Moanas in real life: Samoan man teaches his daughters traditional Pacific voyaging skills

An ocean-crossing, island-saving teenager is the Disney heroine kids are likely to be playing these school holidays, but for three Samoan sisters the fantasy is not so far from reality.An ocean-crossing, island-saving teenager is the Disney heroine kids a

Nafanua, Leilani and Emma are 14, 12 and 10-years-old respectively, and their dad Xavier Lui is teaching them the traditional skills of Pacific sea voyaging.

Emma says she likes seeing turtles, riding the bow of the va'a ("boat" in Samoan), and feeling connected to her culture.

"It uncovers the history and you can make your own history while you sail, go on that big boat and make your own," she says, gesturing to the Samoan Voyaging Society's double-hulled canoe, the Gaualofa.

The history Emma refers to is that of a feat either worthy of, or too complex for a Disney movie, depending on who you talk to.

It is the real-life epic of the people who populated vast specks of land dotted across an ocean that takes up nearly a third of the face of the Earth.

They did so without maps or navigational instruments, but by memorising stories from their forbearers and reading the stars, currents and waves.

They are skills that Xavier Lui says have been all but lost in Samoa.

"Life has changed and we've now become land people, no longer the sea voyagers that we were back in the days where the ocean was our playground," he says.

"The first time I took these girls on the va'a we had some guests, some older Samoan ladies, and they said to me 'are you serious about taking the girls out there?'

"That's what I mean, our people have moved and become so comfortable with the land that they've stayed away from the sea … most Samoans don't really know how to swim."

The story will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Moana, the latest Disney film.

It begins on a fictional Pacific island where villagers are too scared to take their fishing canoes beyond the reef.

Despite her father's warnings, teenage Moana — which means ocean in most Polynesian languages — finds herself drawn to the water.

When the fishing nets start coming up empty within the reef, her grandmother shows her a hidden fleet of boats that their ancestors once used to sail far and wide.

Mystery of why the voyages stopped

Pacific Island scholars such as Doug Herman have interpreted that plotline in Moana as a reference to the Long Pause — a period of almost 2,000 years between the colonisation of present-day Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, and that of the more southerly and westerly islands of present-day New Zealand, Tahiti and Hawaii.

For almost two millennia, for reasons people are still trying to figure out, long-distance sea voyaging came to an abrupt halt.

Fast forward to 2017 and Xavier Lui has a number of theories about Samoa's present-day voyaging pause.

"The very first question that I got asked in most of the villages that we went [to attract new Gaualofa crew members] was 'how much do you get paid?'

"There's no money in this, we don't get paid, we volunteer to do this work because we know how important it is to do this work, that [va'a culture] has to stay alive."

"That's why it's hard for us to try and pull some of the youth and some of the Samoan people."

Gaualofa captain Fealofani Bruun grew up in both the Independent State of Samoa and American Samoa, and recalls being taught very little about voyaging at school.

"In American Samoa you're taught that [your ancestors voyaged] from Southeast Asia and that's it," she says, adding with an ironic laugh that "you're just taught American history, in a Samoan country".

Faleofani "grew up in a yacht club", but her family sailed on Western-style boats and it wasn't until she saw a 25-metre Polynesian canoe being used as a podium during a competition that her interest in traditional voyaging was sparked.

"When I first saw her, I was just captivated," Faleofani says of that canoe, the Teau-o-Tonga.

"I was too intimidated, I was too in awe, to even go on her, or go near her, or touch her even.

"I just sat on the beach and just stared [and thought] 'our ancestors were amazing, they were awesome'."

Fealofani still has an interest in Western sailing, and made history in 2015 as the first Samoan to receive a Yachtmaster Captain qualification.

But the Gaualofa is her main passion, along with the environmental messages she says are integral to voyaging.

"Us humans, we like our comforts, we're habitual people, we don't like change," she says.

Fealofani says this is both the reason she is awe of her ancestors for venturing into the unknown, and the reason more environmentally sustainable behaviour is hard to foster.

However, as Xavier Lui puts it, "the va'a culture cannot survive without looking after the ocean."

With rising sea levels threatening to swallow up some Pacific island nations, and their citizens suffering from the effects of overfishing, voyaging societies from around the Pacific have increasingly teamed up with environmental advocates for high-profile voyages.

In 2014 the Gaualofa was part of a fleet of Pacific canoes which sailed to Sydney to raise awareness of the effects of climate change and the importance of looking after the oceans.

Reaction to Moana

As for Moana, Director Ron Clements has said it was the respect for the ocean he witnessed in Pacific voyagers during his research which inspired the decision to make the ocean a character in the film.

Disney has partnered with voyaging societies and Conservation International to take the film and the conservation message around the Pacific Islands, but on the cultural front, Moana has not been without its critics.

The film was making headlines well before its release when Disney pulled a costume based on the character Maui amid criticisms it promoted "brown face".

Disney's depiction of Maui, who is based on a demigod from Polynesian mythology, was also slammed for "fat-shaming" Polynesians.

The crew of the Gaualofa attended a screening of the movie in the Samoan capital of Apia alongside the artist who voiced Moana and the movie's directors and producer, who they also took out for a sail.

Captain Fealofani Bruun says Moana was enjoyable to watch, but going into it she "had to switch off everything — my mind, my mouth".

She says she particularly struggled with the fictionalisation of Maui.

"Maui is not a fictional character in our culture, Maui has so many faces in our culture.

"It's a young boy, it's a demigod, he's somebody's brother, he's somebody's uncle."

But Fealofani says Disney did the right thing by putting together a panel of experts to contribute to the production, one of whom is National University of Samoa anthropologist Dionne Fonoti.

Some other Pacific Islander academics have criticised Disney's creation of the panel, known as the Oceanic Story Trust.

The University of Minnesota's Vincente Diaz, who is from Guam, rhetorically questioned what it meant "that henceforth it is Disney that now administrates how the rest of the world will get to see and understand Pacific realness?"

The University of Hawaii's Craig Santos Perez, also from Guam, used his blog to post a satirical open letter from two fictional Oceanic Story Trust members, writing that "Disney is the new Gauguin and the new Cook because they really put us on the map.

"We estimate that someone needs to discover us at least every 100 years so we aren't forgotten peoples."

But the Samoan Voyaging Society's Xavier Lui has only praise for Moana.

He says he understands the criticisms, and would make a Samoan film on his on terms if he had the money Disney did, but he doesn't.

"Seeing the reaction from young kids, I really appreciate what the movie has done," Xavier says.

"They've done most of the work that we've been trying to do as a [voyaging] society, and that is to get the va'a culture back into the hearts and minds."

His 14-year-old daughter Nafanua (named after a Polynesian warrior goddess) says while watching the film her Samoan identity came back to her, "like whoosh".

"The movie really brought this special feeling like 'oh, I'm connected to my past again, my ancestors' — like the feeling of [being] whole again," she says.

Ten-year-old Emma says she's grateful to have a dad who takes her out on the Gaualofa, and she hopes the movie will inspire her classmates.

"I think it was a good example to kids out there that forgot their culture, and they should come and they should sail with us."