Every canoe began with a prayer and a dream. Before the canoe builder began, he first prepared a pig, a red fish and a black fish and offered them to the gods. When this was done, the carver went home and invited dreams in his sleep. If the dreams were good, he would go to the forest the next day. But if they were unfavorable, a tree would not be cut.

Polynesia began with the voyaging canoe. More than three thousand years ago, the uninhabited islands of Samoa and Tonga were settled by a seafaring people. Arriving in canoes in small groups, they continued to discover new lands as they explored eastward. Long before ocean exploration by Europeans, the early Polynesians had mastered boat building and navigation.

Hawaiians are a deeply religious and spiritual people who believe that every canoe has a spirit. Canoe carving was an ability that required expert skills and traditional builders (Kalai Wa‘a) were held in high esteem. Hawaiians would search the islands’ once dense Koa forests looking for the tree with the spirit of the canoe inside it. The choice of tree was a decision made by a Kahuna, who would say many prayers before the tree was harvested. The building of a canoe was a sincerely religious affair, and there are many gods and ceremonies specifically associated with canoe building.

In 1976 the epic voyage of Hokule‘a from Hawai‘i to Tahiti provided new insights into the Polynesian mastery of the sea. The voyage also heralded a renaissance in traditional Hawaiian canoe building. In 1991, work began on another canoe that would promote the development and refinement of the art of traditional canoe building. This canoe was christened the Hawai‘iloa.

The Friends of Hokule‘a & Hawai‘iloa was established in 1996 by master canoe builder, Wright Bowman, Jr., who was concerned that the art of canoe building would be lost. The Friends would ensure that cultural treasures, such as the voyaging canoes Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa, be properly maintained. Finally, the group wanted to ensure that the traditional canoe building skills be made accessible to any who are interested in learning this very special part of Hawaiian culture.

Hokule‘a and Hawai‘iloa were built as historic and cultural experiments, but they have come to represent much more. These magnificent canoes tell the story of the lives and travels of the crewmembers and builders who worked them. The spiritual power (Mana) of the canoes is preserved with the skilled hands of master canoe builders, renewing a pride in and appreciation for Hawaiian culture. The Friends seek to protect and perpetuate these valuable cultural resources.