Grant life to our canoe,
May it live till it is aged, worn out,
And the algae cling to its sides.
Grant prosperity to our canoe,
Till it is aged and worn out.
May this be the life gift from you,
Amama, the prayer is freed to
wing on its way.
from a Hawaiian canoe launching prayer
TIMELESS CRAFT documents three generations of Pacific Islanders — from Micronesia, Hawai’i and the Marquesas — as they construct a coastal outrigger sailing canoe using traditional tools, methods and materials. The film weaves an atmosphere of quiet beauty and reverence. No visible trappings of the modern world appear in the unfolding scenes that evoke pre-contact Polynesia, a time when master carvers sharpened their rudimentary tools on whetstones and crafted vessels that carried them to neighboring islands and to the far corners of the Pacific.
Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders are relearning the ancient arts associated with their most important artifact, the canoe. In doing so they are preserving an artistic legacy which was central to the peopling of Oceania. Mauloa is the only canoe of its kind built totally with traditional tools, methods and materials. People in Hawai’i, other parts of Polynesia and the Pacific Rim will value this unique visual record of a traditional art that was nearly lost in the modern world of power tools and fiberglass canoes. The content relates directly to the culture, arts, history, and values of the Pacific Islands, particularly Hawai’i, Micronesia, New Zealand, Tahiti and the Cook Islands, where canoes and voyaging are undergoing a growing renaissance. Timeless Craft will bring the extraordinary craftsmanship and seafaring culture of the ancient Polynesians to both a local and a general audience.
The early Pacific Islanders lived in balance with their island environments. Since the introduction of Western economic and social values in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many aspects of Polynesian culture have disappeared or are endangered. Knowledge of a rich past preserved in the oral traditions of chants, poems and legends has declined, and age-old practices and activities have fallen into disuse. Many contemporary Hawaiians and Polynesians seem to be adrift, neither fully participant in the modern cultures which have engulfed them, nor firmly anchored to any memory of the ancient ways of life that once sustained their people. In this situation, the reconstruction and sailing of ancient canoes becomes important as a way for islanders to rediscover their cultural identity and regain self-esteem.
The building of Mauloa was filmed in semi-slow motion (32 frames per second). The altered speed and golden images that unfold on the screen create a unique sense of timelessness. Nothing of the modern world exists in the footage – no power tools, t-shirts or sunglasses. All of the scenes evoke pre-contact Polynesia; from sharpening the stone adzes on a whetstone, to staining the koa hull with kukui nut oil. This method of filming carries viewers back to the time when the ancestors of today’s Polynesians crafted their canoes with grace and artistry, while respecting solemn ritual and ancient tradition.
At a sunrise ceremony on the black sand beach at Punalu’u, Hawaiian chanter Keli’i Taua blesses na kalai wa’a – the canoe builders – and their adzes. Later the same stone tools strike the trunk of the koa tree, revealing a startling blood-colored flesh beneath the brown bark. Micronesian master navigator and canoe builder, Mau Piailug, weaves sennit from the fibers of coconuts that were softened in the bottom of a pond for several months, then spread out to dry on the lava rocks. Marquesan Tava Taupu climbs a breadfruit tree to collect the sap used to make the caulking substance which will seal together the parts of the canoe. Hawaiian elder, Sonny Solomon, gathers kukui nut bark and boils it over an open fire with pieces of banana root, then strokes the mixture onto the finished koa hull to create a water-resistant seal. Clay Bertelmann painstakingly stitches together panels of woven lauhala laid out in the shape of a sail, then he follows Mau’s guidance in hemming the edges before rigging the finished sail to the ohia mast.
The historical look and mood of the footage will be complemented by the narrative, which is drawn from primary sources: chants and poetry about canoes and sailing; excerpts from Ancient Tahiti, written by historian Teuira Henry in 1928; Vikings of the Sunrise, written by Maori anthropologist Te Rangi Hiroa in 1938; and the eighteenth-century journals of Captain James Cook and other European explorers, who recorded detailed information and provided a window into the highly sophisticated maritime cultures they found on the islands in Polynesia.
Relearning the skills needed to recreate ancient sailing craft, intoning chants, and conducting rituals that have been patiently researched and practiced – these and other ventures are helping today’s Polynesians return to their origins as a uniquely oceanic people who explored and settled an island world never before seen by humankind.