Ka Waʻa Kaulua ʻo Kānehūnāmoku: Traversing the Path of Our Ancestors for Twenty Years

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Kāneʻohe Bay

By Kuuleianuhea Awo-Chun

Kia aku ka maka i ka ʻālihilani, a ʻōili mai ka moku la

Fix your eyes upon the horizon and the island will appear

The 29-foot coastal sailing canoe Kānehūnāmoku gets its name from the 12 sacred islands of Kāne. Appearing in rare circumstances, the origin of the waʻa kaulua, Kānehūnāmoku, is closely tied to the moʻolelo of Kāne’s hidden islands and their propensity to appear on the horizon when you least expect it – or when you most need it.

E Ala e – Kānehūnāmoku at Sunrise. – Photo: Kaipo Kī‘aha

In 2001, kula hōʻamana (Hawaiian-focused charter schools) were just opening. As a move toward educational sovereignty, the purpose of these schools was to address generations-long systemic oppression of Native Hawaiians in the education system. Though unique in mission, there was a common understanding that the path forward was through the indigenization of education in its entirety.

One school was awarded a grant to infuse wayfinding into their education program.

In service of Hawaiian Homestead communities Papakōlea and Maunalaha, Hālau Kū Māna (HKM) New Century Public Charter School began building their waʻa kaulua. Rather than a large voyaging canoe, a design was chosen that would allow students to safely learn and operate the vessel in coastal waters.

Days before picking up the parts, Captain Bonnie Kahapea-Tanner witnessed the raising of Kāne’s hidden islands on the horizon in Papahānaumokuākea. That powerful hōʻailona provided the name of the waʻa that would eventually be lashed together by the students and staff of HKM.

O Hōkūleʻa ka wahine, o Mau ke kāne

Noho pū lāua a loaʻa mai o Makaliʻi, he keiki, he kiakahi

Hōkūleʻa is the mother, Papa Mau is the father

They come together and Makaliʻi is born, a single-mast child

Twenty years ago, on Nov. 19, 2002, Kānehūnāmoku launched from the shores of Hakipuʻu/Kualoa in honor of her genealogy.

First launch Nov. 19, 2022, at Hōkūle‘a Beach – Kualoa Regional Park – Photo: KVA

An integral part of the 1970s Hawaiian Renaissance was the launch of Hōkūleʻa from those same shores and her successful voyage in 1976 from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti under the navigation of Grandmaster Navigator Mau Piailug of Satawal, Micronesia. From that effort was born the waʻa kaulua Makaliʻi, under the leadership of brothers Clay and Shorty Bertelmann and Na Kālai Waʻa on Hawaiʻi Island. It was through this moʻokūʻauhau that captains Bonnie Kahapeʻa-Tanner and Pualani Lincoln-Maielua took the helm of Kānehūnāmoku.

I ke ala pono, e holo aku ai a hoʻi mai me ka ʻike o ko mua e kau mai nei

Go forward on a pono path, with the knowledge our ancestors left for us

Since her launch, Kānehūnāmoku has taught generations of haumāna. Children of her first crew are now onboard. Her earliest haumāna are captains of their own waʻa. The nonprofit organization Kānehūnāmoku Voyaging Academy (KVA) was formed, supporting numerous programs. Not just in service of Hālau Kū Māna anymore, preschoolers to adult learners can come to KVA and build their skills, knowledge, and their sense of identity and purpose.

KVA’s Papahana Hoʻolauna program serves students of all ages in public and private schools, including long-standing partnerships with schools like Mālama Honua Public Charter School, Waiāhole and Kaʻaʻawa Elementary. The Kū i ka Mana program maintains KVA’s genealogy with founding school Hālau Kū Māna. The Hālau Holomoana program exposes 11th and 12th graders to maritime industry careers. A full-length documentary, Voyage into the Depths of Kanaloa, features stories from the first cohort of Hālau Holomoana.

I have had the blessing of learning from Kānehūnāmoku across almost all of their programs. I have been humbled to grow in my own identity and cultural practice as a haumāna, kumu, and crew member. What I have dubbed “the little waʻa that could” has enabled me to sail thousands of nautical miles, reconnecting to kupuna islands and ʻike kupuna. One evening on voyage aboard the SSV Makani Olu with HKM 9th graders, protocol began. As the sun dipped and the light faded, suddenly a chain of islands appeared on the horizon. We had raised Kāne’s hidden islands.

From voyaging to Papahānaumokuākea during Ke Ala Polohiwa A Kāne, to ceremony on Kahoʻolawe, taking haumāna to present at World Oceans Day at the United Nations, and sailing across Kāneʻohe Bay, I am who I am because of Kāne. My career, my journey as a makua, and my ability to contribute to our lāhui has all been impacted by the teachings of the waʻa. She saved me and countless others by showing us what we are truly capable of when we traverse the path of our ancestors.

E mau mai ka ʻike a mau loa e

The knowledge lives on in perpetuity.


Kuuleianuhea Awo-Chun is a long-time educator in Hawaiian-focused charter schools, a makuahine to three daughters, and a crew member of Kānehūnāmoku. She is currently the assistant school director at Mālama Honua PCS in her one hānau of Waimānalo.