The “Old Men” of Tautira

The “Old Men” of Tautira
by Sam Low

You could imagine a meeting like this in a thatch-roofed canoe house hundreds of years ago with the visitors’ double-hull voyaging canoe drawn up on the beach outside. But this meeting is held in the white-washed conference room of Tautira’s mayor – Sane Matehau – and the date is January 27th, the year 2000. Only the feeling is ancient – a sharing of stories by friends from distant islands, a bonding together of a wide-spread `ohana.

Outside the conference room, the setting sun colors clouds over nearby mountains and a cool wind washes ashore over the reef. Inside, we are seated in a circle with representatives of Tautira’s community, including Kahu from the Protestant, Catholic and Mormon churches. Sane has called the gathering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the joining of Tautira’s people with the people of Hawai`i.

The first to speak is Tutaha Salmon. For a Tahitian, he appears almost delicate, yet his bearing is dignified, suggesting confidence. His graying hair indicates he may be in his seventies. Tutaha was once the mayor of Tautira – a position now held by Sane – his son-in-law. He is now the governor of a large Tahitian district including Tautira and three other towns: Faaone, Taravao and Pueu.

“It’s an honor that whenever Hokule`a sails to Tahiti she lands here in Tautira,” Tutaha tells us. “How many times have you come? I cannot count them. But what’s important is that you are now our family – our brothers and sisters.”

Following protocol that is ancient, Tutaha then speaks of his elders. The enfolding story of Hokule`a’s relationship with Tautira began with “the old men” – a six-man canoe team who paddled their way into the history books

“Our dream of cultural exchange was born twenty-five years ago. In those days the man I remember first is Puaniho. He has now passed on but he showed us the way. He was a quiet man, but powerful. There was Mate Hoatua the steersman on the canoe from Haleolono to Waikiki. He steered the whole way, without relief. Henere, Tevae, Nanua and Vahirua paddled the canoe. We called them “the old men” because their minimum age was fifty. This is our time to remember them and to tie that rope tight to the mast.”

“The old men” of Tautira’s Maire Nui canoe club first traveled to Hawai`i in 1975 to compete in the Moloka`i race. Pinky Thompson next rose to speak in response to Tutaha’s welcome.

“I want you to know that we feel at home ever since you took a strange looking Hawaiian youth into your homes 25 years ago, my son Nainoa. You recognized immediately that he was a stranger in a land that was strange to him and you malama-ed [took care of] him.”

Nainoa came to Tautira in 1995 as a member of Hokule`a’s crew. He recognized immediately that the “old men” of Maire nui paddled differently then any team in Hawai`i.

“They were so smooth,” Nainoa recalls, “their movements were fluid, no lost energy, and their canoe seemed to leap forward – faster than anything I had every seen.”

He wanted to learn from them and in 1977 he got the chance. In that year’s Moloka`i race, Nainoa’s team from Hui Nalu lined up next to “the old men.”

“They were twice our age, and we were a pretty strong crew but they left us in their wake, paddling easily.”

In that same year, Nainoa traveled to Marina del Rey to serve on a motor boat escorting Maire Nui in the Race to Newport Beach, California.

“They finished the race, took a shower, and were drinking a beer before the second place canoe arrived. They beat them by an hour and 4 minutes.”

Nainoa invited Maire Nui to stay in Niu Valley when they came to Hawai`i in 1977 for the Moloka`i race and again in 1978 when they won the koa division for the third consecutive time – retiring the famous Outrigger Canoe Club cup to an exhibit case at Sane Matehau’s home in Tautira. Over the years, visits by Maire Nui to Hawai`i and by Hawaiians to Tahiti continued. Puaniho built a Koa canoe for Hui Nalu and later another famous Tautira canoe builder flew to Kona to build six Koa canoes – helping to inspire a renewal in traditional canoe building that thrives today.

Nainoa, Bruce, Pinky and their Hui Nalu colleagues studied the Tahitian way of paddling and became champions themselves. Pinky remembered those moments in his presentation at the Mayor’s office.

“You helped us become champion paddlers, but you did much more than that. You helped us to return pride to our Polynesian people by restoring our native craft of canoe building and paddling.”

“’The old men’ taught us what it means to be champs,” Nainoa added. “It’s not about outward appearance. It’s about what happens inside. They didn’t talk much because they knew that the mana comes from within. They didn’t think of themselves representing just a club – they represented all their people.”