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East meets West as Florida Tribes greet Hawaiian canoe crew

Chairman James E. Billie's Executive Assistant Trishanna Storm bestows a gift of Seminole medicine beads to Hawaiian canoe Captain Nainoa Thompson.
Chairman James E. Billie’s Executive Assistant Trishanna Storm bestows a gift of Seminole medicine beads to Hawaiian canoe Captain Nainoa Thompson.

EVERGLADES CITY —The brackish waters of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands were just too shallow in March to allow the a famous “canoe” to reach the docks of the Everglades National Park Gulf Coast Visitor Center.

The Hōkūleʻa, a performance-accurate full-scale replica of a waʻa kaulua, was forced to anchor miles out in Florida Bay following the 90-mile trip from its previous port of call in Key West. Spanning just over 61 feet, the Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe carried a crew of 13 and a mission to spread peace, goodwill and environmental consciousness around the globe.

Seminole Tribal citizen J.D. Bowers boarded the boat in Key West and sailed to Everglades City, regaling the Hawaiian seafarers with cultural and historical stories about the Seminoles and Southwest Florida. Bowers and the rest of the crew, under the direction of Captain Kalepa Baybayan, were brought to shore by motorboat. Bowers sent blog messages as they traveled and invited Tribal citizens to meet the boat in Everglades City.

Canoe owner, the Polynesian Voyaging Society, and Kanaka Maoli – the indigenous people of Hawaii – are sailing the catamaran-like Hōkūleʻa around the world. They arrived in Everglades City having completed about half the journey.

A large crowd that included representatives from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida and the Original Miccosukee Simanolee Nation Aboriginal People (Independents) waited at the Visitor Center to welcome the current crew of the renowned boat that has sailed continuously since 1976 while greeting and honoring natives and indigenous peoples everywhere. Since its maiden voyage to Tahiti and back, Hōkūle‘a has sailed nine expeditions to Micronesia, Polynesia, Japan, Canada and the United States while employing ancient wayfaring celestial navigation techniques.

“Our purpose is to lift up ancestral wisdom and to inspire the world to draw from ancient knowledge to protect our environment and its precious resources, especially the oceans and waterways,” wrote Dr. Randie Kamuela Fong, with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, in a pre-visit letter to the Seminole Tribe.

The voyage’s name is Mālama Honua, which means “caring for Island Earth.”

Just after sunrise, Independent leader Bobby C. Billie conducted a private “circle” ceremony for the crew, which included four females, at an undisclosed location in Everglades City. Later, as the foggy morning changed into a sun-splashed Florida day, a crowd gathered at the Visitor Center and included surprised tourists and dozens of Hawaiian natives now living in Florida who follow the exploits of the Hōkūleʻa online.

The singing and dancing canoe crew greeted officials from the Seminole Tribe of Florida and other Florida Indians in a “Ceremony of Friendship” at noon. Medicine man Bobby Henry provided a prayer of blessing and statement in his native Miccosukee language, which was interpreted by Tribal language coordinator Herbert Jim. Speeches, singing, dance demonstrations and gift exchanges kept the ever-growing crowd clapping.

Other Tribal citizens present included Chairman James E. Billie and Chairman’s Executive Assistant Trishanna Storm.

Following a friendship dance led by Henry and family, which featured a huge circle of hand-holding friends, the crew returned to work. The next stop later that afternoon was Fort Myers, where the boat went through the locks, down the Caloosahatchee River, across Lake Okeechobee and arrived at Titusville Municipal Marina on the East Coast.

Other scheduled stops for Hōkūleʻa include South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, D.C., New York City and New England by June 8 for World Oceans Day.