Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ancient American-Polynesian Connections

Ancient American-Polynesian Connections

Text and Photo By Kenneth Cohen

O Ke Au O Makali’i Ka Po
When the Pleiades was seen at night…
--from the Kumulipo, Creation Teaching/Chant of Hawai’i

On April 1, 2013 the scientific journal Nature published an article “DNA study links indigenous Brazilians to Polynesians.” ( By analyzing the remains of indigenous Brazilians from the 1800s, researchers found “some support for the possibility that Pacific islanders traded with South America thousands of years ago.” Of course the scientists never think to use indigenous oral traditions as supporting evidence or to take their ancient knowledge as a starting point for scientific inquiry. If they had bothered to ask the elders, they might have saved a lot of time and expense. I wonder, also, if local indigenous people had given permission to hack up the bones of their ancestors?

The study reminded me of differences between original peoples and colonizers in anthropological research methods and values. To put it simply, colonizers rarely ask what I consider a fundamental question, “Is the research necessary, compassionate, and kind, that is, conducive to greater mutual respect and a better way of life?” Lest I be declared naïve, uneducated, or savage (from silva “a person of the woods”), let me elaborate.

Colonizers’ research is often based on what I call “entitlement inquiry.” This is a conscious or unconscious attempt to validate “Old World” (Euro-Asian) origins. When such origins are not found, there is often an apologetic tone to conclusions. For example, researchers delight at a discovery that aspects of American culture came from Europe or Asia, whether across the ocean or by way of the Bering Straits. By contrast, original peoples are often happy to find connections that demonstrate we are all related. Fact: Mayans and Chinese both practiced acupuncture. Chinese scientist: “We taught you.” Mayan scientist, “How wonderful that we discovered the same thing! And isn’t this natural? Since we are both human beings, with similar bodies and minds, ancient healers must have discovered the same truths.” After more than forty years of looking at origin theories, I have yet to find a boat that can go in only one direction or a one-way sign on the “land bridge.” Since charts and graphs prove one is smart, I humbly offer the following:

                                                 Research Perspectives

Original Peoples                                                Colonizers
Prioritize oral traditions                                      Oral traditions discounted
Research valued for community benefit             Research valued for itself
Ancestors are still “family”                                Ancestors treated as inanimate objects
Emphasis on connections                                   Entitlement Inquiry

Now, let’s return to the matter of Polynesian-American connections. I have met indigenous people from both sides of the ocean who spoke of ancient contact. Pre-Maori indigenous people from New Zealand may have been in contact with Salish and other original people in the Pacific Northwest (of the U.S. and Canada). Hawaiian colleagues describe Native people from Baja California in some genealogical chants. I learned of an extraordinary connection many years ago from the kahuna lapa’au (traditional healer) Kahiliopua, who was also my adoptive aunt. She told me that the Hawaiians had met the Cherokee in ancient times. She was familiar with the Cherokee word Elohi, which in Cherokee may mean the oral history of the Cherokee or it can mean the original sacred island home of the Cherokee. Pua said that Elohi was also an ancient word for Hawai’i. Many Cherokee say that they migrated to North America from an island, accompanied by Polynesians, and, before that, came from the Pleiades. Some Hawaiian elders also say that they came from the Pleiades. Certainly the Pleiades, Makali’i in Hawaiian, have an important role in the Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo.

There may also be evidence for a Cherokee-Hawai’i connection from the name of one of the seven clans of the Cherokee, the Ani Gilohi, Long Hairs, Twisters or Twisted Hairs Clan. Is it possible that Gilo refers to Hilo? Hilo, in addition to being an area on the Big Island of Hawai’i, means twisted or braided. It is also the name of a Polynesian navigator. The Gilo-Hilo connection is controversial and by no means proven. However, when I spoke with various Cherokee elders about this, they commented that the Cherokee language has a rich vocabulary relating to the ocean, as one would expect from a sea-faring culture (which is not the academic view of the Cherokee). They also spoke about various clans of the Cherokee that were lost at sea during their travels from Elohi, possibly mingling with peoples in other areas.

From my viewpoint, the importance of these connections is not to suggest any one culture as the origin of another. Rather it is to point out that ancient peoples had far more contact with each other than previously assumed. Knowledge was shared for mutual benefit—a far more humanistic, holistic, and wise epistemology than we find in today’s hallowed and hollow halls of academia.