Could Moana engage younger generations of Islanders and non-Islanders to the art of Wayfinding? The 2016 film starring Pacific Islanders Auli’i Cravalho and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is about a young Islander girl, Moana, who hopes to save her dying island; by stealing a canoe, sailing across the ocean and returning the heart of Te Fiti. To do this, Moana learns how to wayfind; a skill that continues to be taught in the Pacific.
Wayfinding is the art of sailing a boat using only your senses and worldly knowledge. Moana specifically uses star navigation in the film, using her hands she measures the angles between the star and the horizon to determine her latitude. Voyagers had also memorised star maps; learning where the stars rose and set, and identifying as many as 220 stars. Outside of the film, wayfinders also used other techniques to find their way. Birds can indicate nearby islands, as seen when they fly from one island to gather food, and return home to feed their young. Some very skilled wayfinders can lie in the hull of a canoe and feel the wave patterns, which indicates the direction the canoe is sailing in. Using these skills, wayfinders had travelled over a third of the earth’s surface, using the wind, the waves, and the stars as their maps and compass to find islands from Hawai’i to New Zealand.
So, where does Moana fit in all of this? The film also features a different kind of star power, as a variety of successful Pacific Islanders, from musicians such as South Pacific Fusion band Te Vaka to actors Jemaine Clement and Rachel House. Combined with Disney greats John Lasseter (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life), Ron Clements and John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and the popular Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame, the film was given serious street credit; and has been the subject of great debate in the Pacific.
While the film has most definitely caught the attention of Pacific Islanders and non-Islanders alike, raking in over $635 million worldwide, problems over representations of Maui and the Pacific have arisen. In the Pacific, the demi-god Maui is a defender of the oppressed; his stories of stealing fire, fishing islands out of the ocean and beating monsters, as referred to in the Moana song “Your Welcome” are stories of freeing the oppressed. It is uncharacteristic of Maui to brag about these achievements. Furthermore, the key source of Maui’s mana that made these achievements possible, is missing in the film; the Goddess Hina. She is Maui’s counterpart, and none of the Disney female characters could take her place, as they lacked her sheer power. It is debated that because of Hina’s absence, Maui’s character traits had to be changed to reflect this, presenting him as comedic sidekick instead of the hero he is.
The film has also been accused of depicting the Pacific as an exotic escape, continuing the tropes of the Islands brought on by colonialism. As the film depicts Tahitian drumming, Samoan outfits, tattoos, and Fijian music all on Moana’s home island, the film has also been accused of misrepresenting the diversity of cultures within the Pacific, and of profiting off Islander culture. Moreover, for people, and particularly children, who don’t know much about the Pacific, Moana could be the first time they are exposed to Islander cultures. Therefore, misunderstandings could occur about who Maui is, and the diversity of Pacific Islander cultures; despite the “Oceanic Story Trust” that Disney created to consult with experts of the Pacific, to make Moana as culturally authentic as possible.
But, could Moana’s success be an indicator that younger people are interested in learning more about wayfinding and the Pacific? The National Education Association (NEA) has suggested using Moana as a source for students from Kindergarten to Year 12 to learn about the Pacific. The Teaching with Primary Sources Western Region (TPS) has also created an educators guide to using Moana as a source to explore other subjects like science, language, and mathematics.
Beyond the silver screen, there are groups that are boosting awareness about the different techniques and types of wayfinding, such as the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) in Hawai’i. PVS had initiated a return expedition from Hawai’i to Tahiti in a 20-metre canoe known as the Hōkūleʻa in 1976. This expedition proved that wayfinding was not only a skill, but Islanders were travelling to new islands with a purpose, not finding them by accident. Furthermore, various other non-profit organisations in the Pacific are also promoting and protecting different types of Pacific Islander voyaging in their own countries like Samoa, Tonga, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.
While it’s still too early to tell what kind of course Moana has charted, one can only hope it is a positive way forward.
Jade Boyle is a third year undergraduate student studying a Bachelor of Asian Studies and a Bachelor of Arts.