March 15, 2023

We at UBC Vancouver are Pacific people by definition, perched as we are on Point Grey overlooking the water—with the fresh scent of sea salt permeating the campus air. But, what do we actually know about the Pacific Ocean?

Not as much as we might think, contends Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville (Māori – Te Āti Awa, Taranaki), UBC Professor at the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and Department of English Language and Literatures. The people of Oceania, she says, do. That is why a recent visit by a group of diverse Western Pacific Island knowledge keepers—and the opportunity to learn from them in person—was so exciting and momentous, Dr. Te Punga Somerville says.

Pacific peoples have been sailing thousands of miles on the open ocean in hand-hewn canoes made entirely of natural materials for more than 3,000 years. They have navigated the deep seas successfully with a sophisticated knowledge system known among Taumako Polynesians as Te Nohoanga Te Matangi, a “wind positioning system which organizes knowledge about winds, wave and swell patterns, the rises and sets of stars, and natural signs, such as light that flashes from land far into the deep sea,” according to the island community of Taumako. (Carbon emissions: zero.)

“The ocean is who we are,” says 19-year-old Lolobeyong Benito of the Northern Mariana Islands. “Without the ocean, why are we called Pacific Islanders? It is who we are.”  

These seafaring people from Western Pacific Ocean islands in Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Federated States of Micronesia (Polowat Atoll) want the rest of us to know that while world superpower businesses and city-based peoples continue polluting, the people who live across Oceania are the ones feeling the acute effects of climate change.

Colonial international laws, and shipping and border restrictions on use of ancient ocean routes and current-ways, have nearly snuffed out intercultural exchange, trade and crucial interpersonal connection between the isolated island communities that need navigation by sea between each other to survive—as well as monitor and protect the ocean itself. The Indigenous peoples of Oceania want those policies to change. They want the world to know they have solutions to the climate emergency to offer and important wisdom to share. They want to start rebuilding a network of ocean caretakers all across the planet to safeguard eco-diversity, millennia-old traditions and their maritime cultural heritage.

A group of seven Pacific Island knowledge keepers accompanied by two supporters arrived at UBC on Vancouver’s shores Jan. 30. With delight they witnessed snowfall for the first time ever. Some in the group had travelled for weeks from their remote islands to meet with Musqueam community members and leaders, UBC researchers and students, and representatives from the BC Consular Corps, and to attend the global IMPAC5 conference on climate change and oceans. The visit was four years in the making—the outcome of a serendipitous meeting between two men one day back in 2019 on ṮEḴTEḴSEN (BC’s Saturna Island). This is the story.


Facing dangerous seas, pirates and crocodiles, Sanakoli John, his brother Justin John and cousin Job Siyae, accompanied by Danish adventurer Thor F. Jensen, completed the world’s first circumnavigation of the Island of New Guinea—the second-largest on the planet after Greenland—in a traditional sailau (canoe) called Tawali Pasana. They wanted to show the resilience of traditional outrigger vessels and inspire New Guinea youth to celebrate their seafaring culture. Jensen produced a documentary about the feat, “Sailau,” and a book featuring his illustrations, Salt Water and Spear Tips. “We crossed into West Papua, which is under Indonesian rule—” recounted (Sanakoli) John, joking, “a country with too much chilli. We had maps and GPS, but we also used our senses to feel the current, hear the reef on moonless nights and read the wind and read the coastline. To help us, we also had God and three ghost mothers following us. We sailed huge Pacific swells through the monsoon and on the south coast we navigated big tidal currents.” The crew landed at their starting point in Milne Bay on Oct. 20, 2017 after 6,300 km, 13 months and 21 days. Recalling the experience, John said: “I have no house. The rain is my rain. The sun is my sun.” (video: Thor F. Jensen)

Meet the ancestral voyaging leaders

  Open all accordions

Luke O'Grady Vaikawi, Taumako Island, Duffs Group, Solomon Islands

"Our only way to communicate is the ocean—it's our only highway," says Luke O'Grady Vaikawi. He presented at a Feb. 2 UBC Vancouver public dialogue event to a packed house (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Luke O'Grady Vaikawi, Taumako Island (Duffs Group, Solomon Islands)
Executive Director, Holau Vaka Taumako Association

“I learned a lot at IMPAC5 [global oceans conference]. I want to go back and tell our people what life is like in this part of the world, how important the ocean is and how we can protect it, and how important the vaka (canoe) is as a means of transportation. We need a world to live in that is sacred, safe and works for everyone.” 


Luke Vaikawi grew up learning ancient stories, skills, methods and ecological knowledge from experts of ancestral voyaging knowledge. He is the oldest of the first four born-and-raised Taumakans to finish post-secondary school education. Vaikawi helped his grandfather, Paramount Chief Koloso Kaveia, establish the Vaka Taumako Project to train a new generation to build traditional voyaging vakas (outrigger canoes) and navigate using only ancestral designs, materials, methods and tools.  

Vaikawi assisted Dr. Mimi Kaveia George from 1993 to 2017 in carrying out the project under research permits from the Ministry of Educaton and Human Resources. He stood firm in meeting administrative and budgetary challenges through decades of “tension” (civil disorder), chronic lack of resources, governmental incapacity and most recently, COVID closures. Vaikawi also commanded Solomon Islands Maritime Police. For 25 years, his day job was commanding patrol boats of the Solomon Islands Maritime Police, arresting foreign fish stealers, and initiating international marine resource monitoring and safety programs of Solomon Islands. He used ancestral leadership and navigation methods and concepts at sea that he had heard about as a child, and learned more as the project progressed.  

Vaikawi retired in 2018 and founded the Holau Vaka Taumako Project. The Taumako community membership elected him executive director. The group's top priority is educating next generations in ancestral voyaging knowledge and cultural practices that enable them to mitigate and adapt to effects of climate change. These include:  

  1. Continued resistance to environmentally destructive resource extractions, such as logging, mining and overfishing.  
  2. Re-implementation of traditional practices and technologies that avoid use of environmentally toxic products, such as petro-chemical fuels, plastics and processed foods. The project methods to achieve these goals include:  
    • supporting matrilineal rights and privileges of girls and women to protect island, reef and inter-island resources and relationships 
    • rebuilding traditional structures (Holau) where boys were mentored by mature men 
    • use of local natural materials for everyday needs, such as building and using sustainable sea transport vessels with sails; rehabilitating reefs and lagoons by replacing stones removed to build seawalls so that the stones modulate destructive wave actions; and provide hiding places for fish fry to grow; and using leaves for plates and the walling of houses 
  3. Re-opening access to, and use of, ancestral sea-routes between islands and across colonially established borders to create protection for critical local and regional stocks of biodiverse plants and animals.
  4. Reactivating use of traditional valuables instead of modern currencies to benefit regional and interregional networks that provide resiliency to all.   
Setareki Ledua, Fiji

Seeing 100 Drua (traditional boats) sailing throughout Fiji is a childhood dream of Setareki Ledua, a captain who learned his skills from his grandparents (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Setareki Ledua, Fiji
Executive Director of Drua Sailing Experience

“We our here to raise our voice about our concerns with what is going on back home and we’ve brought with us what we think is a solution. We as Indigenous people can help with the fight against climate change and contribute by using our traditional vessels without fossil fuels."


From Setareki Ledua: I have realized my dream to captain a Drua (traditional sailing vessel of Fiji), and I hope that in 10 years, I will see 100 Drua sailing throughout Fiji. As a child, I lived with my grandparents on Fulaga Island in Fiji’s Lau Group. They took me sailing between islands on traditional Camakau vessels. We fished and gathered seafoods, and we partnered with people of other islands. This made our island way of life sustainable. We monitored and cared for the ocean, in all its diverse creatures, plants, winds, rains, stars and seasons.  

In 2010, I graduated from Fiji Institute of Technology and began studying both modern and traditions of maritime navigation. In 2010, I was certificated in NZCG Day Skipper and Boat Master. In 2016, I graduated from Maritime School with a Master in Engineering and I became captain of the sailing vessel Moana (Denarau). In 2018, I became captain of the sailing catamaran Uto Ni Yalo. From 2018 to present, I have served as captain of the Drua, I Vola Sigavou. My father was just in Berlin rigging a Drua at the Humboldt Forum Museum. My aim is to see 100 Drua serving remote Fijian communities and networking throughout the Pacific. 

Delsie Betty Bosi, Taumako Island, Duffs Group, Solomon Islands

An advocate for the women of Taumako, Delsie Betty Bosi is a former teacher who now works with women and youth in her community (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Delsie Betty Bosi, Taumako Island (Duffs Group, Solomon Islands)
Administrative Assistant at Holau Vaka Taumako Association

“We are so thankful to our host UBC for helping us reach other Indigenous groups—we share similar cultures and sentiments. It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, especially to meet educated people with doctorates like [UBC Prof.] Yves [Tiberghien] who here treat us the same as everyone else. As islanders, we feel small. We feel like it is not us making the sea level rise, but we are feeling all the effects. That makes us sad, but also hopeful that we can make a difference. We need to do something. On Taumako, women do not always speak up or share the opinions of men. So this was a great opportunity to share the thoughts of women.”  


Delsie Betty Bosi is a teacher by profession. During the course of her career, her interest focused on ways of preserving and conserving marine and land resources due to the rapid depletion from logging and over-harvesting of marine resources—the result of poor management or poor decision-making by leaders in the community, she says. 

After a stint as an educator, Bosi began to work with women and youth in the community, those most responsible for building a community that cares for the land and the sea, she says: These are the people who are voiceless, yet when they know what they want, they stand up to rise against the odds to be builders of their communities; therefore, protect and care for the sea and its resources. 

Bosi says: "That is why in Taumako, as in any other community, women are passive decision-makers. Yet their role in the use of the sea and its marine resources is paramount to their survival. Women are the gatherers. They fish like the men for their survival. They gather shells and other marine resources on the reef for food. Though little did they know that these marine resources do not reproduce at the same rate that they are being harvested."  

"People are cutting down mangroves for firewood or building materials. And so the many areas for fish to shelter and reproduce are already disturbed by human naivete on the small island of Taumako." 

"There then lies the interest of women and youth involvement in protecting the sea and their marine resources for the future and practice sustainable harvesting of resources. Conservation and preservation of the marine environment is of prime importance in the islands of Taumako." 

Sanakoli John, Nuakata Island, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea

One of the most respected sailors in his region, Sanakoli John made the world's first successful circumnavigation around New Guinea Island in a traditional sailing canoe in 2017 (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Sanakoli John, Nuakata Island, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, Co-Leader of Pasana Group 
Co-Leader of Pasana Group

“I teach about my culture on my two islands. I’m so proud of UBC bringing me here. I have to say, thank you. It’s my first time being out in the world, here on behalf of my culture, my school. I’m so proud. I will keep in touch. And I will teach what I’ve learned to rebuild our culture.” 


Sanakoli John is co-founder of Pasana Group, Papua New Guinea’s renowned traditional canoe-building school. He was born into the Dove clan of Basilaki Island in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Like most children on Basilaki, John would travel with his family in traditional sailing canoes, known locally as sailau, as soon as he could walk. On Basilaki, the sailau is used for fishing, transport and the traditional Kula trade system that connects the outer islands of Milne Bay.  

John is one of the most admired sailors in the region. He won the national Kenu and Kundu canoe race in 2015. In 2017, he and two other crew completed the first-ever recorded circumnavigation of the island of New Guinea in a traditional sailing canoe. The voyage spanned 6,300 km over 13 months and inspired the nation. In 2019, John co-founded Pasana Group to teach traditional canoe-building skills and sustainable livelihood practices to the youth of Milne Bay. By collaborating with other Pacific voyaging schools, he hopes that the people of the Pacific will become reconnected as they sail the ancient routes, and young people learn and advise others how to live sustainably and conserve the ocean, animals, plants and climate.  

Mario Benito, Polowat Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia  

Mario Benito showed a film clip at the UBC Vancouver Feb. 2 public event and described his community's making of a traditional canoe using only hand tools and natural materials (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Mario Benito, Polowat Atoll, Federated States of Micronesia, 500 Sails,
Caroline Islands master navigator, vessel builder and youth trainer 

“I honestly can’t believe I’m here. I want to support IMPAC5 [International Marine Protected Areas Congress], hear people from different places and revive our voyaging societies’ seafaring tradition.” 


Mario Benito is a member of the Houpolowat clan and its canoe house, Utt Wenimai. He also belongs to Utt Wenipukuw. Benito was educated in the Weriyeng school of navigation and as a child, studied under some of the most famous and revered old-time navigators from Polowat, including Hipour and Manipy Onopey. As an adult, he studied with the late Teo Onopey and Rainam Edward.  

A long-time cameraman, photographer and archivist of Polowat images based in Saipan, Benito was the lead photographer for the documentary “Sacred Vessels: Navigating Tradition and Identity in Micronesia” (1997) and shot for many visiting documentary teams over the past two decades.  

Benito serves as an informal ambassador of Polowat seafarers in Saipan, was one of the coordinators and translators in the building of the Lien Polowat in 2012 and its sail to Guam and final resting place at the Oceanic Culture Museum in Okinawa, Japan in 2013. 
In 2016, the pwo ceremony, which names navigators as masters, took place at Paseo in Guam, where navigators were staying for the Festival of Pacific Arts. Benito was one of five ordained by Grandmaster Navigator Rainam Edward of Polowat. 

Lolobeyong Benito (Mario’s son), Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands

With the goal of becoming a youth advocate, Lolobeyong Benito says he is bringing back important knowledge gained on the Vancouver visit to share with his community (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Lolobeyong ("Lolo") Benito (Mario Benito’s son), Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands,
500 Sails, community leader and teaches youth for 500 Sails programs in Saipan when possible 

“This whole trip has been a learning experience, opening our eyes to the problems in this world we are sharing together: our ocean. We need someone to step up, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I now have more knowledge about what is happening around us and how it’s affecting us, and the solutions to how we can fix these problems. Realizing there are solutions has made me more comfortable standing up for youth and making our voice heard.” 


“Lolobeyong” means “the lucky one” and Lolobeyong Benito’s name is derived after a particular chant that his father would use before entering into any gathering. The chant was meant to imbue love and peace among the members, so that even for those in the group—though they did not know who he was yet — the chant would open their hearts and mind. Born and raised on Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands, Benito is the only son of Master Navigator Mario Benito and Rose Benito.  

Together with his parents, Benito has been raised to love both the ocean and the land, and to explore the bounties of what both life on the ocean and on land can bring. He enjoys farming just as much as he enjoys being out on the ocean. Given the impact of climate change and the need to learn how to survive, Benito understands the value of farming and the joy that locally sourced food brings to the table.  

Throughout his childhood, Benito has watched his father teach and discuss traditional navigation as well as carve paddles and canoes. When he turned 15, he learned how to sail, how to tie the lashings on a canoe and how to use the natural elements to his advantage. Benito has a love for adventure and a thirst for traditional knowledge. His goal is to ensure that his ancestors’ and his father’s legacy is shared with the rest of Micronesia—to remind others of where they come from, and that these shared collectives of sailing and maritime traditions will unite all Pacific Island peoples together. 

Modakula Kunuyobu, Papua New Guinea

Presenting at the UBC Vancovuer Feb. 2 public event, Modakula Kunuyobu said, "We have proven to the world that we can navigate in the open ocean using strong instincts and traditonal knowledge." (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Modakula ("Moda") Kunuyobu, Papua New Guinea,
Milne Bay Culture and Tourism Bureau Acting Manager

"I personally believe hard work, dedication, commitment, humble and focus-oriented team work, and collective knowledge-sharing are pillars of uniting all races common good—and that is to protect and save the environment and humanity."


Modakula Kunuyobu organizes the Canoe and Kundu Festival in the Milne Bay Provincce capitol city of Alotau. Ther sailors from farflung islands of Milne Bay Province gather to compete in races and to take youth sailing to give them cultural knowledge and environmental education. Says Kunuyobu: "I am young and energetic with an enquiring mind, and am consistently opting to seek avenues to excel my capacity for the common good of humanity I serve and environment which I remain a part of. I am passionate to learn new knowledge and skills from others across the globe to enhance my capabilities."

Joining the knowledge keepers: 

Heu`ionalani Wyeth and Marianne “Mimi” George are not Indigenous Pacific people by birth. It is only the definition of “Indigenous” by the IMPAC5 conference that categorized Heu`ionalani and Mimi as Indigenous because they each attended representing Indigenous Pacific knowledge on behalf of, and by specific request of, Indigenous Pacific elders—in particular the late Paramount Chief of Taumako, George Koloso Kahia Kaveia.  

Marianne (“Mimi”) Kaveia George, Anahola, Hawai'i

A cultural anthropologist in Hawai'i, Mimi George supports training youth to apply ancestral voyaging knowledge to current problems such as unemployment and climate change (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Marianne (“Mimi”) Kaveia George, Anahola, Hawai'i
Director of the Vaka Taumako Project of the Pacific Traditions Society  

“This is the first time these Western Pacific small-island people been able to connect with anyone over here on the coast of the Americas. For a major university—or any university—to show up like this is very unusual. This is the first time I’ve seen a university demonstrate such understanding of the value of connecting with these people. They are here to inform others of what they know and what they can add to what should be a global effort to save the planet. We need ocean knowledge.  

Their main aim is to train new generations in ancestral designs, materials, methods and tools, and form the respectful and caring relationships needed for both building and navigating vessels. What we have here is not the use of a star navigation system that was made up recently because nobody was left who remembered it; that’s what happened in Hawai'i. It’s people who have learned and used their ancient knowledge, and are still capable of teaching it. What we’re trying to get across is that the way to access this knowledge, to mobilize it—for everybody: for the sake of the ocean and the planet and everyone on it—is supporting and opening the blockages; making deep-sea voyages on the ancestral routes and reestablishing the ocean networks.” 


Mimi George is a cultural anthropologist and sailor who supports training youth to apply ancestral voyaging knowledge to current problems, including unemployment, biodiversity loss and climate change. George has responded to requests to help document ritual traditions of formerly voyaging people of New Ireland Province, Papua New Guinea; a small, mixed-gender crew wintering a sailboat in Antarctic sea-ice as whalers and sealers once did: ancient networks of sea-hunters and reindeer herders across Bering Straits; as well as efforts of the Polynesian people of Taumako, southeast Solomon Islands to train youth to build vessels and navigate using ancient designs, materials and methods, and to document their own knowledge system. That system includes weather modification and calling for ancestral lights that show the way to land. In papers, presentations and books, George describes prominent roles of women and children in voyaging cultures, and how revival of ancestral voyaging networks revives implementation of ancient knowledge, relationships and protocols. Sailing on these routes creates sustainable and resilient lifeways for those communities who are able to observe, monitor and protectively manage the plants, creatures and other ancestral phenomena of Oceania, she says.

Heu`ionalani (“Meph”) Wyeth, Anahola, Hawai'i

Meph Wyeth helped support the group's Vancouver visit and travels. She has been working with the Vaka Taumako Project since 1996 (photo: Solana Pasqual)

Heu`ionalani “Meph” Wyeth, Anahola, Hawai'i,
Director, Kaʻimi Na Auao o Hawai`i Nei Institute, the Vaka Taumako Project of the Pacific Traditions Society  

Meph Wyeth has served as Permanent Secretary of the Vaka Taumako Project of the Pacific Traditions Society since 1996. She instructed the first groups of Taumako video students, most of whom had never seen a camera before. She plans to write articles, give presentations and protect archival materials until there is adequate accommodation at Taumako.  

Wyeth is also a Director of Ka’imi Na’auao o Hawai’i Nei Institute, which preserves and teaches Hawai`ian culture. In this role and in the Vaka Taumako Project, she is focuses on the Story of Lata, who is regarded as the Goddess of Hula and as the first voyager. Wyeth is a lifelong student of classics, and one of a large family of sailors. 

How it all started

UBC Prof. Yves Tiberghien (left) and Luke O’Grady Vaikawi at St. John's College in February (photo: Yves Tiberghien)

A drawing by the author from Thor F. Jensen's book, Salt Water and Spear Tips (illustration: Thor F. Jensen)

UBC Political Science Professor Dr. Yves Tiberghien first met Luke O’Grady Vaikawi on BC’s ṮEḴTEḴSEN (Saturna Island) in 2019. Vaikawi had travelled far to the U.S. and then Saturna to tell about the revival of his community’s canoe society heritage and recovery of ancient traditions back on Taumako Island, a remote community of 450 souls with no roads, phones or electricity in the Solomon Islands of the Western South Pacific. After a conversation about life in Taumako, the building of ancestral canoes, and the hopes of Luke and his community, Vaikawi held Dr. Tiberghien's hand, looked him in the eye and explained that his people needed to be heard. “Luke is a truly impressive human being: he has great energy and reflects deep truth and knowledge, recalls Dr. Tiberghien. “I always remembered him and missed him after that. It was a truly powerful encounter.”

That it was—because from that moment on, Dr. Tiberghien began collaborating with Vaikawi, Executive Director of Taumako’s Holau Vaka Taumako Association, on the idea of bringing Vaikawi and fellow Pacific Island knowledge keepers from distinctive islands in the region to UBC for a multidisciplinary dialogue on “different ways of knowing”—and to the global ocean protection congress IMPAC5 Vancouver so that their voices could be heard on the world stage. Dr. Tiberghien credits Marianne “Mimi” Kaveia George, who has devoted her life to supporting the cultural revival efforts led by Taumako people and others, as the critical link with the knowledge keepers and an essential partner in the collective effort.

Back row, left to right: Lolobeyong Benito, his dad Mario Benito, Daniella Weber, Sanakoli John, Kyle McDonald (a volunteer for the Vaka Taumako Project), Dr. Yves Tiberghien, Luke O’Grady Vaikawi; middle row, left to right: Modakula Kunuyobu, Setareki Ledua, Dr. Rashid Sumaila, Delsie Betty Bosi; front row, from left to right: UBC-Sciences Po undergraduate Lou Gindt, UBC Political Science master's student Sasha Lee and Mimi George at the Vancouver Convention Centre for the IMPAC5 conference (photo: Daniella Weber)

Adds Vaikawi: “To have people from these small islands coming to Vancouver… Yves had that vision."

There are few remaining people who retain the traditional knowledge of seagoing, especially on many isolated islands, Dr. Tiberghien learned from Vaikawi.

“Yet they have an extraordinary story of know-how of ocean navigation and migration over the centuries, which enabled people with very simple tools to achieve mastery of ocean—and understanding—unrivaled in human history,” Dr. Tiberghien says. “They managed to sail the whole Pacific Ocean: one-third of the entire world. Now we know they did it with wood canoes: navigating with stars, current flow, seaweed, fish, fish flow. They were also deeply connected to each other, the ecosystem, ocean, climate and animals.”

Though it might have seemed like a stretch at first, soon Dr. Tiberghien with his infectious positivity and genuine passion had roped in many others, including oceans expert Dr. Rashid Sumaila, University Killam Professor, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries; Canada Research Chair, Tier I, Interdisciplinary Ocean and Fisheries Economics. “Every time I saw Yves, he’d bring it up,” says Dr. Sumaila with a chuckle. “It wasn’t going to not happen.”

Says Dr. Tiberghien: “Rashid’s work is amazing and he is such a great friend. He knows what is important and the importance of interdisciplinary cooperation. This event could not have happened without Rashid, as well as the support of William Cheung [Director of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries].”

Dr. Sheryl Lightfoot offered vital guidance early on. Dr. Tiberghien also approached the UBC Office of the Vice-Provost International, collaborating with former Vice-Provost, International Dr. Murali Chandrashekaran, and Office of the Vice-Provost International (OVPI) Managing Director Cheryl Dumaresq. Along with Dr. Rumee Ahmed, Vice-Provost, International pro tem, their support for the global initiative generated matching funds from the OVPI and IMPAC5 leadership to bring the guests to Vancouver and cover their stay. Daniella Weber, OVPI Associate Director, Strategic Initiatives, handled logistical support and coordination between the academic units. 

Soon many others joined the effort, including:

  • Dr. Andrea Reid, Assistant Professor, Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries; Principal Investigator, Centre for Indigenous Fisheries
  • Dr. Bernard C. Perley, Director, Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, Associate Professor
  • Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville (Māori – Te Āti Awa, Taranaki), Professor, Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies and Department of English Language and Literatures, Faculty of Arts
  • Dr. Susan Rowley, Director, Museum of Anthropology; Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology; Co-Academic Coordinator for Musqueam 101
  • Dr. Carol Mayer, Curator, Pacific & World Ceramics at UBC's Museum of Anthropology
  • Dr. William Cheung, Director of the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries

That four-year journey came to fruition Feb. 2: when seven UBC-and-partner-sponsored Pacific Island knowledge keepers hailing from remote Western Pacific Ocean islands and two supporters gathered at the Vancouver campus’ Liu Institute–xʷθəθiqətəm (Place of Many Trees) in a public event to share their extensive knowledge of ocean navigation and exchange perspectives in a discussion on climate change and biodiversity.  

The aruduous trip marked the first time many had left their rural communities. Joining Vaikawi were: Delsie Betty Bosi, also from Taumako Island; Fji’s Setareki Ledua; Sanakoli John and Modakula Kunuyobu of Papua New Guinea; Mario Jacob Benito from Micronesia and his son Lolobeyong Benito from the Northern Mariana Islands; and, by request from Indigenous elders, Mimi George and Heu`ionalani Wyeth from Hawai`i.

The dialogue marks UBC’s renewed effort to rethink what knowledge means, Dr. Tiberghien says. “Knowledge cannot be restricted to scientific categories and approaches, although they are an important component. We believe that ancestral Indigenous knowledge, practices and arts have so much to teach us about our planet, our ecosystem, and the connections between humans and the natural environment,” he says. “This is a chance to listen and celebrate this extraordinary source of knowledge accumulated over thousands of years and ignored during colonial times. We have gathered to learn from the sea-voyaging people of the Western Pacific, whose ancestors achieved some of the greatest navigation feats in human history.”

The visit

A group of seven Pacific Indigenous knowledge keepers travelled to Vancouver in the chill of January from vastly diverse regions of the Western Pacific—perhaps the most “rare and significant” aspect of the visit, said Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville (Māori – Te Āti Awa, Taranaki), Professor, Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies & Department of English Language and Literatures, Faculty of Arts.

Geographically far from each other, each island’s language and culture are very different. In fact, some 1,200 different languages are spoken in the region, notes Dr. Te Punga Somerville. Each strives in their own way to mobilize ancient knowledge by making deep-sea voyages on the ancestral sea roads and re-establishing inter-island networks that protect the oceanic world. They came with two allies from Pacific Traditions Society of Hawai'i to make people aware of their knowledge of the ocean, biodiversity and climate change issues. 

The group made presentations and joined events at UBC and IMPAC5, a global ocean protection congress with a focus on Indigenous leadership in conservation. In fact, it was an extraordinary gathering, said Maritime cultural anthropologist and organizer Marianne “Mimi” Kaveia George: “The kind of knowledge embodied here is extremely exceptional and desperately needed," she said. 

The group presented at a Feb. 2 public event at UBC Vancouver to a large and receptive audience (photo: Justin Man)

The overall aim, said the trip initiator UBC Prof. Yves Tiberghien, was to “bring together different ways of knowing across disciplines and cultures, through dialogues between the UBC and Musqueam communities and the sea-voyaging people of the Western Pacific to enrich our understanding of the complex inter-relationships of ocean phenomena and what must be done to protect and live with the ocean for our own future survival.” 

“The ocean has received less attention than climate change or land biodiversity,” he added, “but the future of the ocean is essential to the planet’s future and human life.”

Said Centre for Indigenous Fisheries scientist Dr. Andrea Reid: “Climate change poses a profound threat for Indigenous Peoples and lifeways around the world. Just like Indigenous Peoples on this coastline, these Pacific sea voyagers hold critical knowledge of the ocean and navigating amidst uncertainty. This is the kind of knowledge, and knowledge keepers, we need to hold up in the highest regard in our institutes of higher learning, especially at this time of social-ecological crisis.”

It's only logical to pay more attention to the Pacific here in BC, noted Dr. Te Punga Somerville, because of UBC’s West Coast location: “There are a lot of Pacific academics appointed across different Canadian institutions, and it feels like there is a tidal move of people in this part of Canada asking: What does it mean to be not just on the West Coast of a continent, but the East Coast of an ocean?"

Dr. Tiberghien concurred. The Political Science professor persevered for four years to bring the distinguished Pacific guests to UBC. And he—as with many involved in the initiative—hopes the encounter will spark connections leading to joint knowledge and a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. 

Several UBC groups, alongside organizers George and Heu`ionalani “Meph” Wyeth, coordinated the Vancouver visit—with Musqueam community members, UBC scientists and students, and government and consular representatives—merging ocean science, geoscience, plant science and zoology, as well as cultural history and narratives, music, anthropology, archeology and navigation, to name a few.

It was an unusual initiative involving multiple units across the university, including UBC faculty, staff and students from the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, the Department of Political Science and the Museum of Anthropology.

Collaborating on the UBC activities with Dr. Tiberghien were professors Dr. Te Punga Somerville, Dr. Reid, Dr. Rashid Sumaila, Dr. William Cheung, Dr. Bernard C. PerleyDr. Susan Rowley and Dr. Henry Yu. The UBC Office of the Vice-Provost International housed the group at St. John’s College on campus, coordinated logistics, and financed trip costs with matching funds from Fisheries and Oceans Canada. 

Hailing from a wide range of islands in the region, some without electricity or telephones, the visitors travelled several weeks on canoes, boats, in planes and cars to finally arrive in Vancouver. Organizer George called the logistics very very complicated. “Visas were invented that never existed before,” she joked, noting assistance from high-ranking leaders in Ottawa to make it all happen. 

The Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies hosted a lunch at Haida House for the visitors to connect with Indigenous faculty and students (photo: Davison Donnelly)

From left:  Dr. Alice Te Punga Somerville, UBC Māori visitor​​​​​​ Jeanine Clarkin (Ngāti Pāoa ki Waiheke), Dr. Bernard C. Perley and UBC Māori visitor Mereana Berger (Ngāti Pāoa ki Waiheke) (photo: Davison Donnelly) 

The UBC program began Jan. 31 with a welcome lunch at St. John’s College. Honouring the guests from afar, the Musqueam Elders Centre hosted a dinner and dialogue on Feb. 1 as part of the Musqueam 101 speaker series. Other private UBC events included an Indigenous-focused campus tour and stops at The Office of Indigenous Strategic Initiatives and First Nations Longhouse; a private tour of the Museum of Anthropology collections; and lunch at Haida House hosted by the Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies. At Haida House, hosts and guests exchanged gifts.

The public joined a packed Feb. 2 dialogue and reception at UBC Vancouver’s Liu Institute for Global Issues–xʷθəθiqətəm (Place of Many Trees), which opened with a symbolic traditional blowing of the conch shell. The Pacific guests discussed “how ancestral voyaging mobilizes knowledge of biodiversity and climate change,” showing various film clips and photos in a range of presentations on the history and meaning of ocean-going navigation in their respective homes. [Watch the recorded event on YouTube.]

Dr. Bernard C. Perley, Director of UBC’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, shared remarks on behalf of the university. He presented the guests with Haida blankets to keep the them warm during their stay and to "remember the friendships made here." The blankets feature a design by Haida artist Bill Reid, widely recognized as having revived the great tradition of Haida art. Created in 1976 for the Canadian Museum of History, the "Children of the Raven" motif celebrates the creation of humankind by Raven.

UBC student volunteers from multiple departments helped organize the event, setting up and decorating the space, designing the promotional materials and sharing on social media, arranging the food and receiving guests.

At the IMPAC5 conference—co-hosted by the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh along with governments and other partners—Feb. 3 to 9, the group presented as a panel to a standing-room only audience, many with tears in their eyes who stayed long after the event concluded to continue the conversation. They shared observations on what’s happening with climate change and the ocean, and what should be done from a holistic perspective, as well as their hopes to recover access to critical traditional ocean routes. 

UBC Vancouver St. John's College hosted the Jan. 31 welcome event. Director Dr. Henry Yu greeted the esteemed Pacific Island guests in the dining hall (photo: Daniella Weber)

On the last day at the Vancouver campus, the travellers gathered with their luggage in the St. John’s College dining hall under the roof of 1,000 origami birds for a final lunch together with the organizers, and to prepare for the next leg of their journey. With tears on both sides, Dr. Tiberghien and Taumako Island’s Luke O’Grady Vaikawi embraced a long bear-hug farewell. It’s certain neither will forget any time soon the chance meeting four years ago on BC’s Saturna Island (ṮEḴTEḴSEN) that set the whole thing in motion… 

Read the article about the visit in the UBC student-run newspaper, The Ubyssey.

The ask

A group of Western Pacific Island sea voyagers travelled across the world to meet other Indigenous knowledge-keepers, share their extensive experience & rally for policy change—this is their ask


Share traditional Indigenous knowledge for a better world


Reinstate ancient navigation routes


Build a network of ocean caretakers across the world

1. Share traditional Indigenous knowledge for a better world

Traditional practices naturally promote the protection of the marine landscape and geography, the islanders maintain. On their remote islands, each clan has its own vessel—names include vaka, Drua, proa, wa, sailu, va’a and pahi. "Our whole community convenes to build a traditional outrigger canoe," explains Mario Benito of the Federated States of Micronesia. Together the men fell one carefully selected tree, he says. They use charcoal to draw carving lines. With adzes and using their own bodies to make measurements, they form the vessel piece by piece, notes Mario’s son Lolobeyong Benito. The process takes many months or more than a year, and one mistake with a razor-sharp adze can mean starting over entirely. The men coat the wood to seal it in sap extracted from a tree and mixed with charcoal, applied with a coconut husk. Rope-making from pandanus fibre is an essential task. There is always a blessing before embarking on a sea journey. Mario Benito’s 500 Sails nonprofit—named after the 500 sails that the first Europeans saw when they arrived at Saipan in 1742... and soon vanished. 500 Sails taps ancient knowledge to teach others as they craft modern canoes. “Our goal is to bring back maritime traditions once lost,” he says.  

Adds Papua New Guinea’s Sanakoli John: “Our principles are: No. 1 respect, and 2 and 3, sharing and loving. We only take what we need, and we make everything ourselves.” 

Sanakoli John and two fellow islanders from Papua New Guinea reached their starting point in Milne Bay on Oct. 20, 2017, completing a record circumnavigation of New Guinea Island, the world’s second-largest, on a traditional hand-hewn sailau (outrigger canoe). “We were very proud, but also looking forward to a good rest,” said the ever-humble captain. A documentary film on the odyssey, “Sailau,” debuts this year (photos: Thor F. Jensen)

During the trip around New Guinea Island in 2017 in rough seas, the wooden outrigger broke. Captain Sanakoli John and crew had to stop, chop down a tree and craft a new outrigger in order to continue the record-setting journey (video: Thor F. Jensen)

2. Reinstate ancient navigation routes

“Our only way to communicate is the ocean,” says Taumako Island’s Luke O’Grady Vaikawi. “It’s our only highway. There is beauty in that way of moving around the islands. There is now an American border and passport system. We don’t have passports and don’t know how to get them. So our canoe trade with other islands has stopped. We want to reconnect and revive those routes again. We need our ancestral networks for culture and survival. We want to get back to the traditional, sustainable way of living.”

Polynesians have navigated the deep seas successfully for 3,000+ years with a sophisticated knowledge system known among Taumako Polynesians as Te Nohoanga Te Matangi (graphic: Mimi George)

The wind positioning system "organizes knowledge about winds, wave and swell patterns, the rises and sets of stars, and natural signs, such as light that flashes from land far into the deep sea,” according to the island community of Taumako (graphic: Mimi George)

"Women are the custodians of the land and sea in Taumako culture," says islander Delsie Betty Bosi. "The men build most of the canoes; the women feed the workers and children, keeping morale strong, and build the sails of pandanus leaves. They cut the leaves, boil them, cut with coconut fibres into strands and weave. The largest of a five-island archipelago, Taumako is isolated and has no electricity or telephones. It’s five to nine hours in an open boat to reach the other islands for essential trade, cultural exchange and camaraderie" (video: Mimi George/Vaka Taumako Project)

Colonial laws, policies, wars, borders, and replacement of gifting trade and resiliency-rich networks have devastated Pacific Island culture and economies. Here is a recent attempt to reinstate culturally ethical kula gifting, also known as kula trade (video: Gina Knapp)

3. Build a network of ocean caretakers across the world

“We are here to connect with the Indigenous people of Canada and create a relationship; there was a relationship thousands of years before, but it’s taken us a while to get back,” says Fiji’s Setareki Ledua. “Indigenous people still have very important knowledge to share. We want to find our way forward—together. Even though we have come to a different place, with the Indigenous people here, it feels like home. They have the same vision and mission of what they’re trying to do here as us back home. It’s not a coincidence—it’s just a matter of reconnecting.”  

Lolobeyong Benito of Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands (photo: Justin Man) 

What’s next?

A TePuke voyaging vessel named TeVaka Causey sails for Ndeni Island in June, 2018. Tinakula Volcano juts from the sea to windward (photo: Mimi George/Vaka Taumako Project)

For the Pacific Island knowledge keepers:
Luke O’Grady Vaikawi, Taumako Island: “I learned a lot at IMPAC5 [global ocean protection conference]. I want to go back and tell our people what life is like in this part of the world, how important the ocean is and how we can protect it, and how important the vaka (canoe) is as a means of transportation. We need a world to live in that is sacred and safe, and works for everyone.”

For the world community:
Marianne “Mimi” Kaveia George, Anahola, Hawai'i: "There should be talk about a plan for students to study in ancestral knowledge schools of the Pacific Islands, and for students from those knowledge-holding communities to come to school in Canada. We need another event with representatives from consulates, policy makers, fisheries and young people to plan how First Nations people in BC can enter into active, collaborative relationships and plans with these Oceania-based communities.

For UBC:
Political Science Prof. Yves Tiberghien: “We want to combine everything we’ve learned in a great experiment that pushes boundaries. I hope the experience will touch many of us and give us deep insights that each will take back to our fields. I hope there is a moment of crystallization for a new way of seeing things and expressing things covering an area usually understudied: the area beyond our coasts.”


The Pacific Island knowledge keepers who gathered at UBC hail from very different areas of the Western Pacific Ocean and are geographically far apart (map compilation: Mimi George/photos by permission of Hob Osterland (the frigate bird) Susanne Kuehling (the Kula ring), William Davenport, (Santa Cruz network), Drua Sailing Experience (Lau Group routes) and Hasa Hachigchig (Caroline Islands Sawei Route))


  • Global Capacity Development
  • Global Partnerships
  • Issues of Global Relevance
  • Partnership Opportunities
  • Students as Global Citizens
  • UBC as a Global Actor