How do Hawaiians keep an ancient cultural practice alive? There’s a meeting for that: The Waʻa Kiakahi Canoe Festival has been making a splash for 16 years as part of the Hawaiian Sailing Canoe Association’s (HSCA) mission to learn, revive, teach, and practice ancient Hawaiian water skills and values. This year, seven teams and approximately 42 sailors participated in the main event, a 72-mile race that began in Maui and ended in Oʻahu. “The teams who sail to our shores are extreme water people who live on all the Hawaii islands,” said Shelley Kekuna, executive director, Kaʻanapali Beach Resort Association, which partners with HSCA as the site for the free three-day event. Some, she said, are business owners and some teams include family members.
Skimming the Surface
Not everyone who attends the festival needs to be an extreme sportsperson — the event draws hundreds of spectators looking to learn more about Hawaiian culture and celestial navigation, and how the canoe, or waʻa, was vital to the Hawaiians’ sustenance and survival, providing the means by which the people could fish and travel between islands. Though the event was scaled back this year due to COVID, 200 individuals attended the event.
Visitors can sign up for canoe sailing lessons from team members for a hands-on experience, and in non-COVID times, can participate in beachside demonstrations and visit educational sessions about native wild-life and the history of the sailing canoe.
Also, Kekuna said, “the public can join in both the Friday traditional Hawaiian welcoming ceremony as well as the Sunday morning canoe send-off and traditional Hawaiian farewell ceremony.”
The welcoming and farewell ceremonies are a key part of Wa’a Kiakahi. During these moments, a cultural practitioner stands in the middle of a circle of sailors, blessing them and their canoes. “Then it’s a huge ‘love in,’” Kekuna said, “as everyone says their aloha to one another and starts talking about their journey.”
Those who participate in Wa’a Kiakahi often call it the highlight of their Hawaii trip, Kekuna said. “Our favorite comments, particularly among our more senior participants, is that it has changed their life and understanding of who the Hawaiian people are. In the end, it’s all about respect and gratitude, and how much that is generated with offering this complimentary experience.”
Casey Gale is managing editor at Convene. Illustration by Carmen Segovia
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