Sacred Forests Part Nine – The True Wealth

Sacred Forests
Part Nine – The True Wealth

By Sam Low

In February of 1995, a large group of people gathered at the Nani Loa hotel in downtown Hilo for the departure of Hawai’iloa on her first maiden long distance voyage. The canoe would sail with Hokule’a to Tahiti where she would join with two canoes from the Cook Islands, two from Tahiti and one from Aotearoa (New Zealand) to begin a return trip back to Hawaii via the Marquesas. It was the first time in a thousand years that a fleet of Polynesian canoes had sailed together over an ancient voyaging route. There were many chants. There was classic Polynesian hula. Pinky Thompson, President of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, spoke to thank the Alaskan people for their gift of the two giant spruce trees that now lived again as Hawai’iloa’s twin hulls. Finally, Judson Brown rose to speak.

“He got up in front of a large crowd of people,” Nainoa recalls, “and he said: ‘I am very grateful that the Hawaiian people would thank us for what the Alaskan people have done. But in truth, all we did was give you trees from our forest. What you gave was far more important – you gave us dreams.'”

“Everyone was absolutely silent. Think about what he said. He clearly understood that we were building a bridge between native people. His role was critical – not just in getting the trees – but in the celebration of our culture. Even though Hawaiians and Alaskans were different people – defined by their environment, language and culture – in the end Hawai’iloa was embraced by Native Alaskans as their own. Judson was so proud. He truly loved Hawaii.”

On May 15, 1995, having completed her voyage to Tahiti and back through the Marquesas, Hawai’iloa was shipped aboard a freighter. Landing in Seattle, she began a voyage of thanksgiving up the coast and inland waterways of Alaska. Byron Mallot was often aboard and Ernie Hillman, captaining his fishing boat, escorted the canoe through Alaskan waters during her entire visit. In Haines, Alaska, Hawai’iloa’s crew were greeted in a uniquely Alaskan ceremony – a potlatch.

“We went to Haines and we were taken into a small building by a river, a simple and humble place with a wooden floor,” Nainoa remembers. “We sat on the floor and the people gave us a potlatch. They heaped gifts before us. I was embarrassed. I saw an elderly lady sitting against the wall in the back of the room. There was a young boy with her, her grandson I supposed. Toward the end of the gift giving I saw her hand to him a small package. She seemed kind of embarrassed about the gift, almost ashamed. The young boy walked quietly up to the front of the room and put the package on the pile of gifts. It was composed of hundred dollar bills. I was shocked.”

“I turned to Judson Brown and said, ‘I don’t know how to respond to this kindness.’
‘Our idea of wealth,’ he told me, ‘is not about accumulating but giving away. We have survived as a people for centuries by caring for our natural environment and by sharing with each other.’”

On May 14, 1997, Judson Brown passed away. He is buried in his native village of Kluckwon where, over sixty years ago, by the light of a flickering kerosene lantern, he first began teaching his people about their rights. Judson had lived a life expressive of his Tlingit name, Gushklane – Big Fin – the one who has guided his people with wisdom and with a deep belief in the values of not only his ancestors, but the traditional values of all people.

“Judson Brown is still with us because the bridge between the people of Hawaii and the people of Alaska that he built is still strong,” Nainoa says. “After Judson’s death, his people carved two totem poles. They brought one to Hawaii with fifty people to celebrate the union between our people in the Bishop Museum’s Hall of Discovery. At the ceremony there was another elder, Alan Williams, who said: ‘we are doing this as our contribution to keeping alive the bond between Hawaiians and Native Alaskans.'”

“They set up the other totem pole in Juneau, Alaska,” Nainoa continues, “and that is the anchor for the bridge that Judson envisioned – one that will always connect our two people and our common values of preserving and sharing the wealth of our natural environment and our cultures.”