Preparing Hawaiʻiloa for a Journey to Alaska


For Denise Kekuna, treasurer of the Friends of Hōkūleʻa & Hawaiʻiloa (FHH), the canoe, Hawaiʻiloa, represents the “continuum of our shared cultures and the deep Indigenous intelligence that sustained and continues to sustain us.”

The birth of Hawaiʻiloa began after the successful voyage of Hōkūleʻa in 1976 when members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) dreamed of building a canoe that would utilize more traditional materials.

The search for koa wood logs large enough to build a voyaging canoe began in 1989. However, after months of searching for logs on Hawaiʻi Island, there were no trees large enough.

PVS co-founder Herb Kāne had read accounts by Captain George Vancouver, a British explorer, about Kānaka Maoli making canoes from pine logs that drifted across the ocean from Turtle Island (North America). He wondered if his friend, Judson Brown, of the Tlingkit nation in Alaska might know where to source appropriate logs.

Brown, whose Tlingkit name is Gushklane, was a visionary who was in Hawaiʻi at the time visiting his daughters. His granddaughter, Gail Dabaluz, describes him as a lifelong learner and deeply committed to advancing Indigenous cultures.

Kāne invited Gushklane and PVS navigator Nainoa Thompson to lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf in Honolulu. Thompson explained the project to Gushklane who seemed interested.

Gushklane explained to Kāne and Thompson that, for the Tlingkit, the trees are kin and are like their children. After praying on the matter, Gushklane contacted Ernie Hillman, chief forester of Sealaska, a Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian-owned corporation.

In 1990, Hillman located two 400-year-old spruce pine trees measuring 200 ft. long and 8 ft in diameter located near Taan (Prince of Wales Island). Through Byron Mallot, CEO of Sealaska, the Indigenous-owned corporation donated the two logs to Kānaka Maoli as a symbol of friendship and healing.

Without the support of the Indigenous peoples of Alaska and Sealaska, Hawaiʻiloa would not have been possible.

Work on the project began in 1991. The canoe hulls were designed by Rudy and Barry Choy and Dick Rhodes. The remainder of the canoe was designed by project director Thompson, while kahuna kālai waʻa (master canoe carver) Wright ʻElemakule Bowman, Jr., and Wally Froiseth worked on the canoe itself. Mick and Ricky Beasley of the Tlingkit nation flew to Hawaiʻi to assist in carving the canoe. Since its birth, Hawaiʻiloa has inspired cross-Indigenous collaboration.

Hawaiʻiloa was completed in 1993 and named after the legendary Pacific navigator. In 1995, she made a number of voyages to the South Pacific and then to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

In Alaska, Hawaiʻiloa was met with a tremendous welcome from the Tlingkit, Haida, and Tshimshian nations. Gerry Brown coordinated Hawaiʻiloaʻs visit to Sitka while Judy George coordinated a welcome in Juneau. Janice and Richard Jackson coordinated Hawaiʻiloa’s visit to Ketchikan. Wherever Hawaiʻiloa went, its crew was met by Indigenous leaders and honored with ceremonies.

In 1996, through Bowman’s efforts, FHH was founded. Bowman envisioned that PVS would continue to perpetuate voyaging traditions while FHH would focus on perpetuating kālai waʻa (canoe-making) traditions. Bowman wanted to make sure that canoe carvers are not forgotten and that their skills and traditions would be passed on to future generations.

Since its last voyage to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska was in 1995, an entire generation has not seen Hawaiʻiloa. According to Kekuna, this was not due to a lack of interest, but to a number of challenging circumstances over the years – including development of a crack in her hull and a recent powder beetle infestation that has further damaged the hull.

In 2019, repairs to Hawaiʻiloa began with the hope of returning to Alaska – but COVID-19 stopped their work. As the pandemic has abated, work has resumed, including replacing damaged parts with koa and ʻōhia. Hawaiʻiloa is currently drydocked at the Marine Education Training Center while it is being repaired.

So far, FHH has raised and spent about $45,000 for repairs but the organization still needs to raise another $200,000 to complete their work – including “winterizing” the canoe for cold weather, and purchasing weather-appropriate gear for the crew, which they hope to begin training in 2024.

The repair work that remains includes replacing the mats for sails, repairing the rig lines, and revarnishing the hull. Volunteers have also been helping to sand the hull and refurbish the canoe. FHH is still seeking volunteers to kōkua with the repairs to Hawaiʻiloa – particularly those who have woodworking experience.

“So many people were involved in making Hawaiʻiloa – and so many people are still involved, and want to be involved, because this project is about reconnecting,” said Kekuna.

The current plan is for a return voyage of Hawaiʻiloa to the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Once there, the canoe will dock in Alaska for a year to enable a new generation of interaction and cultural exchange. Workshops are already being planned with the Alaska Native Heritage Center.

“Hawaiʻiloa should be shared,” said Kekuna, “and returning to Alaska would mean a new generation would [be able to] share in its unique identity.”