ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Star Navigation in Hawaii

Shaka Guide

Listen to audio story here:

I’m going to tell you a few more astronomy stories as we make our way back down the mountain. Centuries before telescopes were on Mauna Kea, the Hawaiians were among the world’s best astronomers. According to Hawaiian historians, hundreds of planets and stars were known to them and given Hawaiian names. For example, Orion’s sword and belt were known as Na Koa, meaning ‘the darts,’ the big dipper was called Na Hiku meaning ‘seven’ for the seven stars of the constellation. The north star was called Hiku-pa’a, meaning ‘fixed star,’ it was also known as  Hoku-ho’o-kelewa, which means ‘steering’ or ‘guiding’ star. 

Stars were critically important to the Hawaiians because they used them to navigate during long ocean voyages across the Pacific. They used a mental construct called the ‘star compass’ which was passed down for generations. It was lost from the collective memory by the 1970s, but at that time, there was a resurgence of interest in the Hawaiian culture. One well known symbol of that is a 40-year-old traditional double-hulled sailing canoe called the Hokulea, or star of gladness. This is a replica of the original canoes that the ancient Hawaiians used to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii and when it was built, a search went out for someone who still remembered the ‘star compass.’ Mau Piailug was found in Micronesia, and he went on to teach people here in Hawaii how to navigate the old way. Over the years, Hokulea has taken many successful journeys throughout the Pacific, retracing the path of their ancestors. In 2013, a journey was undertaken to circumnavigate the earth in the Hokulea, using only the stars and other natural phenomena such as waves, wind, and migratory birds to navigate the 47,000 nautical mile journey. It was a huge feat for this sailing canoe, but it truly personifies the astronomical legacy of the Hawaiian people. Their skills were such that Captain Cook enlisted the services of a Polynesian navigator called Tupaia, who drafted maps of the islands in the Pacific for Cook. 

The Hawaiians also used Heiaus for navigation. These are a kind of temple, in this case, with standing stones aligned to the stars and pointing the way to Polynesia. There’s one called Holomoana in M?hukona at Kohala in the northwest part of the island, but it is not open to the public.

Hear more on our South Island Epic Coastal Journey Tour!

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