Ka Mo‘olelo o Au Hou ma Wakinekona, D.C. | The Story Behind the Hawaiian Canoe in Washington, D.C.

For thousands of years, Native Hawaiians have traveled the Pacific in traditional voyaging canoes. A fixture on the National Mall for almost 20 years now, a wa‘a (Hawaiian canoe) named Au Hou has called Washington, D.C. home since the National Museum of the American Indian’s grand opening in 2004.

Hawaiian wa'a (canoe)
On July 18, 2005, the canoe Au Hou was launched in the Potomac River in a ceremony reminiscent of the Native Hawaii tradition to let canoes “drink of the sea” or be partially submerged using ocean water collected from the eight channels that separate each Hawaiian island. The ceremony accepts the canoe as a living entity, allowing the canoe to never want to “drink” again or sink. It was conducted by members of Friends of Hokule‘a & Hawai‘iloa, a nonprofit organization dedicated to Hawaiian canoe-building traditions. Smithsonian NMAI

A fixture on the National Mall for almost 20 years now, this wa‘a (Hawaiian canoe) has called Washington, D.C. home since the National Museum of the American Indian’s grand opening in 2004. The canoe was one of four boats created for display in the museum’s Potomac Atrium, both to showcase the diversity of cultures represented within the museum’s hemispheric scope, and to highlight the connectedness of certain Indigenous traditions, including waterfaring. It is an 18-foot fishing canoe with a single hull made of koa (Acacia koa) wood and outrigger float made of wiliwili (Erythrina sandwicensis) and hau (Hibiscus tiliaceus).

The wa‘a was given the name Au Hou, meaning “New Era,” by its creators. Perhaps in reference to the aspirational mission of the museum, the ushering in of a new era of Indigenous cultural pride, but also perhaps in reference to the historical circumstances of the canoe’s creation.

A gift from the Friends of Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘iloa, Au Hou was designed and carved by master canoe builder Wright ‘Elemakule Bowman Jr., also called “Wrighto” or “Bo.” Bowman Jr. was an incredible influence on the renewal and evolution of canoe building since he started woodworking in the 1960s in his father’s shop. Wrighto supervised the construction of Hawaiiloa, a massive 57-foot double-hulled canoe, which in 1993 was the first canoe of its stature to be built in over 100 years. He was known to be very generous with his knowledge, teaching anyone who was willing to learn.

Invigorated by the civil rights and environmentalist movements of the 1960s, Hawai‘i experienced a multi-faceted cultural resurgence known as the second Hawaiian Renaissance in the early 1970s and into the 1980s. And with the help of Micronesian master navigators, Hawaiians revived the practice of traditional non-instrumental wayfinding. (Fun fact: Hawai‘i’s first cultural Renaissance took place under King Kalākaua’s reign in the 1880s). In 1976, the famed wa‘a Hōkūlea completed its historic voyage from Hawai’i to Tahiti, retracing the route taken by early Polynesian navigators to discover the Hawaiian islands. Hōkūle‘a was a modern wa‘a built with modern materials, so in 1990 the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out to create a traditionally-built voyaging canoe made entirely of materials native to Hawai’i. This canoe would be called Hawai‘iloa.

Hawai‘iloa was a monumental project, and unfortunately, after searching hundreds of square miles of native Hawaiian forests, the builders could not locate a single koa tree large enough to serve as one of the hulls. After a chance meeting between a Native Hawaiian and a Native Alaskan in Honolulu, an arrangement was made to donate two Sitka spruce trees from Alaska for the construction of the Hawai‘iloa. The cross-Pacific collaboration proved a success, construction began in 1991, and Hawai‘iloa made its journey to the Marquesas Islands and back to Hawai’i in 1993.

All this set the stage for Bowman Jr. to construct a canoe made entirely of native wood and materials for a global audience. Au Hou actually took nearly 16 years to create from start to finish. Although it was mainly carved and constructed in Hawai‘i, Au Hou in fact began its life in Washington, DC at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 1989. Wrighto began carving the hull from a whole koa log as part of a demonstration for festival visitors on the National Mall. The partially finished hull then made its way back to Hawai‘i, where it took a back seat to the construction of Hawai‘iloa.

A Hawaiian canoe is guided into the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
The Hawaiian canoe Au Hou is placed into the Potomac River for a ceremony to allow it to "drink of the sea." Smithsonian NMAI

Sadly, Wright Bowman Jr. passed away shortly after the completion of Hawai‘iloa, and Au Hou was left unfinished. Students of Bowman Jr.’s and volunteers with the Friends of Hōkūle‘a and Hawai‘iloa finished constructing the wa‘a (hull), ‘iako (outriggers) and ama (arms) of the canoe in Wrighto’s honor. The carved pieces were then shipped to Washington, D.C. where the canoe builders completed the lashing and assembly of the boat during the NMAI’s opening events as a demonstration for visitors. 

On July 18, 2005, the completed wa‘a was taken out to the Potomac River for a ceremony to allow the wa‘a to “drink of the sea” or be partially submerged in ocean water. The builders brought wai (water) collected from the eight channels connecting the Hawaiian Islands to Washington, D.C., so that Au Hou could get a taste of home, before being launched into the Potomac.

Since then, Au Hou has stayed in Washington, DC, often being visited by folks from Hawai’i when they come to the museum. Most days Au Hou greets guests and staff alike from its spot in the corner of the first floor atrium and is visited by many hands throughout the day. As part of the museum’s teaching collection, the wa‘a is one of the objects visitors are able to touch and is meant to be handled by the public.

Cultural interpreter Gabbi C. K. Lee (Kanaka ‘Ōiwi) places her hand on the wa'a, or Hawaiian canoe, in the Potomac Atrium at the National Museum of the American Indian. Smithsonian NMAI

The beauty of the Hawaiian renaissance and the revival of wa‘a-building is that it brings people together as ‘ohana (family). Like an island, a canoe requires care. It takes time and many hands to build, repair, and maintain. When people take the time to tend to the areas that need care, then the whole wa‘a benefits. In the same way, when we strengthen the bonds in our lives and relationships, it is for the good of all.

In Hawaiian culture, we have proverbial sayings which we call ‘ōlelo no’eau. One such saying goes, “He wa‘a, he moku. He moku, he wa‘a,” literally meaning, “A canoe is an island. An island is a canoe.” This deep reflexive metaphor helps us understand, both as Hawaiians and as humans, that on an island, your resources are finite. And the same goes for our planet Earth, an island in a sea of space. The traditional knowledge embedded in our navigation practices and in building canoes bring light to the universal facts of life. We only have one planet, and we need to conserve its resources. We all call this planet home, and we must work together to take care of it.

Au Hou is currently on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.