When you talk to Kaleo Wong, the passion he has for his Hawaiian culture is practically palpable. From his efforts to learn the Hawaiian language, to his work with Hōkūle‘a, he puts a youthful face on the Hawaiian Renaissance. Yet for Kaleo, it is in large part because of Hōkūle‘a that he has dedicated so much of his adult life to Hawaiian traditions and culture. Intrigued by the canoe and its voyages from a young age, Kaleo would follow Hōkūle‘a’s travels on an old computer screen. This was at a time when many Hawaiians were ashamed of their heritage and identity and there had been a push to assimilate more with mainland culture. Yet when Hōkūle‘a was successful in its initial voyage to Tahiti and back, it created a paradigm shift and made people realize that they were capable of so much more. “It made Hawaiians question what else can we do,” Kaleo explains. “We went from being ashamed of being Hawaiian to being very proud of it to the point that non-Hawaiians want to be Hawaiian! That’s what Hōkūle‘a means to me -- the reclamation of identity. We can and we did start to reclaim our identity,” he continues. “We started bringing back different cultural practices, including the revitalisation of our language.”
Kaleo was one of the Hawaiians who committed to becoming fluent in Hawaiian. He is currently completing an MA in Hawaiian language at the University of Hawai‘i, and represents part of the 5% of Hawaiians who speak the language. He’s not the only one… On his last sail three out of the 12 crew members spoke Hawaiian -- testament to the changing times. But for Kaleo, the biggest challenge is not the language, but rather an internal one, of trusting in the knowledge passed down to him and that he won’t let his crew down. “At the beginning of the Worldwide Voyage, I had to accept the role that I was put into as a navigator and navigation student along with the heaviness of that position,” Kaleo tells us. “I’d been sailing a while, yet the biggest challenge was accepting that and believing I could do it. The more I have done the easier that has got... and I’m a lot more confident now as I’ve done a few legs as head navigator. Yet just today,” he continues, “Uncle Bruce told me that although he’s completed many voyages successfully, the hardest thing on any voyage is to leave the dock... To let the lines go and begin the voyage. Until you do that you will never be ready.”
Today, Kaleo is conquering life both on and off the canoe. He currently works at the Ulupō Heiau State Historic Site -- a sacred site in Oʻahu -- where he helps host groups who come down to learn the stories of the site, how their ancestors used it, and how it ties back to the idea of community. For Kaleo, this concept of community offers many parallels to the early navigators. “The power of the navigator isn’t gained by what he does on the canoe,” Kaleo says, “But by how they navigate their community.”
Kaleo is doing a good job of continuing this tradition in his own generation.