The Pull of History

For Iokepa Naeole, the ocean holds endless lessons in Hawaiian culture and tradition. Take a seat.

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canoe adventures

Once afloat, we skim just past the shore break, then pause as Iokepa’s voice washes over us. Practicing Hawaiian protocol, he offers a chant to ask permission to be here. We are now in the realm of Kanaloa—the Hawaiian ocean god—and must respect this place accordingly. Iokepa’s words stream into my ears and down to my core. Moments later he leads a kind of ocean meditation as we pause in silence.

“Keep your eyes open and your senses alive,” he encourages. “Now’s the time to recalibrate ourselves, clean that mental hard drive, and enjoy that unfiltered experience of the canoe.”

With our minds ready, it’s time for our bodies to follow.

“Mākaukau?” Iokepa hollers, alerting us to prepare for action.

“Hoe hapai!” We raise our paddles in unison, then angle them to pierce the ocean’s surface.

And with the final “Imua!” we’re off. 

We glide along the coast for nearly two hours, as Iokepa shares stories from a lifetime of knowledge. We learn about Polynesian voyaging, the names of the ocean channels that surround us, and fundamental values like teamwork, commitment, respect, and conservation.

We ease into a steady rhythm and begin to move in sync with each other and our surroundings. The rhythm of the ocean’s swells is mesmeric, and hearing about the ways of the ancestors satiates my soul.

It’s a familiar feeling, one that overcomes many paddlers, no matter their experience. Iokepa still feels it, too: “When I’m on the ocean I’m humbled because I’m in the middle of creation. There’s nothing else influencing me but my akua [god], my kūpuna [ancestors], and even my descendants.”

At Iokepa’s command, we raise our paddles and glide to a pause near Pu‘u Keka‘a. It’s commonly referred to as “Black Rock,” but Iokepa stresses the importance of calling this sacred place by its true name. He explains that behind every Hawaiian place name is a genealogy that tells a story, and that abandoning these words disconnect us from this history.

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