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How one ocean voyager uses tradition to connect to the future

© Conservation International/photo by Schannel van Dijken

Voyagers in Samoa tap into their cultures’ traditions to connect with the ocean.

The preferred means of travel? The Va’a (pronounce “vaka”), a canoe traditionally used by the Polynesians to travel across the Pacific Ocean. The Va’a is not just a means of transportation — it’s a way to connect with other cultures while learning to live in harmony with nature.

Conservation International works with the Samoa Voyaging Society to celebrate the tradition of “wayfinding” with the Va’a — and to raise awareness of threats to the ocean including overfishing and climate change.

Human Nature spoke with Captain Fani Bruun of the Samoa Voyaging Society, who set sail today on a voyage around New Zealand. Here, she describes being a voyager in an age where modern conveniences and the pull of technology are outpacing tradition.

Q: What does voyaging mean to you?

A: Ironically, I never went into voyaging thinking I’d become a voyager.

To me, voyaging means weaving and connecting cultures and countries, and living in harmony with the elements around you. Voyaging is also a good way to view life in general. We should always be voyaging, journeying, and growing. With traditional navigation, as long as you learn to read the signs around you, you navigate well, and you journey well. More importantly, you will learn a great deal of wisdom if you open your mind and are keen to learn.

I feel connected to the ocean thru the Va’a. The ocean sustains us — it feeds us, soothes our souls and lifts the Va’a, allowing us to travel across large distances of the Pacific. The Va’á is our identity. It’s how we came to Samoa. Growing up in Samoa, you’re introduced to voyaging by stories that are passed on by the elders in your family and taught in schools.

Q: How do the stories you heard about voyaging affect you?

A: Samoa has a deep tradition in voyaging. Since I was young, I have heard amazing stories of courage, intelligence and strength. Most of our stories and proverbial expressions come from voyaging. Unfortunately, we have forgotten most of those stories due to colonization, globalization and modernization. The exciting thing about Gaualofa is that we are now able to relearn these stories and histories that we’ve lost. Not only that, but we are bringing them back with a modern expression. For example, we use modern materials such as fiberglass and different woods for construction, and our canoes sport modernized sails. But, we maintain the integrity of our stories.

We see ourselves reflected in voyaging stories, unlike most of the mainstream narratives told in the modern world. Many stories in today’s world ignore us, silence us or place us on the sidelines. Samoa is, after all, a small nation. But we are unique and still have a lot to contribute. Our voyaging traditions and stories remind us of that.

Q: How does your community view voyaging?

A: It’s not as popular as you would think it would be amongst the youth. They’re still connected to our history of voyaging, and the Va’a, however the practice of voyaging has dissipated because of the pull of technology.

I do think they need to start seeing it in a different light. Like I said, the powerful thing about our stories and voyaging exploits is that we are reflected in them. We, as Samoans, have relied on the oceans for generations and will continue to do so.

Q: How has voyaging shaped your views on conservation?

A: I live on a small island in the largest ocean in the world. This ocean contributes to every breath I take. It has the largest fish stocks in the world. The islands and people living in this ocean are at the forefront of the future. We are impacted by the ocean, for better or worse, before any of the larger and more populous continents.

Voyaging has made me more aware of what I consume. When you’re in the ocean, without any land in sight, you learn to appreciate it. Seeing floating plastic trash so far away from civilization, for example, has made me realize how important it is to be mindful of what I use.

Q: What is the future of voyaging?

A: With the help of organizations like Conservation International, the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme, and other partners, we can use our history and culture to encourage more people to conserve the oceans. Not only that, we will be able to voyage to other Pacific countries and territories to tell our story, and learn from one another.

We will be able to grow this project, elevate the narrative of us, and make a meaningful contribution to Samoan growth, Pacific integration, and world politics and economics.

This is the first step — remembering our culture, our identity and what we have to give. Ancient voyagers were wise and read the elements well in order to allow the va’a to traverse the mighty Pacific, finding new places and meeting new people. We too, as Samoans, can do so. Our population may be small in an enormous ocean, but if we are wise and if we navigate the elements well, we too can make a difference to the peoples we encounter.

Watch the video.

Nicole Han is communications and partnerships manager for Conservation International Singapore.

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Cover image: The Va’a, pictured above in Samoa, is a traditional double-hulled voyaging canoe. (© Conservation International/photo by Schannel van Dijken)

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