From lost knowledge to the open ocean

A trip to remote Pacific islands made Terence Huwe think about connecting patterns in knowledge and the librarian's role in educating, exciting and empowering user communities. 

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In March 2018 my partner and I visited the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands (CNMI), one of the most remote island chains in the Pacific Ocean, to see our friends Peter and Emma Perez. Pete and Emma are Marianas Islanders (known as Chamorros, as well as Carolineans), and relocated from California to Saipan. They founded a non-profit called 500 Sails, with an ambitious goal: to restart the art of building the Marianas outrigger canoe, known as the Flying Proa. They also have related non-profit ventures, including an open water swimming programme, and Okeanos Marianas, which promotes sustainable sailing and cargo operations using ocean-going catamarans, known as vaka motu. But there is one link between their many projects: the knowledge required to build canoes and navigate is ancient—and linked to cultural identity.

The gulf between spoken traditions and the digital world would seem to be huge, but while in the Marianas I developed another point of view: there is no gulf, only opportunity and the mandate to connect patterns in knowledge. On Saipan, the excitement engendered by building Flying Proas is contagious, and it demonstrates how lost history can be rediscovered—and restarted. I found remarkable parallels between this sailing dream, and the librarian’s charge to educate, empower, and activate our user communities.

The precarious journey of spoken traditions

Since the 1600s the Marianas have exchanged colonial overseers—first the Spanish, but also Germans, Japanese, and lastly Americans. None of these colonial powers valued local traditions, and much indigenous wisdom was lost.

When the Spanish first arrived at Guam and the Northern Marianas (Guam remains a U.S. colony, while CNMI is a commonwealth), they were amazed to see hundreds of outriggers speeding over the waters around the islands—reaching speeds of 20 miles per hour and higher. The rigging of the Flying Proa is distinct from the better-known Polynesian outrigger, enabling sailors to switch directions without ‘coming about’. They simply detach one end of the sail, and then attach the other end. The ingenious mast and spars maximise wind capture, which vastly increases the speed and agility of the Proa.

This sailing tradition has been at risk of being lost. But 500 Sails has revived the Proa, and has gained wide attention in doing so. Indeed, while visiting the Perez family we were joined by the well-known German global sailor and adventurer, Burghard Pieske—who owns a Proa and sails it in the (chillier) waters of the Atlantic. Pete and Emma Perez were also named Persons of the Year for 2017 by the Saipan Times. The reasons for this attention are not hard to fathom: sailing a Flying Proa is an utterly exciting and unique experience. 

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