September 26, 2013

Meet Native America: The Honorable Daniel Kahikina Akaka, U.S. Senator for Hawai‘i from 1990 to 2013

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Established in 1989 through an Act of Congress, the National Museum of the American Indian is an institution of living cultures dedicated to advancing knowledge and understanding of the life, languages, literature, history, and arts of the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere, including the Native people of Hawai‛i. The museum is grateful for the ongoing interest and support of the Hawaiian delegation to the U.S. Congress. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Daniel Kahikina Akaka. In January 2013, I retired from the United States Senate after over 36 years of representing the people of Hawai‘i in Congress. I began my tenure in the House of Representatives in 1977, and was appointed to the Senate in 1990, becoming the first Native Hawaiian to serve in the Senate. In November of that year, I won the special election to the Senate, and would be re-elected to the seat three more times. Throughout my career in the Senate, I served on the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and served as its Chairman in the 112th Congress.

Can you share with us your Hawaiian Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?

My Hawaiian name is Kahikina; literally translated it means "to the east.” I am named after my father. 

The Hon. DanielKahikina Akaka served as U.S. senator for Hawai'i from 1990 to 2013. Official portrait courtesy of the U.S. Senate.

What responsibilities do you have as a national leader and tribal elder?

As a national leader, I have committed myself to a lifelong goal of working to protect the language, culture, and traditions of indigenous peoples. An essential component to this is grooming future leaders to ensure they practice and perpetuate their cultural values, which is why I have dedicated my time in retirement to mentor our future leaders. I hope that in the future all the work I have done in the state of Hawai‘i and in the Congress will help Native Hawaiians achieve self-determination and enable them to establish a governing entity.

Moreover, I hope that our country and world can get to a point where we all implement a good model for indigenous peoples that protects their right to self-determination and preserves their unique cultures and traditions. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your Native community?

My family and upbringing instilled in me a strong foundation and life purpose—to help and serve the people of Hawai‘i. I grew up immersed in Native Hawaiian cultural practices and traditions and took pride in my heritage.

From my exposure to various cultures in the Pacific as I served in the Army during World War II to seeing first-hand the displacement of indigenous peoples throughout the world as I visited various places as a Member of Congress, I came to realize that I needed not only to serve as a leader for the Native Hawaiian community, but moreover to help all indigenous peoples preserve their language, culture, and traditions.

As a member of Congress, I witnessed and learned more about the startling disparities faced by Native Hawaiians and was motivated to identify a way to unite Native Hawaiians and give them the capacity to govern themselves and take care of our people. This continues to be a sincere passion for me, and I firmly believe that when Native Hawaiians are successful in establishing a governing entity they will serve as a model for indigenous groups around the world.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

There are a number of individuals who helped groom and mentor me from my youth through my professional career. My brother, Reverend Abraham Akaka, was one of my first mentors and advocates. I admire and cherish him dearly. I still vividly remember the inspiring conversations I had with him over breakfast. Our discussions were often about faith and spirituality, but I will never forget his encouragement to embrace and understand diversity. He believed that out of diversity arises strength and power. He also advocated for raising the level of Native Hawaiians and encouraged me to do whatever I could to bring our people together.

My wife, Millie, is also my lifelong supporter who made it possible for me to accomplish all that I have in my life.

Two important individuals who specifically helped me get to the U.S. Congress were Hawai‘i Governors John Burns and George Ariyoshi. They both saw in me qualities that they believed were needed in our state and the Native Hawaiian community. They provided me the opportunities to serve various communities throughout the state and pushed me to strive for higher office.

I am extremely grateful to these four individuals for their belief in me and their tireless support.

Are you a descendent of a historical leader? If so, who?

No, I am not aware of any of my ancestors who were historical leaders. 

Where is the Native Hawaiian community located?

Our homeland consists of the islands of Hawai‘i, located in the Pacific Ocean. It is made up of eight major islands and 124 minor islands encompassing 4,112,955 acres.

Where was the Native Hawaiian community originally from?

Hawai‘i was originally settled by voyagers from central and eastern Polynesia who travelled great distances in double-hulled voyaging canoes to arrive in Hawai‘i, perhaps as early as 300 AD. 

Lei Draping 2009 a
SenatorAkaka speaking during the lei-draping ceremony to commemorate King Kamehameha Day. June 7, 2009; the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center Emancipation Hall, Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate.

What is a significant point in history from your community that you would like to share?

On January 16, 1893, at the order of United States Minister to Hawaii John Stevens, a contingent of U.S. Marines from the USS Boston marched through Honolulu to a building located near both the government building and the palace. The next day, local non-Hawaiian revolutionaries seized the government building and demanded that Queen Lili‘uokalani abdicate the monarchy. Minister Stevens immediately recognized the rebels’ provisional government and placed it under the United States’ protection. Since the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i, Native Hawaiians have been displaced from our land and our right to self-governance and self-determination.

It took 100 years for the United States to formally acknowledge their role in this event. In 1993 President Bill Clinton signed into law P.L. 103-150, a resolution that I sponsored. This resolution acknowledged the role the United States and its agents played in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai‘i and set forward a path towards reconciliation between the United States government and the Native Hawaiian people.

Approximately how many members are in your Native community?

According to the 2010 Census, there are over 500,000 individuals who identify as full or part Native Hawaiian in the United States. Of that number, over 280,000 live in Hawai‘i.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Native Hawaiian community?

Native Hawaiians do not have a governing entity or organic documents that establish the criteria to be a member of such an entity. However, in 2011 the state of Hawai‘i enacted Act 195 to establish a Native Hawaiian Roll Commission. Individuals on the roll will participate in the organization of a Native Hawaiian governing entity. To be on this roll, an individual must be a lineal descendant of the aboriginal people who resided in the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, or be eligible for Hawaiian Home Lands or a lineal descendant of a person who is eligible for Hawaiian Home Lands.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

Yes, our language is spoken on our homelands due to the persistence of dedicated professionals in our community who worked tirelessly to ensure our language was preserved. Our language was nearly lost due to a number of significant historical events. First, after the arrival American missionaries, our oral language transitioned to a written language. Later the language was banned in all schools and displaced by English. I experienced first-hand the impact of this ban and was forbidden to speak my native tongue.

In 1984, a movement began to perpetuate our language, and the first Hawaiian language immersion preschool was opened. Hawai‘i is now the only state with a designated Native language, Hawaiian, as one of its two official state languages. Moreover, it is now possible to receive an education in Hawaiian immersion from preschool through a doctoral degree. Hawaiian language content is now available through multiple media sources, such as the Internet, television programs, and websites.

According to the 2006–2008 American Community Survey, 24.8 percent (+/- 1.0) of Hawai‘i’s population speaks a language other than English at home. Of this group, 6.1 percent (+/- 1.1) are Native Hawaiian speakers.

What economic enterprises does your Native community own?

Our community does not own any economic enterprises. However, Native Hawaiians are successful business owners and many participate in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development Program as a means to support the community.

What annual events does the Native Hawaiian community sponsor?

Many different organizations in our community hold different annual events. These can range from annual conferences with government and community officials, to family days, workshops with cultural practitioners, language seminars, and hula festivals.

One of the more prominent and longer-running events is a hula festival called the Merrie Monarch Festival, a week-long event hosted every spring in Hilo on the island of Hawai‘i. Many hālau hula, or hula schools—not just from across the state, but from across the nation and even internationally—participate in hula exhibitions and competitions. Merrie Monarch has received worldwide attention and is noted for its cultural significance and community impact.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Hawai‘i is known worldwide for its natural beauty. Many people are familiar with our sandy beaches and our lush mountains, such as one popularly known as Diamond Head on O‘ahu. However, we also have National Parks that have great cultural significance, such as Haleakalā National Park on Maui, or Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park and Pu‘uhonua O Hōnaunau National Historical Park on the island of Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i is also home to sites of national historical significance, such as the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument where the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial is located, as well as the Battleship Missouri Memorial and the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park. In addition, ‘Iolani Palace on O‘ahu is the only site in the United States that was used as an official residence by a reigning monarch; it is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Another noteworthy place in Hawai‘i is the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. While it isn’t an attraction available for visitors, Papahānaumokuākea is the single largest conservation area in the United States and one of the largest ocean sanctuaries in the world. This place speaks to the splendor and uniqueness of my home.

How is your traditional Native community government set up?

Prior to Western contact, our island nation had an organized and stable land tenure system under the stewardship of chiefly rulers. Native Hawaiians evolved a system of self-governance and a highly organized, self-sufficient, subsistent social system based on communal land tenure, with a sophisticated language, culture, and religion. This society was marked by reciprocal obligation and support between the chiefs and people.

In 1810, the Native Hawaiian political, economic, and social structure was unified under a monarchy led by King Kamehameha I. The authority of the king was derived from the gods, and he was a trustee of the land and other natural resources of the islands, which were held communally.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Native Hawaiians have not reorganized a governing entity since the kingdom was overthrown in 1893. 

How are leaders chosen?

While we have many prominent leaders throughout our communities who are successful because of their strong characters and respect of our culture and traditions, Native Hawaiians do not have a governing entity that is chosen and led by our people.

What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?

Foremost, I encourage the youth of my Native community to take pride in the place we call home— Hawai‘i.  Learn, internalize, and appreciate our Native language, culture, traditions, people, and natural environment. We will lose our identity as Hawai‘i if we lose this. Commit yourselves to preserving the identity of Hawai‘i and the identity of indigenous peoples around the world.

As I see it, Hawai‘i is the piko—a navel or center—of the universe. We have so much to offer and we need to do all we can to share what we have with the world. Ultimately, I encourage the youth to give back to people and the world by using all that makes up our special identity as Native Hawaiians. 

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

This is something I have said before, but it remains very important to me and the Hawaiian people: If at any time in your life you are given aloha, appreciate it, live it and pass it on, because that's the nature of aloha and that is the spirit of aloha. It means nothing unless you share it.

Mahalo, thank you, for giving me the opportunity to share a little about my community and our people with you.

Thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.  


From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips.

All images used with permission. 


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September 24, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Outrigger and booms

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 
Part 6: Sanding and gluing 

Bishop Museum Canoe
Alovely Hawaiian canoe on display at the Bishop Museum. Two curved booms attach to the outrigger with simple pegs and lashing.

In their great work Canoes of Oceania, a landmark in research of Pacific Islander canoes, published in 1936, authors A. C. Haddon and James Hornell state that their study began with a particular focus on how different island cultures attached the outriggers to their canoes. Clearly this is a distinguishing feature across Oceania—as characteristic, if not more so, than the shapes of the canoes themselves—and I have seen quite a variety in my own limited travels.

For Hawaiians, it was simple: The booms (‘iako) curve down from the gunwales of the canoe and are pegged, then lashed, directly to a banana-shaped outrigger (ama). But elsewhere, it can get very complicated, and for the Melanesia design that I am building, it’s one of these tricky rigs. But first, we have to get all the parts together and hewn into shape. 

Manu a
Manuextending upward on the back end of the ‘Auhou, NMAI’s Hawaiian canoe. Protruding below it is the notched extension where ropes would have been attached to bring the rough-hewn hull out of the forest.

While koa was the tree of choice for canoe hulls, lighter woods were preferred for the rest of the parts. Koa is a very stiff and dense wood and therefore very, very heavy. Jay Dowsett and Tay Perry, who build and refurbish canoes in Honolulu today, note that in the old days, a lot of those canoe hulls were an inch-and-a-half or two inches thick just to keep them rugged. That also made them very heavy. 

Hawaiian canoes have separate gunwale pieces attached (by stitch and glue) atop the hull, culminating in lovely upright prows and sterns called manu, a hallmark of Hawaiian canoe design. These areas, which are repeatedly struck by the paddles, would be made of ‘ahakea—a fairly light wood, but very stiff. It’s comparable to ash, which is not particularly heavy for its volume, but is also very stiff. ‘Ahakea wood is a dull orange-brown and when rubbed with kukui oil becomes a beautiful dark golden yellow. 

HaoTrees1 a
Hautrees, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i.

Forthe booms (‘iako) that connect the outrigger to the hull, hau was an excellent choice. A member of the hibiscus family, hau grows in low, tumbling forests of curved limbs. Pick two that have the right curve and you’re set. And the wood is light and peels easily. In fact, the bark makes a decent rope. 

Wiliwili seed a

The outrigger, or ama, would be made of wiliwili. This lovely tall tree produces red seeds, and red being the color of chiefliness, these seeds are equated with the blood of the chiefs. Wiliwili is also very light, which is what you want your float to be. Its purpose, you see, is to float.

Here in the mid-Atlantic area, there’s a dearth of ‘ahakea, hau, and wiliwili.  But, as with ash and ‘ahakea, we can look for trees with comparable qualities. Now I knew more about trees in New England, where I spent a lot of my youth, than I did about the mid-Atlantic. Some of these trees around here are completely unfamiliar to me. And I’m not a woodworker to begin with. And in New England, firewood was the big issue, so I became familiar with wood that split well and burned hot. Period. Now I need to know much more about the qualities of different woods.

Fortunately, in the 21st century, there is the online Wood Database. This excellent free resource is quite extensive (though Hawaiian woods are strangely absent) and gives a great deal of information about the qualities of different woods. Among these, the important ones for me are dry weight, strength, shrinkage, workability, and perishability. I spent a lot of time going back and forth between this website and the State of Maryland’s Maryland Trees database, looking at what types of wood are available in this area.

Lightness, for the ‘iako and the ‘ama, was a problem. The trees that are light are often also highly perishable, or just plain hard to find. Cedar, ash, and white pine aren’t common around my area—at least, not that I could find.

Which brings us to another problem: If you live in the city, where do you find trees to cut? Well, there are four solutions. First, make friends with a logger or arborist who cuts trees for a living. Some of them stock up on the wood they cut, because they or their friends or relatives are woodworkers, too. Second, go directly to large private landowners who have some good-looking trees for your purposes, and see if they will let you cut them. Third is tree falls from storms. I have harvested a few pieces from these. Finally, you can be sneaky. After all, there are a lot of trees in my area—along the sides of highways or in highway medians, or the fringes of parks and streams, and so forth: no-man’s lands, in other words. That doesn’t make cutting trees there legal, and the fines can be up to $1000.

I won’t reveal which option I used, but I will say that the trees that I cut were all, with one exception, standing dead—they were not green anymore, but they weren’t starting to rot, either. Okay, one of them could have been a little fresher. And the type I went for was Virginia pine, not a species with which I was previously familiar.

First I cut a big log for the ama. It was a 40-foot tree, clearly dead in the last season, and with my folding handsaw, felling it was quite a chore. I cut the log longer than it needed to be, just in case. It may have been dead, but it was still mighty heavy. I propped one end on the back of my car roof, atop an old blanket, and slid it up on top of the car.  Two straps, two ropes, and away I went, the happy owner of a beautiful pine log. 

The only problem was that I had not read canoe-building the directions carefully. They say the dry weight of the wood for the ama should be about 26 pounds per cubic foot, and no more than 30. Virginia pine is 32 (oak, by comparison, is 42 or more). Back to the databases for another search. The only readily available local wood with a dry weight under 30 pounds is tulip poplar, which is plentiful, but perishable. So for this, I borrowed a friend and his chainsaw and we cut a live tree (after the appropriate propitiation of its spirit and thanks for its life). This totally green log would become my ama. 

For the booms, however, I went back to Virginia pine: light, reasonably straight, tough, and a bit more water-resistant. The only problem with it, as I quickly found out, is that it’s knotty. That makes shaping it down to size more difficult.

The last wood needed is a series of sticks—four per boom, each about two feet long—that connect the ‘iako to the ama. This is not a Hawaiian design at all, as you will see. Here I lucked out. An area in a nearby streamside park had been cleared around some power lines, and a lot of young trees of the right diameter were already lying there cut. 

The process of turning these raw logs and cut saplings into shaped parts was far more laborious than the making of the hull. At the same time, here is where I really got into canoe carving—using bladed instruments to shape the wood. My primary tools were the drawknife (a blade with two handles, mine an antique), a hammer with large chisel, a plane, and a rasp. 

Tools a
Tools (clockwise from upper left): Drawknife, chisel and hammer, plane, carpenter's rasp. 

Thedrawknife was good for removing bark and roughly taking each log down to the shape and diameter I needed. The hammer and chisel I used to cut out the knots in the Virginia pine and to shape the ends of the ama. The plane helped straighten out uneven areas more finely, and the rasp took care of the minor bumps, knotty areas, and general smoothing. Of course, I finished things off with the miraculous random orbital sander. 

Carving 2 e

Carving 1d
Above: Knots divoted out with hammer and chisel. Right: A boom log after a rough pass with the drawknife.
















Nowalthough the logs for the booms were as straight as I could get them, they still had curves to them. Carving them down to two inches in diameter from around three-and-a-half to four inches—well, yes, it’s a lot of extra work, but it gave me the opportunity to take some of those curves down and make the pieces straighter overall. So after divoting out the knots, I used the drawknife to make the first hard pass, removing the bark and taking off thick strips of wood. Have I mentioned that this took a lot of effort? I wondered if our ancestors had to work this hard, or whether there was some Zen of using this tool that I wasn’t getting. With that in mind, I did get better at it. 

I then used the plane to fine-tune the major work as much as possible, and used the rasp on the ridges and on the lumpy areas around the knots. The two tools worked very well at taking the wood down to a reasonably smooth contour. 

Carving 3 a

Carving 4 a

Carving 5 a
Top: All the carving is done, but the boom still looks pretty rough. Above: Nice and smooth—if not perfectly straight—after sanding. Right:To steady the log while I worked, I set up two bench clamps at the end of my long table and clamped a large C-clamp into them to hold the extended end of the log (cut off afterwards). You can see how much I took off of this log. The carved portion is not centered on the raw end; that was to take out some of the curve. 

Poplar a
Thetulip poplar log for the outrigger, with giant strips of bark peeled off.

The ama (float) was a different story. To begin with, the log was green.  First thing I did was to take the bark off so it would begin to dry better.  Lo and behold, tulip poplar is one of those tree species where the bark just peels right off! What a bonus! 

This log, again, was not perfectly straight. It had a curve on one end that I intended to use for the bow end, but side-to-side it had some issues as well. These too I tried to minimize as I took the log down to its final size.

Mostly this log was to stay pretty round, though flattened a bit on the top. The ends, however, were to be tapered down to points. I decided to do the first end with just the hammer and chisel. By this point I was feeling pretty handy with these tools, and they are not too dissimilar from the adze of old—except that they are two separate pieces and the adze is one combined tool. Using the hammer and chisel, I felt, gave me much more precision and control, and reminded me of stone carvers I had seen in my youth. I felt like an artist at last. 

Artistic as the work might have been, it took a long time and a lot of careful eyeing to get the end of the log into the right shape. So to do the other end, I used a technique suggested in the instructions: Make sawcuts of increasing depth, and then chisel these off. Wow, this took much less time. The wood came off in huge chunks, and in half an hour I had done what took me perhaps two days on the firstend. 

Ama1 a Ama2

Left: Beginning to shape the end of the ama with hammer and chisel.  Note the lovely dark heartwood of the log. Right: Illustration from Wharram’s instructions on how to shape the end of the ama.  I like how they say that using an electric planer is cheating!  I don’t own one anyway. 

Mindyou, I was doing this work in Baltimore in July, when it’s 95 degrees outside and often humid. I moved my work to an old picnic table in the shade and spend days shaping this thing, then leaving it in the sun to dry some more. 

In the end, I not only had a log that I can lift—at first, it was so green and full of water I had to drag it—but an outrigger that, after sanding, looks pretty good. It is already showing some cracks, but I’m not worried about that, because now I know about filleting. Next year when the log is totally cured, I'll fill those cracks and waterproof the float. For now, I’m just going to use it as soon as everything else is done. And I am getting into the final stretch. 


Ama3 a

Ama4 a

My picnic table set-up. You can see that the log has some shape issues. I did my best to deal with these. 


Next: Cordage.

—Douglas Herman, NMAI


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I was thrilled to see the photos on this website,,,, and I want to be a native of America to lead his own country

learn so that we all do not become marginalized

why people of his native country should not be the leader????????? I was so sad

I think the National Museum of the American Indian is the best museum in history.

August 22, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Sanding and gluing

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 
Part 5: Stitch and glue 

Kapiolani_Canoe a 
The Kapi`olani Canoe, on display in Na Mea Makamae o Hawai'i—Hawaiian Treasures, an exhibition shown at the National Museum of Natural History in 2004–05. This fishing canoe is the oldest documented Hawaiian canoe still in existence. It was already quite old when Queen Kapio`lani sent it to the Smithsonian in 1888.

Before I get into the gluing part of the stitch-and-glue operation, let’s take a few moments to lavish praise on the underappreciated, glorious art of sanding. If you’ve ever worked with wood at all—and almost everyone has done something at some time—you know that sanding smooths down, cleans up, shapes, and beautifies. Something roughly sawn from a piece of wood magically turns into a work of art. It’s a miracle!

In modern boatbuilding, there’s a saying that the work is 90 percent sanding. Well, that has largely to do with the epoxies and varnishes used, numerous layers of which need to be applied, with sanding between each coat. But it is entirely possible that for Hawaiians of old, sanding was still a very big job. Reason? No sandpaper. So, what do you use?

In the blog entry on tools, I mentioned how lava rock is not all created equal. Depending on the mineral content of the eruption and how fast the lava cooled, there is a wide range of densities and textures of lava rock. As the 19th-century Hawaiian historian David Malo documents, “A great many names were used to distinguish different kinds of rocks.” In fact, Malo designates 53 different types, each with its uses. Of these, the kinds used for smoothing and polishing are identified as a-na, ka-wae-wae, o-ahi or o-la-i, o-i-o, po-hue-hue, and puna. Whether anyone today knows which of these is which, I do not know. 

Polishing Stones 1b
Hawaiian polishing stones in the Peabody-Essex Museum collection. Photo by RDK Herman, courtesy of the Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

As you can see from the photo above, there is quite a range of textures and colors among polishing stones, including coral stone as well as basalt. Once again, I first imagine the craftsmen who made these stones—chipping and grinding chunks of rock to make flat-faced disks—and then the craftsmen who used them, grinding away at the surfaces of the canoe to make them smooth. 

Sharkskin was the finest grade of sandpaper available. I do not know whether it was used in canoe-building, but possibly so. I've seen the Kapi‘olani Canoe up close and can attest to its smoothness. Today of course we have a wide range of tools, and the work can be remarkably quick and magical. 




Two Holesa

Behold two holes (above left) drilled for where one of the booms will be lashed to the hull. The hole on the left is freshly drilled; the one on the right has already been sanded. What a difference! Then there are the two mid-braces (right), cut out of a poplar board. A little grinding and sanding and they have lovely curved tops and smooth edges. 

Sanding is transformative. Let us rejoice in it! 


Okay, now back to the stitch-and-glue process. After the pieces of the canoe are all stitched together, the major gluing begins. I am using a marine epoxy system that involves pumping epoxy resin and hardener in prescribed amounts, mixing them well for quite a while, and then applying the mix (also called epoxy) in different ways for different purposes. In this case, the resin-hardener mix is combined with wood flour (powdered sawdust the consistency of flour) into a thick, peanut-butter-like substance. This is carefully spread along the inside of each seam, a process called filleting. (It’s pronounced “FILL-it,” not “fill-A,” easy to remember because that’s what it does: fill it in.) Once the epoxy coating is hard and dry, you sand the surface smooth, then run 3-inch fiberglass tape over the filleted seam and epoxy over that layer. Sand and epoxy again, and you have a smooth, rock-hard, durable seam.

Sampler Inside a

I created a little demonstration piece (right) that shows these stages. Toward the left point is bare wood stitched together with copper wires. Then the same with a coating of epoxy. Then the brown filleting, then the fiberglass over the top, and finally recoated with epoxy. 

Fillets a

Here (above) is the inside of the canoe showing the brown fillets along the seams and also around the mid-brace. I filleted around the ends of the seats also, where they meet the hull. The brown of the filleting does not quite match the color of the wood, but oh well. The important thing is that the canoe holds together when I put it in the water. 

Once the fillets are done, you flip the canoe over and carefully cut off the copper wires as close as possible to the hull. These have served their purpose and aren’t needed any more. (Inside the canoe they are hidden under the fillets.) Then with various sanding tools, you grind the sharp seams where the planks meet into nice smooth, rounded edges. These too get epoxied and fiberglassed (but not filleted; that’s just for the inside). See those stripes at the rounded edges? They are the layers of the marine plywood.

Hull & Tools a

Above you see the hull of the canoe, where the copper wires have been snipped off, and some of my key tools: a rasp, which shaves wood down nicely; a plane, which takes off strips and is best when the wood is straight and level; and the wonderful random-orbital sander. What makes it “random,” I don’t know, but it works really well. 

Below you can see that the hull, which after stitching looked kind of like Frankenstein on a bad day, is smoothed and rounded into something that actually looks like a boat!

Sanded Hull 2a


Sanded Hull 1a









The epoxy and fiberglassing then takes place on the outside, hiding over those stitching holes and giving the whole thing a nice, smooth, glossy finish. Before taking the photo below, I've already put several coats of varnish on the hull, which makes it shiny.

Outside Hull-2a

Banana flower, Samoa. After the plant has produced bananas, the leathery flower continues to bloom for a long time. The sap of the banana tree stains very strongly. Don’t get it on your clothes!

You may be wondering what Hawaiians did to protect the hull, since they didn’t have epoxy and varnish. Apparently there were many types of organic paint (pā‘ele) that Hawaiians mixed. In The Hawaiian Canoe, Tommy Holmes writes that the common ingredients included juices from the buds and twigs of the ‘akoko (a type of Euphorbia), the flowers and buds of the banana, and the red inner bark of the kukui tree. A liquid was obtained by pounding and grinding these; then the liquid was mixed with powdered charcoal (some plants provided the best ash or charcoal for this purpose) before being strained. Applied to the hull of the canoe (but not the gunwales), this painted it black. Quoting Z. P. K. Kalokuokamaile’s 1922 Hawaiian newspaper article on canoe-building, Holmes notes that on some canoes, such as those made for chiefs, hens’ eggs and other herbs were then used to make the hull shiny “so that the images of people could be reflected in the sides of the canoes.”

Similarly Holmes quotes N. B. Emerson as saying that instead of charcoal, sometimes ochre or red earth was used to give the hull a reddish color, especially for chiefs (red being the color of chiefliness)—the “red canoe of the king” (wa‘a ula o ke ali‘i).

It may seem hard to believe that this mix of plant juices, charcoal, and possibly dirt protected the hull, and apparently many Westerners who watched the process were skeptical. But Holmes asserts that the pā‘ele was equal to many of the protective hull paints used today. Certainly many Hawaiian canoes lasted for quite a while. And given the amount of work to make one, that’s a good thing. 

Next: Booms and outrigger

—Douglas Herman, NMAI 

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Nice post.

Great post! I'm glad I stumbled on to this blog series. I've always wanted to try something like this. What type of marine epoxy system do you use?

Nice post, very interesting. May we take some worlds by translate and image to post in our blog?

July 03, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Stitch and glue

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 
Part 4: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock 

Doug Herman and Yoshi Sinoto

Doug Herman and Yoshi Sinoto at the Bishop Museum, 2011. Yoshi demonstrates a model of a voyaging canoe based on his findings at Huahine. 

The only solid archaeological evidence to support the great voyaging tradition that has otherwise been so totally verified—by oral tradition, linguistic evidence, computer modeling, radiocarbon dating, and contemporary voyaging—is two planks and a steering paddle dug up on the French Polynesian island of Huahine between 1973 and 1984 by Yoshiko Sinoto, an archaeologist from the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The planks—from the sides of the canoe—were nearly 7 meters long, the steering paddle nearly
4 meters. Along the sides of each plank regularly spaced holes were drilled where it would have been stitched to the body of the canoe, and the ends were shaped to form scarf joints where they would have connected with other planks at the ends. The Bishop Museum radiocarbon dated the canoe pieces and other artifacts from the site to between AD 750 and 1100. 

The stitch-and-glue technique of assembling a canoe is clearly both very old and very traditional in the Pacific. While people could have harvested a log large enough for a canoe, the dimensions of a canoe hull are much taller than they are wide. Have a look at the photo below of a Marshallese canoe on Majuro. Looking head-on, you can see that the hull is a very steep V-shape. This differs considerably from the dugout canoes of other cultures. These steep-sided canoes were made to be sailed, to be fast and efficient like a knife through the water. 

The easiest way to achieve this shape is to use a log that is not so big around and then to shape planks and other pieces to extend the height of the sides and perhaps the front. Here (below, left) is a photo of a lovely Carolinian canoe at the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas (CNMI) Museum of History and Culture on Saipan.  Note how the bow reaches towards the sky and then splits into a V at the top.  To get this height, the bow is made of an entirely separate piece of wood, attached at an angle to the rest of the hull. The gunwales, similarly, have been made of separate pieces and stitched on. 

CNMI Canoe 3a

Left: The steep silhouette of a Marshallese canoe. Majuro, Marshall Islands.
Right: Detail of a Carolinian canoe. Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas. 

The technique is pretty straightforward, though the details can get complicated: the pieces are shaped to fit together, holes are drilled, glue and caulk are applied, then the pieces are placed together and stitched. The stitching may remain in the end, or not. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Daniel Dig, the last canoe builder on Ulithi Atoll, Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia, while he was at work on a small fishing canoe. You can see in the first image below that the canoe has stitching. A close look at the grain reveals that what may at first appear to be a crack in the original log is actually a seam between two entirely different pieces of wood. Other stitching attaches the gunwales and the bow piece. 

Canoe-builder Daniel Dig. Ulithi Atoll. Yap State, Federated States of Micronesia. 

DanielDig2 a
The bow of Daniel's canoe. 

Here you can see how Daniel has stitched at least three pieces together to make this canoe, including the protruding, skyward-reaching bow piece that is the hallmark of Carolinian canoes.

Daniel worked with “modern” but limited tools: a metal adze and a stone to sharpen it on, an old hand drill, and a wooden hand mallet. Perhaps he had a saw somewhere that I didn't see, but as there is no electricity on this island, I can be sure no power tools were involved.

DanielDigTools a DanielDigTools2a

Daniel's tools: a metal adze, sharpening stone, hand drill, and wooden mallet. 

Breadfruit-resin a
Upper: Collecting breadfruit resin. Lamotrek Atoll. Diagonal cuts are made on the trunk of the breadfruit tree to harvest the milky white sap. Photo by Miki Barzam, Two Oceans. 
Lower: While the glue dries, Daniel uses pegs to tighten the stitches holding the gunwales to the sides of the boat. Later, these stitches will be replaced with countersunk bindings like those along the middle of the hull.

I didn't get to see the actual stitching-and-gluing part of this process, so I don’t know what he used for glue. I do know that all over the Pacific the white, sticky sap of the breadfruit tree was used, along with the pulpy husk of young coconuts as caulk. This is well demonstrated in the excellent documentary The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific, which shows Mau Piailug and his fellow Satawal Islanders building a canoe in the traditional manner. A little more than a minute into this clip from the film, the builders have a blob of the white sap on a stick, set on fire like a burning marshmallow, which they use to smear the sap onto the edges to be glued.

Now you can see that having stitched and glued the gunwales, Daniel has driven wedges into the stitches with his hand mallet. This pulls the stitches very tight while the glue hardens. Later these temporary stitches will be removed and replaced with something more permanent. You can see these finished seams a little lower on the boat where Daniel stitched pieces of wood together to make the hull—very attractive, tight, countersunk bindings. 

In the case of my canoe, the hull is built entirely out of pieces stitched and glued together. For stitching, I am using mostly 18-gauge copper wire (16-gauge for the tougher areas). After drilling holes along both pieces to be connected, you thread a piece of the wire through from the inside until both ends poke out the bottom. Then you grab those ends with pliers, pull hard and twist. Then grab it again, closer to the hull and twist it again. This pulls the stitch very tight, and since it is made with wire, you don’t need to drive wedges in to keep it tight. It will stay. 

I am going to talk about the gluing part in a subsequent post, since in my case, most of the gluing comes after the stitching.  But you will notice that I've coated the interior of the canoe pieces with epoxy, so they are now dark and shiny.  More about that later as well.  Now, let’s stitch this thing together!

Jig a
Time-saving jig.
Step one is to drill the holes. I created a little “jig” out of scrapwood and marked lines on it at ¼ inch. This is the distance the holes are supposed to be from the edge of the boards.Then I drilled two holes, four inches from each end, so I can quickly and easily drill evenly spaced holes ¼ inch from the edge. The jig has two holes so that it can be used in either direction. This made for very fast and even work.  

Hull stitching 1a Hull stitching 2a


Hull stitching 3a Hull stitching 4b

The canoe comes together. 

Here (clockwise from the top right) you can see one of the two bottom pieces all drilled. Next, I stitched these bottom planks together most of the way, adding two braces—one for under each seat—that help hold the two bottom planks at the correct angle. These braces are also stitched and glued. I didn’t stitch the bottom planks all the way to the ends because I figured the ends—the bow and stern—were going to be tricky.  I had no idea . . . .

In the next picture you can see that I'm attaching the first of the two side pieces to the bottom of the hull. In the background of the last photo on the series (bottom left), you can see that I've looped a rope around the end to hold the pieces in place while I work to finish fastening on the side planks up to the ends, and I was rejoicing in how easy it was. 

Everything is going very well at this point—easy as pie. Moreover, it's exciting to see these apparently random pieces of plywood suddenly coming together into something that’s starting to look like a canoe!

Then I got to the bow and stern.  Here the pieces that make the bottom of the hull twist almost 90 degrees—from mostly flat to totally vertical—and they did NOT want to bend easily. Plus there is that extra piece on each end that has to be threaded in. 

Wharram Building Bow a

Assembling the bow in the workshop of catamaran designer James Wharram. These photos from Wharram’s website make stitching the ends look fairly easy. Admittedly, his crew was building a larger canoe than mine, so perhaps there was more leeway for the wood to bend. Perhaps. Photo courtesy of James Wharram. 

I confess that this is the first part of this project that I couldn't do alone. After struggling desperately for a while, I called on my kind neighbor John—who checks on my progress from time to time—for assistance. Even with the two of us, it wasn’t quite working. We needed an extra pair of hands to thread the wire through and twist it, while John and I were squeezing the parts together. Ultimately we used grip-tightening clamps to squeeze and hold the ends together, and then it worked fine. 

Hull stitching 6a

Hey, it looks like a canoe! 

Now at last you can see the entire hull all stitched together. I have, per the instructions, installed the seats temporarily to push out and hold the canoe in its appropriate curved shape, otherwise it would be very narrow. 

There’s still work to be done to finish it off, but  those scraps of plywood are clearly turning into a canoe.  A great feeling of satisfaction. 

—Douglas Herman, NMAI 

Next: Sanding and gluing

All photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds, unless otherwise credited.

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You should check out "Applegate Boatworks" in Veneta, OR. He's been helping us build tribal westcoast tribal canoes (with the stitch and glue method) since the mid 90's. We've been using them in the tribal canoe journeys for quite awhile now. By doubling up the plywood on the bottom we can replicate the weight (below the waterline) that'd be normally carved into a traditional dugout. I think the biggest stitch and glue canoe he's produced is 36' long with a 6' beam for The Chinook Indian Tribe. But he's produced plenty of others using the help of Tribal canoe skippers and carvers.

Looks amazing! I am an avid kayaker in Texas. It is on my bucket list to construct my very own native kayak. Looks like an Awesome experience.

Justin Watts

I'm glad to find this post, it's very usefull information ! thanks

June 18, 2013

The voyage of building an outrigger canoe: Making tools without metal, and, on some islands, without rock

Part 1: Introduction and author bio
Part 2: Harvesting a canoe log . . . or plywood 
Part 3: Roughing out the hull 

Except for large continental chunks that make up Aotearoa (New Zealand), the island of New Guinea, and adjacent chunks of Melanesia, most of the Pacific Islands are purely volcanic in origin. Hence there are no usable metals. Just rock—lava rock. And on coral atolls where the volcanic part has sunk beneath the sea and the coral reef has kept growing at the surface, there isn’t even lava rock. So what do you make tools out of?

First of all, lava rock is not all created equal. Depending on the mineral content of the eruption and how fast the lava cooled, there are a wide range of densities and textures of lava rock. The stuff on the surface and outer edges cools fairly quickly and loses a lot of dissolved gases in the process, making that very porous, light and crumbly stuff. But down deep inside the lava flow, where it cools slowly and gases can’t escape, the resulting rock can be quite hard and dense. Different stages of mountain-building also produce different qualities of lava, the earlier stuff being very runny and the later stuff being, at times, quite thick and pasty. On the top of Mauna Kea, a mountain on the island of Hawai’i that rises close to 14,000 feet high, a late-stage eruption came out under a glacier that capped the mountain in the last ice age. This stuff cooled super-hard and is the best tool-making rock in the Pacific. Hawaiians of old probably found samples of it washed down in the streams and traced it back up to the top of this mountain. Today there are numerous shrines and workshops visible, a testament to the extensive tool-making that took place up here until westerners arrived with iron.

In much of the Pacific the main tool was the adze. Adzes are not so much chopping tools as planing tools, shaving off chips a bit at a time to shape wood. But there were several types of adzes, including a set for chopping down trees. And Hawaiian adzes are, to me at least, particularly lovely and amazing. There is a beautiful collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here is a selection collected in the islands in the early 1840s by the U.S. Exploring Expedition and accessioned by the Smithsonian in 1858. 

Adzes 1a

Stone adze blades collected in Hawai’i in the early 1840s by the U.S. Exploring Expedition and accessioned by the Smithsonian in 1858. Note that the blades are rectangular, the hafted end (where it is attached to the handle) left rough but the cutting edge and sides very smooth and even. Some are fairly flat, others quite thick, and these have different purposes.

Adzes 2a

Adzes 3a

 In this image you can see a nice blade as well as a small round chisel. The chisel would be used for cutting holes to lash the canoe together. (Lower) This is a lovely hafted adze. The blade is fasted to the handle with coconut sennit. That piece of fabric beneath the twining is kapa (bark cloth). This helps absorb shock, keeps the bindings tight, and prevents the rope from being gnawed away by the rough stone of the blade. These tools were collected by Nathaniel Emerson and purchased by the Smithsonian  in 1909 following the close of the Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition in Seattle.

Making these blades is an incredible test of patience and perseverence. Once you’ve found the rock you think is suitable, you start chipping away at it with another piece of hard rock. Now every blow with this “hammer stone” creates a cone-shaped shock in the potential blade rock, like those shatter cones you sometimes see in car windshields. So you have to plan your blows to flake off bits of cone in the right direction. One wrong blow and the piece is ruined. There are piles of discarded attempts atop Mauna Kea. Or perhaps the stone had a flaw and just cracked. And you might be almost all the way done when this happens!

I’ve been to the top of Mauna Kea. Mind you, in Hawai’i that means starting at sea level. At over 13,000 feet, the air is really thin and just walking can be strenuous. And it’s cold, and Hawaiians didn’t have much in the way of cold-weather gear. So my hat is off to those who went up there and worked.

Dr. Peter Mills, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii Hilo Campus and a flint-knapper (a similar stone-on-stone process, but for making flat blades like arrowheads and spear points), postulated to me that probably apprentice adze-makers—younger guys, in other words—did the arduous work atop Mauna Kea, and brought down roughed-out blades to the master adze maker to finish. It makes sense to me. Still, I can’t imagine how these guys could walk down from 13,000+ feet carrying big chunks of rock.

Tom Pico, a contemporary adze-maker at Volcano, Hawai’i, showed me how the blades would then be ground on a flat lava rock using sand and water. Green sand high in olivine content makes the best, he says. And these blades would have to be sharpened constantly on a flat stone. Perhaps the master canoe carver had an apprentice next to him sharpening his blades for him. And on the canoe itself, you’d need the adzes, the sharpening stone, and the sand, because as Tom pointed out, this was your “fix a flat” kit aboard the canoe. 

Adzes 5a

Tom Pico demonstrates sharpening a stone blade.

But what if you live on a coral atoll with no volcanic rock? Then your hardest substance is shell, and the best shell comes from the giant clam. If you’ve never seen a giant clam except in cartoons and movies, you should know that these beautiful, shy creatures are truly magnificent. There are different species, with the largest getting up to four feet long and 500 pounds in weight, living over 100 years. It’s the base of the shell where the hard stuff is. What it would take to begin with a big chunk of shell and get a blade out of it I do not know. Also the inner core of species of conch can be used for adze blades, though I imagine they are not as good as giant clam. Below right is a picture of a lovely giant clam blade given to me by my friend Mariano Laimoh on Ulithi Atoll, and an adze with a spider-conch blade made for me by Steve Tilwemal of Ifalik, using an old blade he said he found lying around. 

Two adzesa

(Left) Spider-conch adze made by Steve Tilwemal. (Right) Giant clam blade. Both blades are old artifacts from Ulithi Atoll, Yap State, Micronesia. Photos by RDK Herman, Pacific Worlds

Stone blades were largely abandoned soon after Western contact and the introduction of iron blades. Mau and Tava used iron adzes for most of the work on the hull of their canoe, but also stone adzes. Why stone? Well, a stone adze with its planing action takes off very fine shavings of wood. For fine finishing work, this is preferable, for at that stage, one wrong swing with an iron adze could cut too deeply into the hull and ruin it. Sometimes these old technologies are the best.

Further reading:

Plants and Tools Used for Building Canoes in Hawaii, courtesy of Hawaiian Voyaging Traditions, the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Canoe carving in Micronesia, from Pacific Worlds

Next post: Stitch and glue

—Douglas Herman, NMAI 

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