Nainoa Thompson: Tribute to Buffalo Keaulana

Hōkūleʻa and her crew today took a day-sail to visit friends in Makaha at the 42nd Buffalo Big Board Surfing Classic. Beyond the ideal weather, waves and fun, crewmembers took the day to honor and appreciate original 1976 Hōkūleʻa crewmember “Buffalo” Keaulana – namesake for the surf contest and icon of Makaha. In fact, the contest this year is being dedicated by Keaulana to the volunteers and crewmembers who helped to make Hōkūleʻa available to more than 4,000 West Oʻahu students when she visited recently in December, 2017.  Getting to the heart of the matter, master navigator and president of Polynesian Voyaging Society Nainoa Thompson took a moment to share his perspective. 

Nainoa Thompson

The Mahalo, Hawaiʻi Sail is essentially based in gratitude – we are thanking those who are making Hawaiʻi and the world a better place – and we are honored today to take Hōkūleʻa to Makaha. It’s the 42nd year of the Buffalo surf contest and to me it represents four decades of commitment and hard work to build better communities on the west side.

Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana

We want to honor Richard “Buffalo” Keaulana by recognizing his contributions to Hōkūleʻa and as one of the primary leaders of voyaging in the early years. Especially that first voyage to Tahiti in 1976 when Hōkūleʻa became the first voyaging canoe in 600 years to complete the trip. I was there, and though I wasn’t on the voyage, I was watching from the outside. People were praying for this canoe because they were worried – a voyage like this had not been undertaken in centuries and so there was a lot fear associated with the whole thing.

Thousands line the shoreline during the pivotal moment in Tahiti when Buffalo and other original 1976 crewmembers made landfall, rewriting the history of Polynesia.

But there were those who stepped up and provided the leadership to make it happen. There were those like Buffalo and Mau Piailug and the rest of the crew. It was an extraordinary feat and the outcome of that voyage changed everything in the Pacific. It changed the way that the world looks at our history, at our culture, and the way that we as Pacific Islanders look at ourselves. The chronic, debilitating and crushing impacts of low self-worth, no self esteem and being dominated by a larger culture – this was replaced with standing up and being proud of who we are because of knowing where we come from. And where we come from is the best navigators, voyagers and explorers on the face of the earth. That was an overnight change. It was revolutionary. It was the moonshot of our time. And because Buffalo was a leader, it is our turn to humbly bring the spaceship of his ancestors to him, to honor him on his beach at his event.

One of Buffalo’s most amazing and infinite contributions is how he trained his children. A big part of Buffalo’s legacy is the legacy of his son Brian Keaulana, who is hands-down the top water safety officer on the planet. This man has revolutionized water safety around the world and I wonder, through his teachings, how many lives were saved protecting people who can’t protect themselves when they find out how unforgiving the ocean is when they’re not prepared. I would imagine it is in the thousands.

Today’s sail to Makaha is also to share the Keaulana family story so more and more people understand their legacy. It’s important especially for our Hawaiian children, who sometimes look at the world in front of them and assume that it’s someone else’s and that there is not a place for them. For them to look at what the Keaulana family has done by being very smart, courageous, trained and committed and to look at that legacy over four decades… that is a powerful inspiring and hopeful story.

This family is about constantly trying to help our young people be fueled by optimism with inspiration and with hope. Buffalo and his family are the starlight to me on the west side and so we follow him, we honor him and that’s why we are going.

Photos © 2018 Polynesian Voyaging Society, Todd Yamashita

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