. The Association supports matrilineal rights and privileges of girls and women to protect island, reef, and inter-island resources and relationships, and re-building traditional structures (Holau) where boys were mentored by mature men. It advocates the use of local natural materials for everyday needs; it seeks to re-open ancestral sea-routes between islands and across borders, and it attemps to reactivate use of traditional valuables instead of modern currencies to benefit regional and interregional networks that provide resiliency to all. 

Fealofani Bruun(Sāmoa). Fealofani Bruun became the first Sāmoan female captain of Gaualofa, a double-hull ocean voyaging canoe. She has trained crew as well as crewed on several other Pacific double-hull voyaging canoes and logged enough miles on a canoe to circumnavigate the globe more than twice. She’s a Commonwealth award appointee (Point of Light) and was listed in BBC’s top 100 Inspiring & Influential Women in 2018.
She started sailing when she was only six years old, on contemporary sailing vessels at the local yacht club in American Samoa. She revived her love of the ocean on a whole different kind of vessel and arena- traditional voyaging and navigation. She’s passionate about youth development in focusing on programs that align with culture, traditional navigation, wise ocean stewardship and equality of gender.

Lars Eckstein (Berlin, Germany). Lars Eckstein is Professor of Anlgophone Literatures and Cultures at the University of Potsdam. Together with Anja Schwarz, he conducted research over the past decade or so on the Ra‘iātean tahu‘a Tupaia, who joined the crew of James Cook's Endeavour in Tahiti in 1769. The research mainly focussed on Tupaia's Map, a chart Tupaia drew of the Polynesian sea of islands in collaboration with Cook and his officers. Reinvestigating all available archival resources and learning as much as they could about ancestral voyaging techniques, Lars and Anja could show that  Tupaia's Map is the result of an elaborate translation from one highly sophisticated system of navigational worldmaking into a very different other. More recently, their focus shifted to a wind positioning system Tupaia shared with a British officer that bears striking resemblance to the navigational system taught by Paramount Chief Koloso Kavaia in Taumako. 

Marianne 'Mimi' George (Kauaʻi Island, Hawai'i). Marianne “Mimi” George, Ph.D, is a cultural anthropologist and sailor who supports training youth to apply ancestral voyaging knowledge to current problems, including unemployment, biodiversity loss and climate change. Mimi has responded to requests to help document voyaging traditions of Austronesian people of New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea; a small, a mixed-gender crew wintering a sailboat in Antarctic sea-ice: networks of sea-hunters and reindeer herders across Bering Straits, and Polynesian people of Taumako, SE Solomon Islands who train youth to build vessels and navigate by ancient designs, materials, and methods, including weather modification and calling for ancestral lights that show the way to land. In papers, presentations, and books, Mimi describes prominent roles of women and children in voyaging cultures, and how revival of ancestral voyaging networks revives implementation of ancient knowledge, relationships, and protocols, which create sustainable and resilient lifeways by communities that live by monitoring and protectively managing the plants, creatures, and other ancestral phenomena of Oceania. Mimi is director of the Vaka Taumako Project of the Pacific Traditions Society.

Sanakoli John (Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea). Sanakoli John is co-founder of Pasana Group, Papua New Guinea's first traditional canoe building school. Sanakoli was born into the Dove clan of Basilaki Island in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Like most children on Basilaki, he would travel with his family in traditional sailing canoes, known locally as Sailau, as soon as he could walk. On Basilaki the Sailau is used for fishing, transport, and the traditional Kula trade system that connects the outer islands of Milne Bay. Sanakoli is one of the most well-known sailors in the region; in 2015, he won the national Kenu and Kundu canoe race. In 2017, Sanakoli and two other crew completed the first ever recorded circumnavigation of the island of New Guinea in a traditional sailing canoe - a voyage that spanned 6,300kms, 13 months and inspired the nation. In 2019, Sanakoli co-founded Pasana Group to teach traditional canoe building skills and sustainable livelihood practices to the youth of Milne Bay. By collaborating with other Pacific voyaging groups, Sanakoli hopes that sailing canoes can reconnect the people of the Pacific so that they can sail the ancient routes and teach young people and advise others  interested in learning how to live sustainably and conserve the ocean, animals, plants, and weather.

Setareki Ledua (Lau Group, Fiji). Setareki Ledua realised his dream to captain a Drua (traditional sailing vessel of Fiji), and hopes that in 10 years he will see 100 Drua sailing throughout Fiji. As a child he lived with his grand parents on Fulaga Island in the Lau Group of Fiji. They took him sailing between islands on traditional Camakau vessels. They fished and gathered seafoods, and they partnered with people of other islands. This made their island lifeways sustainable. They monitored and cared for the ocean, in all its diverse creatures, plants, winds, rains, stars, and seasons. In 2010 he graduated from Fiji Institute ofTechnology, and began studying both modern and traditions of maritime navigation. In 2010 he was certificated in NZCG Day Skipper and Boat Master. In 2016 he graduated from Maritime School with a Master in Engineering, and  became Captain of the Sailing Vessel Moana (Denarau). In 2018 he became Captain of the sailing catamaran Uto Ni Yalo.  From 2018 to present he is Captain of the Drua, I Vola Sigavou. His father was recently in Berlin rigging the Drua at the Humboldt Forum museum. He strives to see 100 Drua serving remote Fijian communities, and networking throughout the Pacific.

Anja Schwarz (Berlin, Germany) is Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Potsdam. Together with Lars Eckstein, she conducted research over the past decade or so on the Ra‘iātean tahu‘a Tupaia, who joined the crew of James Cook's Endeavour in Tahiti in 1769. The research mainly focussed on Tupaia's Map, a chart Tupaia drew of the Polynesian sea of islands in collaboration with Cook and his officers. Reinvestigating all available archival resources and learning as much as they could about ancestral voyaging techniques, Lars and Anja could show that  Tupaia's Map is the result of an elaborate translation from one highly sophisticated system of navigational worldmaking into a very different other. More recently, their focus shifted to a wind positioning system Tupaia shared with a British officer that bears striking resemblance to the navigational system taught by Paramount Chief Koloso Kavaia in Taumako.

Luke O'Grady Vaikawi (Taumako, Santa Cruz Islands, Solomon Islands). Luke Vaikawi grew up learning ancient stories, skills, methods, and ecological knowledge from experts of ancestral voyaging knowledge. Vaikawi was the oldest of the first four born and raised Taumakans to obtain post-secondary school education. Vaikawi assisted his grandfather, Paramount Chief Koloso Kaveia, in establishing the Vaka Taumako Project, to train a new generation to build voyaging vessels and navigate using only ancestral designs, materials, methods and tools. From 1993 to 2017 Vaikawi assisted Kaveia and Mimi George, in carrying out the project under research permits from the Ministry of Educaton and Human Resources. Vaikawi stood firm in meeting administrative and budgetary challenges through decades of "tension" (civil disorder), chronic lack of resources, governmental incapacity, and, most recently, COVID closures. For 25 years Vaikawi also commanded Solomon Islands Maritime Police and initiated international marine resource monitoring and safety programs of Solomon Islands. Vaikawi used ancestral leadership and navigation methods and concepts he learned from Kaveia when at sea. Vaikawi retired in 2018 and attended to founding the Holau Vaka Taumako Project (HVTA). He was elected as Executive Director by the Taumako community membership. A top priority of the HVTA are educating next generations in ancestral voyaging knowledge and cultural practices that enable them to mitigate and adapt to effects of climate change.

Heu'ionalani 'Meph' Wyeth (Kaua'i, Hawai'i). Heu’ionalani “Meph” Wyeth served as Permanent Secretary of the Vaka Taumako Project of Pacific Traditions Society since 1996 ( ). She instructed the first groups of Taumako video students, most of whom had never seen a camera before. Wyeth writes articles, gives presentations, and protects archival materials until there is adequate accommodation at Taumako. Wyeth is a Director of Ka’imi Na’auao o Hawai’i Nei Institute ( which preserves and teaches Hawaiian culture. In this role and in the Vaka Taumako Project Wyeth is much concerned with the Story of Lata, who is widely storied as the Goddess of the Forest, and of Hula, as well as the first person who built a voyaging vessel and navigated it to distant islands. Wyeth is a lifelong student of Classics, and one of a large family of sailors.

Conference Programme

Zoom Recordings of the Conference