Celestial Wayfinding and Pili Ka Mo’o with Justyn Ah Chong

June 21, 2023 Nia Tero Season 3 Episode 6
Celestial Wayfinding and Pili Ka Mo’o with Justyn Ah Chong
Show Notes Transcript

“This Earth is an island, just like we inhabit Hawai’i as an island. Island mentality [is] that you live in this place that's confined in geography and limited in resources. Because of that, you depend on the community that you live with to take care of each other and to steward those resources in a meaningful way.” 

Justyn Ah Chong (Kānaka Maoli) is a climate storyteller who guides creative projects in support of Indigenous land sovereignty in Hawai’i. In this episode, Justyn shares the magic of circumnavigating the globe guided only by the wind and stars, on the Polynesian voyaging canoe Hōkūleʻa that inspired a cultural renaissance. We also hear excepts from Justyn’s Emmy-award winning film Pili Ka Moʻo, which shares the fight of the Fukumitsu ʻOhana (family) of Hakipuʻu trying to protect their ancestors’ remains from a big corporate ranch.  

Pili Ka Moʻo is part of the first season of our sibling initiative, Reciprocity Project. Watch the entire film here

Learn more about the Polynesian Voyaging Society at  

The song “Island Views” was provided by Rexie. Hear more of her music here

Host: Jessica Ramirez. Producer: Stina Hamlin. Story Editor: Jenny Asarnow 

Seedcast is a production of Nia Tero, a global nonprofit which supports Indigenous land guardianship around the world through policy, partnership, and storytelling initiatives.

Enjoy the Seedcast podcast on the Nia Tero website, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast platforms.

Keep up with Seedcast on Instagram and use the hashtag #Seedcast.

Celestial Wayfinding and Pili Ka Mo’o with Justyn Ah Chong

Seedcast Season 3 Episode 6
June 21, 2023

 [00:00:00] Justyn Ah Chong: [Speaking in Kānaka Maoli] 

 Iwi o ku’u iwi, koko o ku’u koko. Pili Ka Mo’o Ā mau loa, Kū Hakipu’u ka manawa. 

Blood of my blood, bone of my bones. 

[theme music begins to play softly in the background] 

The lineage remains intact, forever and ever. 

[00:00:15] Jessica: Many Native or Indigenous Hawaiians have a deep love for their ancestors, and that love is the backbone of their community. 

[00:00:24] Justyn: Pili Ka Moʻo – the moʻo, the lineage, the continuum, the stories, the culture, traditions – forever remains intact. 

[00:00:32] Jessica: I'm Jessica Ramirez, and today we're happy to speak with Justyn Ah Chong. 

[00:00:37] Justyn: [Speaks in Kānaka Maoli] 

Aloha nui kākou, ‘o wau no Justyn Ah Chong no Mililani, O’ahu mai au. 

Aloha, my name is Justyn Ah Chong, I'm a Native Hawaiian filmmaker from Mililani, Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands. Mahalo for having me.  

[00:00:51] Jessica: This is Seedcast.  

Theme song by Mia Kami: We are standing, hear our calling, we are rooted to the ground we’re here to stay. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can't tear us down, we’re here to stay…

[00:01:19] Jessica: Justyn has voyaged on the canoe with no modern technology, following only celestial bodies. He has shown up to film community, to document their struggle and resilience. Justyn creates stories across land and across the sea to uplift the people in his community, and to reflect the relationships his people have to family—seen and unseen.  

Where Justyn lives, you can hear sounds of birds in the garden and his family dog, Eddie. 

[Sounds of Eddie barking and Justyn laughing] 

[00:01:57] Justyn: The place I come from is completely surrounded by ocean, and so the connection to the sea is huge for those of us that live here in Hawai'i.  

[00:02:10] Jessica: The Indigenous peoples of Hawai'i are the Kānaka Maoli. They are a lineage of people who can trace their genealogy back to ancestors who called Hawai'i home long before any outside contact. 

[“Island Views” by Rexie plays in the background] 

Today, many in Hawai'i—including many of those who carry a Native Hawaiian bloodline—are also a mixture of other ethnicities.  

[00:02:33] Justyn: It's a melting pot for a lot of cultures, and a lot of communities. I, myself, am made up of like six different ethnicities. Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it really is a place that has called to it many different cultures that find a way to kind of bring the best of what they offer, and the best of where they come from, and kind of meld it together to create a local culture that it's unique unto itself. For myself, that's the beauty of having the opportunity to have grown up here is that, you know, everybody is auntie and uncle; you know, you can really depend on your neighbors and your community. 

[“Island Views” by Rexie continues with melodic vocals and a dance rhythm] 

Here in Hawai'i, our sort of cultural renaissance was really sparked by the birth of, and a maiden voyage of, a Polynesian voyaging canoe called Hōkūleʻa. Prior to the birth of Hōkūleʻa in 1975, there hadn't been a voyaging canoe like the one described in our oral histories for probably 500 or 600 years. At that time, in the mid-seventies, it was definitely a time where most Hawaiians didn't know what it meant to be Hawaiian—most Hawaiians were looked down on, or casted shame upon for being Hawaiian. Those that still held knowledge of language, knowledge of culture, were very few strands, right; and were kind of underground. And it wasn't until the mid—the early to mid—1970s when a Native Hawaiian by the name of Herb Kāne, who was an artist living in Chicago but Native Hawaiian, had these dreams of these visions to bring a voyaging canoe that was described, you know, in these stories of our ancestors to life; you know, something that hadn't been seen in hundreds of years. With the mission of sailing her for one voyage along an ancestral route from Hawai'i to Tahiti, which is about 2300 miles of open ocean, no land in between, and navigating this canoe in the way of our ancestors—no GPS, no maps, no sextants; solely relying on the knowledge of the stars, the celestial bodies, the movement of the waves, the movement of the wind to be able to travel 2300 miles of open ocean to find a speck of land in the middle of the ocean. 

[the sound of wind and waves plays] 

[00:05:33] Justyn: So Herb Kāne and a few others dedicated their lives to building Hōkūleʻa, and finding a way to sail her on this voyage. And so they built this 62 foot long voyaging canoe. Their problem was that there were no willing or able navigators that had that knowledge to sail in that old way left in Polynesia. They ended up finding a man in Micronesia, by the name of Mau Piailug, who did carry that knowledge, whose community did still practice celestial wayfinding within their own islands. And so they found this man named Mau who actually went against his own community's wishes to teach this sacred knowledge outside of their own community, and came to Hawai'i to navigate Hōkūleʻa and to teach Hawaiians how to navigate again. 

After 30-something days at sea, they pulled Tahiti out of the sea and were greeted by about 18,000 people on the shore, essentially sparking a cultural renaissance for Polynesians, for Tahisians, Hawaiians—all of us alike—validating that our ancestors' stories were true, validating that we do come from astronauts of our ancestors, you know, people that skillfully and masterfully voyaged across open oceans. Probably one of the most defining moments in our Hawaiian history was the birth and the maiden voyage of this voyaging canoe, Hōkūleʻa. You know, she was initially built for that one voyage, and not meant to do any more sails after that. But the amount of pride and resurgence that it catalyzed inspired Hawaiians to keep this going, and to continue learning this tradition. Since then, the Hōkūleʻa has been training folks in these ways of celestial navigation, and has had numerous voyages throughout the Pacific. And so for the last 40-something years, she's been such an icon for us in Hawai'i.  

[ambient music plays in the background] 

[00:07:52] Jessica: And Justyn got the chance to travel with the Hōkūleʻa all the way around the world.  

[00:08:00] Justyn: There was a mission to take Hōkūleʻa and circumnavigate the globe with a mission of connecting this Earth. I feel super blessed and fortunate that I was able to be a part of the team that got to voyage around the world. 

[the sound of wind and waves plays] 

Being out on the middle of the ocean on this voyaging canoe—especially this historied voyage canoe that, like, means so much to so many of us—the one word that comes to mind is magic. The magic is unreal. Shooting, editing, producing content from a 62 foot-long voyaging canoe, you know, there's no kind of covering. You're out in the elements, more or less, 24/7. You're basically sleeping on a yoga mat, head to toe. And so being part of the crew, and part of the documentary crew, the goal was to capture all these stories along the way; to capture the stories of the crew voyaging from place to place, to capture the interactions with communities at the different places, to share stories of places and things that other communities around the world were doing, and connect them to back home here in Hawai'i. 

[the sound of wind and waves and ambient music continues] 

For days on end, you're surrounded by nothing but ocean, 360 degrees around you. And so you're very much immersed in nature. There's nothing but the wind, the swells, the clouds, the rain, the sun, the stars—lots of shooting stars at night on clear nights. One of the most magical things I got to witness on one of my legs of the voyage was a night rainbow. The full moon was rising on one side and on the opposite side was literally a rainbow in the sky at midnight. And, and it was this rainbow that, like, you could see the shades, but it didn't have color. It was like greyscale. 

We've been through 12 foot, 15 foot swells. We've been through like, very calm doldrum waters where the ocean looks like a lake. We've been through days on end where it's just raining nonstop. I think there's like four days straight of rain and you're just, you know, taking it the whole time. So the magic of it is definitely there, but also the dangers are real, too. You know, every single voyage and every single leg is taken seriously. You know, you put your lives in the hands of your crew members, you put your lives in each other's hands, and really depend on each other to make it to the next destination safely. 

[ambient music continues in the background] 

This earth is an island, just like we inhabit Hawai'i as an island. An island mentality, really being that like you live in this place that's confined in geography and limited in resources. And so because of that, you depend on the community that you live with to take care of each other and to steward those resources in a meaningful way, and to steward those resources so that it ensures that those resources are still there for your generation, and for generations to come, right, and so the mission of taking Hōkūleʻa around the world was one of sharing these lessons and these values that come from Hawai'i, but also connecting with communities around the world to learn what they're doing to steward their place, and to do their part in caring for Island Earth. 

[00:11:54] Jessica: Even as the Hōkūleʻa was spreading the island mentality around the world, back at home in Oahu, colonial land grabs and overdevelopment were threatening people's ability to connect with their culture and protect their ancestors. Justyn found himself in a position to help a family share their story.  

[00:12:16] Justyn: It's such a beautiful time to be a filmmaker here in Hawai'i, and I feel like I've been fortunate in that a lot of the work that sustains me here at home is within the Hawaiian community. With this particular story, Pili Ka Moʻo, is a story about a Native Hawaiian family, the Fukumitsu ohana, who reside in an area on the island of Oahu called Hakipuʻu, and their family has resided there for generations upon generations.  

[sounds of water, voices, laughter, and chickens plays alongside ambient music] 

[00:12:58] Jessica: This is Kōlea Fukumitsu speaking in the film: 

[film clip plays]

[00:13:02] Kōlea Fukumitsu: Growing up here was a large part of my identity. We trace our genealogy back to this same place on this same ‘āina that our kūpuna walked on before us. This place, for us, it's the beginning, you know, it's the middle; it's where we will eventually rest in the land here. 

The ‘iwi kūpuna on that ina is Inoino and Paku. Inoino is my fifth great-grandfather. Paku was his wahine. ‘Iwi kūpuna, it means the bones, skeletal remains of our ancestors, but it's not just that. The spiritual being of that person, their ujjaini, which is their spirit, is still in the ‘iwi in the bones. So when we bury them in the ‘āina, in the soil, their spirit, their mana is still there.

[film clip ends, ambient music continues] 

[00:14:11] Justyn: Hakipuʻu and surrounding lands have also been occupied by an entity known as Kualoa Ranch, their family's founder of that area who descends from the original missionaries that arrived in Hawai'i in the 1820s. There's also been a lot of displacement of Native Hawaiian families as they continue to expand. Pili Ka Moʻo centers on a recent engagement that the family had with Kualoa Ranch. My co-creator on the film, Malia Akutagawa, who's also in the film, is a Native Hawaiian lawyer and law professor at the University of Hawai'i who also was connected with the family and had been sort of helping them through the legalities of their fight. 

[film clip resumes] 

[00:15:02] Malia Akutagawa: Right next door to us is Kualoa. Kualoa was seen as the seat of our [Hawaiian word], of our sovereignty. Whatever chief had control of Kualoa had much power. So it's very interesting, in that you have a missionary family that is now controlling Kualoa and acquiring all the lands in Ka’a’awa, Kualoa, and now lands here in Hakipuʻu. 95% of Hakipuʻu has become part of Kualoa Ranch’s holdings, or no longer in the hands of the Native tenants. So there are just remnant kuliana lands existing here. And the Fukumitsu family are one of the few families that still have their kuliana land. 

[00:16:00] Justyn: I had actually met her for the first time, and was at her house getting to know her the day that the family put out a call on social media for the community to come and stand with them when they live streamed Kōlea's arrest.  

[00:16:17] Jessica: Kōlea was arrested for blocking construction on the Kualoa Ranch. He and a few others had showed up in solidarity and resistance, claiming what belongs to Native Hawaiians and their ancestors.  

[00:16:32] Justyn: And so I just so happened to have my camera on me and you know, the next morning showed up with a bunch of the other communities standing in the road with them, and that kind of just began the journey of, you know, seeing what they needed. and seeing how I could help them share their story, or get the word out about what was happening. 

[00:16:50] Jessica: After Kōlea was arrested, many more people from his community showed up to take a stand with him. 

[00:16:58] Justyn: It's a lot more strength, because it's harder to move a hundred people than two!

 [rhythmic music plays, with melodic vocals] 

[00:17:21] Kōlea: It was a relief for me and my ohana because it helped us in our stand, because we weren't alone.  

[00:17:39] Justyn: It's really a story of connection to family, both seen and unseen, and the reciprocal relationship that we have—Native Hawaiians have—to our ‘iwi kūpuna or ancestral remains that rest in our birth sands here, that rest in our soil here in Hawai'i, that make up the mana and the spiritual power of this place. You know, it's their presence in the land here that give Hawai'i its mana, its spiritual essence, its power, its connection that allows us to tap into. It explores that reciprocal relationship and that in the way that they give us knowledge and bring life into this land by their bones and their presence resting there, there's also a responsibility for us as the living to maintain that and to care for them. 

[sound of people singing together]

 [00:18:49] Malia: But now the kupuna need our help and they're pulling upon our essence and our mana to help them to transition into , into eternity, ‘cause they're trapped by their sadness, and we need to show them that we are there for them. That we will protect their bones.  

[00:19:16]  Kolea: Mahalo e kūpuna, mahalo ke akua, mahalo nā aumakua. Mahalo for all of your blessings, mahalo for everything. 

[00:19:22] Malia: And so I told Summer and Kōlea, “Have your son chant the genealogy of your family…”

[00:19:28]  Son: O Kau ka wahine noho pu laua o hanau Inoino kāne no Hakipu’u.

[00:19:35] Malia: ...and lend your mana as their mokopuna, as their descendants, to say “It's okay. We're gonna be okay. We are gonna bring the breath and our life back into this place, and you don't need to worry anymore.”

[00:19:54] Jessica: Stories like the film Pili Ka Moʻo carry so much power. This film meant a lot to the Fukumitsus—Kōlea, his children; and his wife, Summer, the matriarch of the family.  

[00:20:07] Justyn: In talking with the family and getting their response after watching the film for the first time and reflecting on their process going through the making of the film, it was really validating for me because one thing that Summer had said is that the film actually brought a lot of healing for them, that it was healing to be able to be outside of herself in a way, that it allowed kind of like all of that jumbledness and messiness and weight of what they've been in and dealing with and going through; to actually just take a step back from it to see it from a different perspective and like with more clarity. And so that was awesome for me, just hearing that healing that it had brought for them.

 My passion in filmmaking and storytelling really comes from a love of this place, and the culture of this place, and the people of this place, and so I feel very blessed and honored that I get to use my passion to uplift stories of this place and of our people here.  

[rhythmic music plays, with melodic vocals] 

Pili Ka Moʻo – the moʻo, the lineage, the continuum, the stories, the culture, traditions – forever remains intact.  

[theme music begins in the background]

 [00:21:53] Jessica: Thank you Justyn Ah Chong for sharing this story with us. For more information about Justyn's work, follow him on Instagram. To learn more about the Polynesian Voyaging Society, go to And Pili Ka Moʻo just won an Emmy! It's a part of Reciprocity Project, a storytelling initiative co-produced by Nia Tero  and Upstander Project, in association with REI Co-op Studios. To watch Pili Ka Moʻo and all of Reciprocity Project films, go to and follow their Instagram. 

This episode was produced and edited by Stina Hamlin, our story editor and sound mixing by Jenny Asarnow. Associate producer Ha'aheo Auwae-Dekker. Archival audio provided by Justyn Ah Chong and the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Film excerpts provided by Reciprocity Project. The song Island Views was provided by Rexie.  

Nia Tero is a Seattle-based foundation. We’re both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples with a mission to secure Indigenous guardianship for all vital ecosystems. That means we provide support to Indigenous peoples globally who are protecting their homelands from colonization and destruction. Their practices are one of our best guides for making earth livable for generations to come. Here at Seedcast, our guests represent themselves. They do not necessarily reflect the views of Nia Tero. We honor their honest perspectives and lived experiences. You could learn more about Seedcast and about our work at Nia Tero at 

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Our executive producer is Tracy Rector. Our senior producer is Jenny Asarnow. Our consulting producers are Julie Keck and Stina Hamlin.Our fact checker is Romin Lee Johnson. Our social media is by Nancy Kelsey. Our transcripts are by Sharon Arnold. Logo designed by Yen Tan. Graphic Design by Cindy Chischilly. The Seedcast theme song is Rooted by Mia Kami. I'm your host, Jessica Ramirez, and we look forward to sharing more stories with you all very soon!

Theme song “Rooted” by Mia Kami: Like the wind we still move, like the waves we rise high, like the sun we never die. No staying quiet, we stand united, we are rooted to the ground, can’t tear us down. We’re here to stay…