Medical doctor on mission to perpetuate 'Vaka Taumako'

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Island Sun Newspaper, Pacific Islands

THE first indigenous Taumako Islander in the Duff Group to go to university is on a mission to pass on his ancestors’ century old knowledge of constructing ‘vaka’ and navigational skills.

The ‘vaka’ canoe and voyaging is synonymous with the Polynesian group of people in the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Today, however, the full and authentically ancient practice of the Polynesian voyaging arts is found at Taumako Island of the Duff Group, which is one of eight Polynesian islands in the Melanesian region of the Solomon Islands.

The remoteness of the Duff Group, specifically the Polynesian island of Taumako, means accessibility may have also contributed to this tradition being unknown in the Pacific region.

Dr Salopuka is on a voyage to perpetuate the knowledge of Lata – the Polynesian voyager who was the first to try and revive his ancestors' skills in using only ancient materials, methods, designs and tools to build voyaging canoes and navigate.

Part of transferring these skills to the younger generation of Taumako Island is to relay the story to a global audience, which is what Dr Salopuka is doing when he did two presentations at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“We are not trying to revive the skills of making vaka, but perpetuating the knowledge, to share and collaborate and walk the talk,” he told participants at the Pacific Pavilion of inside the Hawaii Convention Centre on the third day of the 10-day IUCN Congress.

He said Lata, who was the first person to build and navigate ‘Vaka Taumako’, passed away in 2009. Dr Salopukua, who graduated with a medical degree from the University of Papua New Guinea (UPNG), felt he has a responsibility to ‘walk the talk’.

Under the Vaka Taumako Project of the Solomon Islands (VPTSI) -- or Vaka Valo, which is a charitable organisation established in 2014 in partnership with the 20-year-old Vaka Taumako Project (VTP) under the auspices of the non-profit Pacific Tradition Society in Hawaii -- the mission is to perpetuate, document and share ancient Polynesian voyaging practices.

Dr Salopuka and Dr Marianne ‘Mimi’ George of VTP are developing organisational capacity for sea-training and for hosting visiting students at the Lata Voyaging School.

The Lata Voyaging School now has 54 men, 35 women, over 70 children, including 33 full time students.

“The students are young people who have no employment options and who are learning good work habits and practical skills. They laboured 14,208 hours to complete this Te Puke, which will be named Vaka Causey at the launching, in honour of one of our generous donors.”

The students have completed two vakas two months ago and are preparing for Holau Vanuatu— a voyage of reunion for families, communities, and the region.

Dr Salopuka, who travelled to Hawaii in July ahead of the IUCN Conservation Congress, has been giving talks on the Taumako Vaka Project at the University of Hawaii and working on a video documentary film on this project.

His participation in relaying this project has been made possible by the Christensen Foundation.

Dr Salopuka is also seeking further support for ‘Holau Vanuatu’ to buy rations for the crew and materials to build a shelter for the canoe, a solar panel system to light it up, and a laptop and BGAN unit to bring educational materials and basic communications to our islands.

“Our aim is to welcome and teach everyone who wants to learn the ancient arts of Polynesian voyaging,” he added.