Foreign Ambassador

Doug Herman FLUX Hawaii

Images by Bryce Johnson

Doug Herman is nervous. In five days, he will sail from Honolulu Harbor to Hilo Bay on a three-day journey aboard the Hikianalia, the sister vessel of the famed voyaging canoe, Hōkūle‘a. The 56-year-old geographer has been fascinated by Polynesian voyaging since he arrived to teach at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa in 1984, just eight years after members of the Polynesian Voyaging Society sailed Hōkūle‘a from Hawai‘i to Tahiti, thus disproving previously held theories of Polynesian settlement. But the Hikianalia voyage will be Herman’s first on the open ocean. “I have been giving talks on traditional navigation [for years], but I have no real, physical knowledge of even being on the boat away from the dock,” says Herman, who sits cross-legged on a rattan sofa in a cozy holiday rental on Kaua‘i, the island on which he’s chosen to conduct interviews for a separate research project. “I want to be able to translate all this book knowledge and embody it.”

Herman is the senior geographer at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. He is also the creator of Pacific Worlds, an indigenous geography project that works to preserve traditional cultural knowledge throughout the Pacific Islands and package it into a place-based curriculum for educators.

Although he lives in Baltimore, Maryland, Herman’s research has, for the past 25 years, focused exclusively on Hawai‘i and the Pacific Islands. Beginning in 2009, he spent three years researching traditional canoe-making for a major exhibition for the Smithsonian titled Aloha Aina: Hawaii, the Canoe, and the World, conducting more than 100 interviews with contemporary navigators, carvers, artisans, featherworkers, society leaders, activists, and scholars. Around the same time, he built his own 16-foot outrigger canoe (based on plans by famed multihull boat designer James Wharram) and chronicled the experience for the Smithsonian’s blog. For centuries in Hawai‘i, kahuna kalai wa‘a, or master canoe builders, were talented elites with sacred knowledge of how to turn the natural arbors of the land into sleek, durable vessels of the sea. “Offerings were made at the base of the tree to the gods, with prayers, a small black pig, coconut, red fish, and ‘awa, a ceremonial beverage more commonly known as kava,” Herman wrote on his blog in June 2013. “For a bigger and more important canoe for a noted chief, a human sacrifice might be deemed necessary.”


Over the years, Herman has become an unofficial ambassador of Hawai‘i, writing for a national audience about such things as the cultural implications of building a new telescope on Mauna Kea on the Big Island, or the Polynesians’ place among history’s greatest navigators. “Polynesian migration resides among the greatest single human adventures of all time,” Herman wrote for the online edition of Smithsonian Magazine. “Here were small-island peoples using stone tools, crafting rope from coconut husks and stitching pandanus leaves into sails to build an ocean-going craft that could journey 2,500 miles and back again.”

Although Hikianalia’s voyage from O‘ahu to Hilo should be a cakewalk compared to those early voyages—as the double-hulled canoe was outfitted with engines and GPS—Herman feels a slight trepidation at the prospect of crossing the ‘Alenuihāhā Channel, a 26-mile strait between Maui and the Big Island that is generally regarded as the most dangerous channel in the Hawaiian Islands. “When I told the Polynesian Voyaging Society guys that that’s the leg I wanted to do, they said, ‘You’re doing that one? You’re gonna need some gear,’” Herman recalls. The channel’s name, roughly translated, means “great billows, smashing,” and winds in this stretch of the Pacific, which are funneled between the twin peaks of Mauna Kea and Haleakalā on Maui, can reach 50 miles an hour, with swells topping 40 feet. It’s not just the danger that weighs on Herman’s mind. The trip is something of a test for the scholar, whose ultimate goal is to secure a spot on a voyaging leg of the Hōkūle‘a, currently in the midst of a voyage around the world. “I have to prove that I can survive on a canoe before they’re gonna put me on a real voyage,” he explains.

For now, Herman is trying to focus his mind here in Hā‘ena on Kaua‘i’s north shore. The community is one of seven sites Herman has documented as part of Pacific Worlds, which spun out of a program launched by the Smithsonian in 1999 to help bridge computer technology and traditional cultural beliefs and practices—two things that, at the time, seemed diametrically opposed in many native communities in the United States. Herman initially worked with a Hopi community in Arizona on the project but quickly saw its potential for the Pacific Islands. He launched Pacific Worlds in 2000, weaving together geographic research with myths and oral histories told to him by elders and community members.

Voyaging, of course, played an important role in the curriculum, which has been adopted by institutions throughout the Pacific, from elementary schools to colleges. The topic of Polynesian migration was one of the first lessons students learned and discussed. Herman hoped the project would inspire others to follow in Pacific Worlds’ footsteps, which for a while seemed likely to happen. “It was all going really well until No Child Left Behind came along and wiped out all the funding for cultural education,” he remembers. Years later, Polynesian canoe culture is woven into schools throughout Hawai‘i, and Herman aims to reboot his project with an added emphasis on climate change. “There’s that Hawaiian proverb, hewa‘a he moku, he moku hewa‘a, ‘the canoe is an island, the island is a canoe,’” he quotes. “Climate change is reminding us that the world is an island.”


As early as he can remember, Herman has been drawn to cultures other than his own. He grew up in Washington, D.C., in a home filled with Asian art and stories of his father’s time in Japan, where the longtime moderator of Face the Nation lived while covering the Korean War as a CBS war correspondent. Herman inherited his father’s fascination with all things abroad, and became even more interested after learning about Eastern religions in school. At Dartmouth College, his father’s alma mater, Herman majored in religion and spent two months at an orthodox Chinese Zen monastery in Northern California. There, waking up at 3:30 a.m. and eating just one meal a day, spiritual practice became more than an academic pursuit. It would transform Herman’s life. When he returned to Dartmouth, what had already seemed foreign now seemed totally alien. “I was confused by the values of American culture. It wasn’t making sense to me, particularly at this preppy college,” he recalls.

Nearing graduation, Herman came across a poster advertising the East-West Center in Hawai‘i. “I didn’t know anything about Hawai‘i, but I was really interested in Asia,” he says. Reading it, he found a place where he might fit in, but his application wasn’t accepted. The University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, however, gave him a teaching assistantship. Herman used what he learned to write about the similarities between Buddhist principles and the cultural practices of many Pacific Islanders, but in 1984, he had his sights set on Asia, envisioning a career in economic development or urban planning in India or China. For Herman, Hawai‘i was just a stopover.

Two years into his master’s degree, however, the adventurous geographer went on a solo-hiking trip along Kaua‘i’s Nā Pali Coast to the remote Kalalau Valley, marking his first encounter with a wilder, more pristine Hawai‘i. He recalls reaching a high point in the valley and being dwarfed by its “cathedral-like” cliffs, where he had a second epiphany. “I knew, as I looked out from a high point in the middle of the valley, that the closest landfall in that direction was [Russia’s] Kamchatka Peninsula, thousands of miles away,” he says. Thinking about the first Polynesians to set foot in Hawai‘i, and what it would have been like to cross the ocean in a canoe, he gained a new respect for their way of life. He returned to Honolulu and went straight to the office of Abraham Pi‘ianai‘a, the director of UH’s Hawaiian Studies program at the time. After less than an hour, Asia was a distant memory. For Herman, Hawai‘i was now the focus.


Like so many other migratory creatures, Herman eventually returned home. In 2007, he joined the staff at the National Museum of the American Indian, writing scholarly articles, editing a variety of books, and occasionally teaching museumgoers about the materials used in ancient Polynesian voyaging. But the fact of Herman’s ancestry—that he isn’t American Indian or Native Hawaiian himself—has created conflict. “My museum does not recognize me as an ambassador of Hawai‘i because I’m not native,” Herman says. When he recently suggested that he demonstrate traditional Hawaiian canoe carving at a festival devoted to Hawaiian culture, the Smithsonian’s organizers demurred. “When push came to shove, it was because I’m not Hawaiian,” according to Herman.

The biggest blow came when, for reasons that were never explained to him, the Aloha Aina exhibition—which he had been spearheading for three years—was unexpectedly canceled. “It just suddenly, phwoot!, disappeared off the schedule,” Herman recalls. (The decision may have stemmed from a growing desire in Native Hawaiian communities to be treated as an independent nation, and to not be lumped in with the American Indian tribes of North America. Museum staff, however, did not confirm a specific reason for the exhibition’s cancellation.)

These situations have arisen with more regularity, as the role of outsiders in native and minority communities—informed by centuries of colonialism and trauma—has been debated for decades. Most recently, Black Lives Matter has brought the debate to the fore, with white “allies” being asked to “stay off the megaphone,” as one set of instructions at a Boston protest put it, and Herman has earned the trust of the community by doing just that. Much of the text included in the Pacific Worlds curriculum comes directly from community leaders, and Herman gives his interview subjects near total control over what ultimately is published. But he has encountered skepticism along the way. When he does, Herman often relies on his academic pedigree. “In Hawaiian culture, everything is [based on] genealogy, so in certain settings, I will recite my [academic] genealogy, which is Abraham Pi‘inai‘a, Rubellite Kawena Johnson, Puakea Nogelmeier—and I’ll do it in Hawaiian,” says Herman, who speaks the language fluently.

In the 1990s, during what he calls the “super hot” days of the sovereignty movement—when Haunani-Kay Trask, an oft-quoted indigenous rights activist, was the director of the Hawaiian Studies program—Herman was more than a little aware of the color of his skin. “It was a very difficult time to be white, and particularly a white male scholar doing Native Hawaiian stuff,” he says. “I managed to fly under the radar, partly because I was learning Hawaiian. Part of it—and I’ve only realized this in recent years—is that I don’t really identify with white American culture. I never have. I’m somewhere in the middle in my sense of myself. So I just didn’t feel like [they were] talking about me. But I knew that they could be, and that that gun could be pointed at me. And that gun has been pointed at me over the years. But only briefly.”

For some, ancestry is unimportant. At a community workday in Hā‘ena, several members of the local environmental group Hui Maka‘ainana o Makana told Herman that the community is not defined by race. The community, they said, is “whoever shows up.” Few have demonstrated this attitude more powerfully—or personally—than Lynette Hi‘ilani Cruz, an anthropologist and kupuna in residence at Hawai‘i Pacific University, who adopted Herman into her family as her hānai brother. Cruz, who has been involved with the Hawaiian sovereignty movement, met Herman 20 years ago and says she was struck by “his understanding of Hawaiian history and [his] support for the kind of work we were doing.” Over time, their relationship deepened, and one day, Cruz proposed that he join her family. “I think he was taken aback by it,” she says. “Because that’s a big deal, yeah?” Of the decision, Cruz adds, “It’s not a head thing. It’s a gut thing.”

Doug Herman FLUX Hawaii

For Herman, there could be no greater symbol of acceptance. And yet he also accepts that he still may not have a place among all local scholars. “They don’t need me,” he says. “My role, I think, is to communicate to the rest of the world.” Specifically, Cruz says Herman is an important voice and resource in the capital. When he left Hawai‘i for Washington, D.C. she told him there was a reason for his being there. A few years ago, at least one of those reasons became clear.

In 2012, Cruz and several other activists traveled to the country’s capital to raise awareness about the 1897 Ku‘e Petition, which was uncovered by scholar Noenoe K. Silva in 1996. The petition had garnered more than 20,000 signatures from Hawaiians who opposed U.S. annexation. Among the events involved in the trip was a dramatic reenactment of a meeting between members of the Hui Aloha ‘Āina, a group of women who had organized in support of Queen Lili‘uokalani. Herman helped Cruz secure a venue for the reenactment and, because he speaks Hawaiian, even played the role of the minister. “The minister was part haole, so Doug actually fit the part,” Cruz says with a laugh.

Today, a copy of the Ku‘e Petition is on display as part of E Mau Ke Ea: The Sovereign Hawaiian Nation, an exhibition on Hawaiian sovereignty that spun out of Herman’s work on Aloha Aina. The exhibit, which opened January 2016, will run through 2017 and will be on display when the Hōkūle‘a reaches D.C. in May 2016. In honor of its arrival, the museum has planned a slew of special events, but Herman isn’t sure he’ll attend. He hopes to be on the canoe itself. “That’s a better place for me,” he says.


When Herman arrives at the Marine Education Training Center in Sand Island, the Hikianalia is nowhere in sight. The crew—a mix of longtime voyagers and new initiates—has little choice but to wait. Some make last-minute supply runs. Others sleep or talk story. It’s dark by the time Hikianalia finally arrives, having been delayed by an unscheduled stop in Waiānae. Because of the late start, and strong winds out of the east, the canoe has to be towed all the way to Maui by the Ho‘okela, a chartered fishing boat. On day two, the crew finally sets sail, and things go smoothly—until they reach the ‘Alenuihāhā Channel.

As the sun sinks behind them that second night, winds whip the water, churning out the giant black billows for which the channel is named, and causing the canoe to pitch as it crests the now 15-foot swells. Despite the technology onboard, navigators on the Hikianalia rely on the sun, stars, and waves to chart the canoe’s course. Using these methods, watch captain, Heather Nahaku Kalei, who sailed from Samoa to New Zealand on the Hōkūle‘a in 2014, realizes that the canoe has been pushed off course. The crew needs to bear northeast. “But when we try to tack, we can’t turn the canoe,” Herman recalls. The winds are too strong. Two crewmembers also are out of commission. “One’s seasick, and the other’s knee had gone out,” he says. “So they were waking us up for half-hour shifts, between midnight and 6 a.m., to come out and help.”

The crew never reaches Hilo. That night, the captain, Ben Perkins, gives the order to tow the canoe once again, this time to the closer Big Island destination of Kawaihae, which the Hikianalia reaches without further incident. Despite the trials, Herman is not dissuaded. In fact, he feels an even greater desire to join the crew of the Hōkūle‘a, and recalls the high point of his trip, when on a particularly clear night beneath the stars, he is posted at the steering paddle. Kalei instructs him to hold the course. He looks up at the sky to find Mars glowing brighter than any star, and uses the planet as a guide, holding the canoe steady so that the planet remains just above the railing. “This is what I’d been lecturing about, how to navigate and hold a course relative to the stars,” he says.

The significance of this moment recalls the journey Herman undertook more than 30 years before at the monastery, when an intellectual pursuit became a lived experience. As Herman wrote in an essay that appeared in 2013’s A Deeper Sense of Place: Stories and Journeys of Indigenous-Academic Collaboration, “Belief and faith are means … but are not ends in themselves. Texts show the way, but one still has to make the trip.”

This story is part of our Migration Issue.

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