Saori Ogura Spotlights Nainoa Thompson

By Saori Ogura, Speaker Ambassador at the 2019 Planetary Health Annual Meeting

“You need to be aware of the language of the Earth” — Charles Lacy Veach

At the Planetary Health conference 2019, we had the privilege of having Nainoa Thompson present​. Nainoa ​gave the final keynote lecture on a story about a “black road of extinction,” and how ​a “transformative renaissance” toward living sustainably in the world might be made possible through a revitalization of ancient techniques and acknowledging humanity’s connections with the world. ​

Nainoa is the president of the Polynesian Navigation Society, based in Hawai’i. He is a student of the great navigator Mau Piailug, the master Micronesian navigator. In 1976, Mau successfully sailed from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti with Hōkūleʻa, a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, with his non-instrument, traditional voyaging techniques — reading the stars, waves and birds. Nainoa considers this success as the beginning of a renaissance. ​In his twenties, Nainoa became Mau’s student, trained on the island of Satawai, and successfully traveled across the globe following his training to become a Polynesian navigator. On top of his expertise in traditional Polynesian voyaging techniques and wisdom, ​Nainoa​ earned his BA from the University of Hawai’i in Ocean Science. Nainoa is a global leader who holds knowledge of both Indigenous and Western science.

In his keynote speech, he told his story of his best friend, Charles Lacy Veach, who was an astronaut on the space shuttle Columbia​. They travelled at the same time — ​Lacy in space, and Nainoa on the ocean​ — ​sharing in their passion and dreams for exploration​. Nainoa reflects on Lacy’s encouragement to pursue his dream to sail with Hōkūleʻa. Lacy said, “You need to go. You have the obligation to understand the Earth.” Lacy understood the terrible consequence of being disconnected to the Earth, which in his view had to do with values​. He asked — “Is the culture of humankind still kind and compassionate enough to make a change?”

Humbly linking to these great thinkers and explorers, my PhD work also relates to exploring our connections to the Earth. At the core, my PhD work asks who we are as human beings on the planet, and how we could cultivate a sensibility to see the interconnections between humans and non-human beings. My research seeks the meanings of human knowledge and activities that have been carried out for thousands of years and that contributed to humanity’s survival. Specifically, my research investigates the meaning of the practices surrounding the growing of Indigenous small grains and what those practices signify to the community through occupational science lens.

After my conversation with Nainoa over the mentorship lunch, he kindly asked me to join his training to be a navigator. It was a great honor to receive this invitation, as acquiring the skills has been my dream. He said we need 10 million navigators to change our societies, who can see the world differently — having a lens to see the world with connections to the land/earth with ancient wisdom that would transform our world.

Nainoa’s way of life and his passion touches a mission of planetary health — to see and re-cultivate​ the connections between humans and the planet. ​A key message from Nainoa was that “we have to have ​the​ right values to navigate science.” Nainoa is bringing this to life through working with youth to sail together and help them become voyagers. Nainoa and his clue is now preparing for another important voyage with his canoe. And in the meantime, he is dedicating his effort to give younger generation new lenses to see the world and skills to engage in the connections through his trainings. Nainoa believes in education as he remembered his best friend Lacy that “he was trying to get children to understand the power of exploration is the pathway to create change.”

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Planetary Health Alliance or its members.

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