Hawaiʻi's Tokelauans Launch Community-Built Sailing Canoe

Feb 15, 2019

Photos of Tokelau-born elders who have passed away were brought to the launch to include them in the festivities.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

For the sea-faring people of the Pacific Islands, canoes have long been a way to travel, trade, and fish for food. But for a tight-knit community of local Tokelauans, they hope their newly-built canoe will strengthen their ties to their ancestral homeland – a remote group of atolls 2,500 miles south of Hawaiʻi. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi has this story.

The wind was roaring off of Sand Island over the weekend, kicking up white-capped waves. But that did not stop Hawaiʻi’s community of Tokelauans from launching their first ever sailing canoe built in Hawai’i. Patrick Pedro helped steer the six-man canoe around the bay.

Hawai'i's Tokelau community takes their newly-built canoe or vaka for a spin off Sand Island over the weekend.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“You rarely see white caps in this bay,” says Pedro, “But we were able to paddle it around and very sea worthy. Just gotta go fishing on it now.”

Mas Patelesio was also on board.

“Today even though it was like rough but I kind of felt safe because I knew who built it…and it was us,” says Patelesio.

For the past six months, Patelesio, Pedro, and dozens of Tokelauans carved the traditional canoe or vaka from a 35-foot log of albezia. They built it as they would in their ancestral homeland using traditional tools.

“I never expected the new generation to see this kind of thing,” says 81-year-old Tili Tyrell.

He was at the launch. Tyrell one of a declining number of Tokelau-born elders left in Hawaiʻi.

Local community of Tokelauans gather to install the newly-built canoe as a member of the community.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“It was so great to see all these young people interested in traveling on the canoe. Because to me that was the old day when I was a kid, that’s what I used to see!” says Tyrell.

More than 1,000 Tokelauans call Hawaiʻi home. Most are descendants of migrants who came here to work the pineapple fields in the 1960s. Betty Ickes’ parents were among them. She says watching the launch brought her joy.

“Thinking of my parents and the other elders who are not here physically to celebrate with us,” says Ickes.

Ickes is the founder of Te Taki Tokelau. The 16-year-old organization runs a Tokelauan language program in Wahiawa, which she hopes will benefit from the vaka launch.

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

“These kinds of events are exciting for the community so they do come out,” says Ickes.

Ickes hopes to continue this momentum. Te Taki is developing curriculum for Tokelauan language learners to be used on the canoe.

“So we’ll be engaging the community more using the vaka,” says Ickes, “Of course the whole idea behind that is bringing the community together so they can be exposed to the language.”

And help perpetuate the culture of this Pacific Island nation.