The ancient Marshallese art of canoe navigation has been at risk of extinction, with only a handful of master navigators remaining. Traditionally Marshallese were skilled open ocean navigators who relied on the stars, wave reflection and refraction, ocean currents, weather and explicit chants to navigate between small atolls and over vast ocean distances. However, Marshallese are one of the only, if not the only, indigenous peoples in the world that are able to navigate completely without the use of the stars. Like traditional canoe building and most other traditional skills, navigation and weather reading knowledge is closely held in the families in order to safeguard the knowledge. In 2001, one of the last surviving navigators trained in the traditional manner, Captain Korent Joel, came to Alson and Dennis and offered to share his knowledge in order to preserve it for future generations of Marshallese.  Dennis immediately contacted Dr. Ben Finney, who had recently retired as Chair of Anthropology at the University of Hawaii, in order to help in the development of the documentation project. WAM has teamed with University of Hawaii anthropologist Ben Finney, oceanographer Mark Merrifield and anthropology graduate student Joe Genz to document this master navigator’s knowledge. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Hawaii Sea Grant College Program and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, these University of Hawaii researchers are working to document this ancient and almost-lost skill. In addition to Captain Korent’s knowledge of wave patterns used in navigation, WAM is working with other knowledgeable elders to document the associated stories, legends and chants, as well as traditional weather forecasting and astronomy. These include Thomas Bokin, Isao Ekilang, Anno Asaia, Willie Mwekto, and Francis Livai. Without the help and knowledge of these respected navigators, this project would not exist.

This documentation of the traditional navigation techniques will be developed into a formal training course in traditional non-instrument navigation during the first half of the planning period. In the second half of the planning period it is proposed that the first canoe navigation training course will be formally introduced into WAM’s programs with plans for integration into the regular school curriculum.

Traditional Navigator Korent Joel of Rongelap Atoll is holding his traditional stick charts used for navigation (Marshall Islands are known for their stick charts).