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Conversations On The Earth With Legendary Polynesian Navigator Nainoa Thompson

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Reading an interview by Nainoa Thompson is like reading an interview by the Dalai Lama. The spell-binding inspiration and chill in the spine when hearing him speak cannot be recreated by the transcription of his audio recording! But, in here are powerful messages from Nainoa for all of us on the importance of vision, building a movement, leading without authority, environment, climate change, children, nature education and much more.

Nainoa on board the Hōkūle’a. Photo by: Dan Lin

Nainoa Thompson is a legendary Polynesian navigator and President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. He has inspired and led the revival of traditional wayfinding in Hawaii, which has been lost for centuries due to colonisation and westernisation of the Polynesian archipelagoes.

In 1980, he was the first Hawaiian since the 14th century to sail the Hōkūle’a (A double-hulled Polynesian canoe) from Hawaii to other Islands in Polynesia without the aid of Western Instruments. Recently, Hōkūle’a sailed around the world for three years using the same way finding techniques that Polynesians used to reach the Hawaiian Islands. Here is a conversation with him on Mālama Honua, which means, “To care for our Island Earth.”

K Ramnath Chandrasekhar (KRC): Was there a situation when you didn’t know what to do, overwhelmed with a scenario and looking for answers?

Nainoa Thompson (NT): I always essentially didn’t need to know what to do. But, I know where I believe I need to go. Even though I don’t know how to get there, that’s exploration at the core. So, once you have the idea, vision, decision or the destination you are trying to get to, as long as you believe that destination is something that you truly value, then, even though you don’t know how to get there, that’s part of the journey. It’s part of exploration.

KRC: Could you describe a specific scenario?

NT: For instance, when we talk about the issue of nature, we knew that we needed to sail around the world, because you can’t protect what you don’t understand, and you are not going to protect it if you don’t care. You can’t do it by yourself because the situation is so enormous and big. Your impact by yourself, in isolation, will be very little. Because of that, we knew that we needed to go around the world, to be able to learn about the Earth, to meet people who are doing good for the Earth, and also try to ask the larger question, ‘what’s the global community’s culture?’

I don’t mean defined by race, boundaries of geography, or the boundaries of nationalism. I’m talking about values. Today, we are in a race; the race between those who are damaging the Earth, and those who are healing it. So, the question is – is there a culture on the Earth that is still kind and compassionate, that still cares? Is it still connected to nature? Because our survival as human beings depends on that. You don’t know the answers until you go. For me, my whole life has been driven by trying to be clear about what is the right thing to do, and then go explore the idea.

In some ways, we found that our Island Earth is so unbelievably beautiful and extraordinary. Life is complex and way beyond our ability to understand it. We also found that, we as human beings are changing it, and at the same time, it is changing us. We found that we are not ready for that change. It’s global, and it’s rapid. At the same time on the worldwide voyage, we met thousands of people in their own communities, in their own backyards, in their own classrooms, in the hallways of colleges, or coral reefs, or watersheds, in fish ponds, doing what they can. It’s almost like an innate instinctual response by humanity to protect their home, and, the definition of home is very diverse. It could be your backyard; it could be your community; it could be the larger place that you live; it could be the Island Earth.

Even though we sailed around the world, 37 months, 18 countries, and about 327 ports, we met just a fraction of the 7.5 billion on the planet. But in doing so, we met thousands of people who essentially were strangers, doing amazing things for the protection of the home and the Earth. In my point of view, whenever someone does good for the Earth, they are not doing it for their community; they are doing it for everyone on this Earth, because everyone’s life depends on that. This strengthens my hope and belief that we got a chance, protecting the chemistry of the atmosphere, protecting the biology of the oceans and forests, protecting wildlife, things we love, and nature as a whole.

We look at what’s the most relevant issue to sail for, even though we don’t know how to do it. The worst thing to me is that, even though the worldwide voyage was dangerous; hurricane seasons, piracy, a rogue wave in South Africa, stuff that can essentially kill you. We believe that the greatest danger is not sailing around the world; the greatest danger is staying tied to the dock, and not doing anything. And then, the future, the world that you live in becomes a world of ignorance and apathy. The worst thing is to be inactive; to not take action. That’s how we approach our voyaging today.

KRC: If such is the kind of movement that one needs for nature and wildlife in a large country like India, where would they begin to mobilise the community? Could you advise on leadership?

NT: Well, (pauses) I think you got to begin by acting; by making it a personal individual decision that you are going to do what you believe is right for the things that you value. For us, it’s our home, it’s our children, it’s their future. You need to do it first as an individual, and then believe and hope that you are not the only one who believes in those values. I think the movement is there, you need to find it, you need to be part of it, you need to support it; and strengthen it in your own active work, your decisions.

You know, our voyage is called, Mālama Honua, which is to care for the Earth. That’s not a new idea; that’s not our idea. Every culture on the Earth has those set of values; maybe it’s worded in a different language. So, we didn’t try to create a movement. We tried to become the movement; to be a part of that movement.

In our philosophy, if we do what we do, and believe in willing to make a change along the way, we are going to go on a ship. If the winds change, we got to reset our sails, to go on a new course to get where we eventually need to get to. It’s never a straight line. But, when you go, you learn about many things you didn’t know. So, it makes you more and more prepared to make better decisions, to constantly grow and build your own personal movement. But, you are going to need people. You need to make connections. The networking is doing what you believe is right, and connecting with others who share those values. I think the way you grow a movement is doing things, especially when it’s hard, when it’s difficult. There will be many people who believe in your ideas, but they won’t know how to be active. So, building the movement is helping them understand that they can be active, and bring more and more people to come together. So, I never see us in the front of the movement; I see us inside of it.

We have no time left on the Earth not to have nature at the core of education. In America, we still teach a 145-year old public school institution education that was based on the country making the decision and the vision that America is going to be the most powerful industrial country and therefore the powerful economic country in the world; and they succeeded. Once the country said, we need to industrialise, and they needed to train our children to be in our workforce. To a large degree, the changing of the earth began during the time of industrialisation. But, we are still in the same education system. We haven’t changed. That’s probably one of the greatest dangers of our time. Not only are we not getting our young people prepared to be ready to deal with the changing world, we are actually wasting their time. We lock them up in buildings in those fifteen years in school, and teaching essentially not the wrong things, but essentially not the right things.

All academics should be applied. Applied to what? It should be applied to taking care of the Earth. They are going to inherit our past; we are not going to save their future. We need to prepare them to do that. So, we work very hard in Hawaii with the fundamental belief that Hawaii is going to be the starlight for the Earth. If we learn how to live well on the Islands, we learn to live well on the Earth, because that’s what the Earth is. But in order to do that, you got to have the voyagers and navigators. I am not talking about on canoes. But, those in the engineering fields, those in the sciences, and cultures. So, we got to change the basics of education. If there was a great investment you can do to better take care of the Earth, it will be to take those 15 years you talk about, and prepare children to do that.

Around one-third of all the population in Hawaii is among infants and kids graduating from high school. That is the greatest natural force we have in Hawaii. It’s our children. If you could create a movement in schools, that would be the greatest movement ever. How you do that? You got to start and believe. I’ve been doing this for 42 years. So, there has definitely been a change in Hawaii in schools. Hawaii is growing out of the ashes of really poor decisions back in the last couple of hundred years. But, we are getting there. It’s slow; frustrating, and it’s hard work.

That’s why I worry about time, but differently than before. Before, I was impatient. It needs to be pushed so fast. Today, I worry about time running out. So, there is still that urgency, always. When we did the worldwide voyage, we created a document called promise to children. It’s an educational document, and we had 48 of the top leaders of the Hawaii education to sign it; universities, schools, early childhood education; essentially the leadership. It was the first time education leaders across the Hawaiian Islands came together. I think that is the key thing to a movement. The other key thing to a movement is the leadership; getting them to make the shifts that need to be made. If you do it collectively, it is more powerful.

Nainoa Thompson, a portrait. Photo by: Dan Lin

KRC: How do we get these done when being innately humble and modest?

NT: I think that’s the only way, especially in our communities. For ours, it’s actually better to lead from behind and not in the front. You have those very rare individuals, right? Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King; pillars of change. They were in the front. But, at the same time, they were both at the core very humble, quiet and caring people. My inspiration does come from Gandhi. Just doing what he believed is right, and standing up for what is right. I have always been inspired by his impact coupled with his humility. If there is ever a model of the kind of movement that we need to create for nature, it would be Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Certainly not me!

To me when you get too far in the front, when your community perceives that your so-called leader is not with them, outside of them, talking at them, then your leadership is not strengthened. It’s weakened. So, it is much better to be with them, and to go with them. Because that’s where your strength is.

I think the best leadership is those who are conscious of the relationship to who they serve; who are considerate and making sure that others have a voice, and place; who are conscious about making sure you listen. Again, you are not leading the movement, you are inside the movement, and strengthening it. That’s why answer.

KRC: How do see leadership in environmental education ten years from now?

NT: Oh man! (Pauses) Ten years from now, maybe you need to look back 40 years. Environmentalism back then was seen as people calling tree-huggers, earth’s colour is green…it’s really blue, by the way. We are a blue island. Environmentalism was a good thing to do, but it was separate from the larger societies need to drive the economy, to create wealth, and industrialise. Today, that’s not the case. If you think about what’s happening at the Paris Agreement, all the country’s on the Earth has signed on except the United States. They will sign that back on, in time.

There is a whole conscious shift on the importance of protecting life on earth. The need to protect nature should not be driven because the society, our political leaders and business leaders see it as a nice thing to do. To me, it’s really an essential thing to do. So, the conscious change in thinking that if we don’t protect the environment, we hurt the environment, then we are hurting ourselves, as human beings. I think that’s the trigger. The problem is that it’s so late.

We are losing wildlife every day. We are losing beautiful cultures on Earth every day. We are losing languages every day. So, the race is on. The good news is that there is that shift. Ten years from now, it’s going to be stronger, because, as we start to grow our population, 10 years from now exponentially, we will be eight billion, 11 billion by the end of the century. I don’t know the statistics about the environment because we don’t even know how to measure it anymore.

What we do know is that 90% of big fish on the Earth are gone, and the oceans are in trouble. If we have to protect the life on Earth, we got to protect the oceans. So, ten years from now, when we have eight billion people, the pressures on natural resources, the protection becoming greater, then I think that realization and fear is going to drive change. The question is, is it too late? I do feel the gap between the rich and the poor, especially the rich developed countries against those in poverty. If those who are going to feel the impact of imbalance of population and natural resources, it is going to be the poor. It’s going to get worse if we continue this path. But, some pretty amazing people are doing great work in energy, food sovereignty, protection of culture, and science is being used more and more for the protection of the Earth. The movement is there. It is going to grow, and in ten years, I think there is going to changes in schools, as long as we keep pushing, and trying to help leaders get it and make bold decisions.

KRC: For example?

NT: When Hōkūle’a went around the world; when Hawaii became the first state in the Union to break off from the Federal Government to sign on to the Paris Agreement as a state and not as a country; and then other states in the Union followed. Six days ago, we signed a promise to Hawaii that all the counties in Hawaii will have alternative energy transportation by 2035. 100%. These kind of promises weren’t even thought of 40 years ago. It’s now common to be concerned about the recognition that the path we are on right now is not the right one, and the leadership is standing up. Another reason why I think is, the democratic political system we have here is, what your voters think matters. So, this whole education movement, about the need to change should not just happen in classrooms but in living rooms, almost puts the pressure and demand on the political leaders of change. It’s happening. My fear is, it’s not enough.

I think the big change that needs to happen is in the schools. Let’s say nature was a core competency in schools; core to education. When a child enters kindergarten, a child knows that it needs to pass core competency in nature, and the academics of education are only applied. In other words, if we repurpose schools instead of industrialisation, but for the protection of the earth, if we had new purposes of schools, it would change everything! It would change everything.

KRC: But, there is so much resistance from the teachers and parents that nature education is not connected to their academics or the job opportunities.

NT: In many ways, my opinion is, either teach the teachers or create teachers. It’s time now. It’s going to happen. It is not easy. It’s an enormous change. I think most people want it. But, it’s so hard to work in the education system. You are going to get resistance because you are going to tell the teachers that you need to teach something you really don’t know. Or, you are saying, what you are teaching is not good enough. So, it’s hard. You got to be careful. But, I think the educated educators understand the need for this shift. So, we got to help find ways to make that happen for them. Because, teachers are the most important occupations in our society, in my opinion.

KRC: Shall we have a rapid-fire round? I will tell you five words, and you could tell a word or a phrase that comes to your mind for those.

Mentors: (Hushes mentors, pauses) My word, it’s not one word, but three. “Everything to me – My teachers.”

Hōkūle’a: Hōkūle’a is everything to me (Laughs) Well, (Pauses) “Hōkūle’a – My word will be nature.”

Oceans: Life.

Politics: Confusion.

Children: the answer. 

KRC: If you had a magic wand right now, what would you do?

NT: Magic wand (Hushes). If I had a magic wand, it would be to help nurture the minds and hearts of children so that they can live in a just, safe and a healthy world. That would be my wand.

KRC: Thank you so much for your time and for this conversation, Nainoa.

This interview with Nainoa Thompson was recorded in December 2017 during a serendipitous face-to-face conversation while I was in Hawaii for the East-West Center’s Asia Pacific Leadership Program Fellowship. The recording was transcribed verbatim and edited only for grammar. Special thanks to Dan Lin for the photographs.

For more information about Nainoa Thompson and Polynesian Voyaging click here.

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