The ocean is not a barrier [for Polynesians].

—Keolu Fox, Kanaka Maoli geneticist

Though Kānaka Maoli have been journeying across oceans for countless generations prior to European contact, modern records of the exchanges between Hawaiʻi and foreign lands begin in the late 1700s. However, recent genetic research has shown that Native Hawaiians and other Polynesians may have been in contact with groups indigenous to Turtle Island (what is now known as North, South, and Central America) far earlier than thought before.

In studies of DNA from Rapa Nui communities and other Pacific Islanders today, scientists have found isolated sections of DNA from Turtle Island ethnic groups. Other evidence of this contact is found in the prevalence of the sweet potato throughout Polynesia, which was first domesticated in the Andes long before European colonization.

Keolu Fox, a Kanaka Maoli genetic researcher at UC San Diego, believes it is likely that Polynesian groups had the navigational capabilities to maintain ongoing contact with neighboring island nations and even regions as far as South America. Though this research is still preliminary, it points to the growing possibility that these histories go back much further than originally accepted in Western academia — a history spanning more than 1000 years.

Indigenous scientists like Keolu Fox acknowledge that in order for further research to be conducted, the historically negative relationship between Pacific Islander communities and white anthropologists must be rebuilt, repaired, and respected. The slow rise in BIPOC/non-white researchers and scientists in these fields raises awareness of these issues while working to find mutual solutions.

Kauwō ulupau ka holokahiki.

The sailor drags anchor everywhere.

Beginning as early as 1787—ten years following the death of Captain Cook—the first documented modern Native Hawaiians left for shores abroad. This would eventually set off a rapidly expanding stream of contact from foreign influences leading up until present day.

An etched black and white portrait of a Hawaiian woman named Waineʻe, with anglicized facial features who is wearing a necklace and bracelets. Her hair is streaked dark and light. The ocean, a ship, and palm trees are in the background.

Etching of Waineʻe*, c. 1786-1788. Image in public domain.

This etching of Waineʻe*, done by a member of the Barkley’s crew, depicts the middle-aged woman and her “pleasant demeanor.” Like many visual representations by Europeans of this time, her features here have been highly anglicized, leaving little to suggest her Native Hawaiian heritage other than her garments and accessories. This was common practice to portray certain individuals as more civilized than others, altering their representation to non-factual standards.


In the first few decades of contact with malihini (foreigners), most of the visitors came for reasons related to the growing network of Pacific trade routes and ports. Because of its geographic placement, Hawaiʻi became a preferred stop-over point for merchant ships to winter and wait out the seasonal rough seas. Many would then carry on to the Pacific Northwest, China, and back, in order to trade highly prized sea otter furs with Chinese merchants.

The first documented Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) traveler known to have left Hawaiʻi is a middle-aged woman recorded as ‘Winée’ or ‘Wynee.’* Boarding the Imperial Eagle, a merchant ship, at Waikiki in May 1787, she was hired by Charles and Frances Barkley as their maritime attendant. In accounts from Frances’ diary, Waineʻe* is said to have been very engaging, eager to learn, and an agreeable companion to have at sea. The two women became very close during their time together.

Waineʻe* traveled with the Barkleys for just short of two years on their ship, first to the Pacific Northwest with a stop at Nootka Sound in British Columbia. Waineʻe* is therefore the first Kanaka Maoli to have arrived in what is now known as Canada. Frances Barkley is also considered to be the first openly female European sailor, meaning both women were key figures in dismantling the barriers for non-male travelers at sea. After docking in Vancouver to pick up a load of furs to trade with Chinese merchants in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), Waineʻe* fell ill and decided to stay in China to recover while the Barkleys set sail on the Imperial Eagle for Hawaiʻi.

An etched black and white portrait of a man wearing a feathered cloak and feathered helmet and holding a spear. There are trees and a mountainous landscape in the background.

Etching of Kai’ana, c. 1787-1789. Image in public domain.

Kaʻiana is shown here wearing the traditional ‘ahu’ula (feathered cloak) and mahiole (feathered helmet) and holding a spear, alluding to his impressive genealogy and chiefly status. He was highly regarded along his travels throughout the Pacific and his towering presence left a mark in the records of numerous merchants and travelers he encountered.


While docked in China recovering from her illness, Waineʻe* encountered another Kanaka named Kaʻiana, a chief from Kauaʻi. Kaʻiana (also recorded as Tianna**) arrived there in 1788 on the merchant ship Feliz Aventureira, captained by the British John Meares. Recruited by Meares while his crew docked on Kauaʻi, Kaʻiana served aboard as a maritime advisor and companion to the Captain.

Kaiʻana found Waineʻe* in Canton, where they both decided to return to Hawaiʻi. Unfortunately, illness was one of the greatest dangers of early ship travel, and she succumbed to her disease on February 5, 1788. The crew aboard the ship held a funeral service and buried her at sea. Because of her kind demeanor and close friendship to the Barkleys, she is fondly remembered in the few surviving accounts from fellow sailors and Frances’ personal diaries.

Kaʻiana sailed on to Hawaiʻi and would eventually travel to various ports in the Philippines, along the Pacific Northwest Coast, and the island nations of Melanesia and Palau. Within a few short years, the Kauaʻi chief became one of the most traveled sailors of his time. Like Waineʻe* before him, he was also remembered as having a pleasant disposition and reliable work ethic. In fact, he was so well-traveled and popular amongst his fellow crews that there are at least a dozen different documented accounts mentioning his name.

An etched black and white landscape depicting a coastal scene. There are four large ships and two smaller passenger boats in the water. In the most prominent passenger boat, two people stand, one of which is cloaked and wearing a headdress. Many people sit and stand on shore near and around an empty passenger boat at the edge of the water. Behind them there is a single building flying a flag. In the distance, the landscape is rocky and there is a small town.

Launching of the “North West America” at Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, 1790. Image A-02688 courtesy of the Royal BC Museum and Archives.

A 1790 etching portrays the launch of the vessel Northwest America at Nootka Sound, British Columbia. Kaʻiana helped oversee the building and launch of the vessel alongside Captain John Meares, before the crew sailed down the Northwest coast to pursue further trading interests.


Kaʻiana’s familiarity carried him on several occasions up to the Northwest Coast along what is now called North America. In January 1788, on a trip led by Captain William Douglas aboard the Iphegenia, the successful docking was commemorated by naming the port location after Kaʻiana (an inlet system near today’s Mount St. Elias, Alaska). A nod to the high favor Captain Douglas upheld for him, Kaʻiana’s (Tianna’s) Bay is considered the first geographic landmark named by Europeans after a non-white individual. However, the name seems not to have stuck throughout history, as modern maps show this location as “Icy Bay.” Nevertheless, Kaʻiana’s name is remembered for his travels far and wide, which are impressive even by today’s standards.

After Waineʻe* and Kaʻiana

These two Kānaka Maoli set the tone for the next century of Hawaiian laborers and seamen who sought work and greater economic opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. Most of these workers would find employment with the rapidly expanding fur trade along the Northwest coast, or as attendants on the ships that this industry relied on.

By the mid-1800s, over 4,000 Native Hawaiians, mostly male laborers, had found their way to the Pacific Northwest for employment. Many of them went back and forth to Hawaiʻi several times over the course of their work contracts, maintaining their connections with family they left behind. These early workers and sailors are an often overlooked reminder of the dedicated work ethic and commitment to community displayed by Kānaka Maoli in Hawaiʻi and abroad. Led by the examples of Waineʻe* and Kaʻiana—and the numerous others that followed in their path—we see the impact of these communities play out in a variety of ways along the Northwest coast in the decades to come.

Curator's Notes

* It is likely that “Winée” and “Wynée” are anglicized variations of “Waineʻe,” before there was a standardized Roman alphabet for the Hawaiian language. As a result many names are recorded with varied spellings, especially for those appearing up until the early 1800s. We have chosen to refer to this Kanaka as “Waineʻe*” to acknowledge this history in addition to the language of origin of her intended name.

** Regarding records of chief Kaʻiana, some documents show his name as “Tyanna” or “Tianna,” again due to the lack of a standardized Hawaiian language alphabet during this specific time period. However, because there are existing records that list his name as “Kaianna” and “Kaʻiana,” we refer to him here using his given Kanaka Maoli name written with the adopted Hawaiian alphabet used today.

An etched black and white portrait of a young Hawaiian man named Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia wearing a black suit, white shirt, and white necktie.

Portrait of Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia, c. 1815. Image courtesy of Eleanor C. Nordyke.

This portrait is of Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia as a young adult, shortly before his untimely death from typhus fever at age 26. 

Soon after these earliest travelers left for shores abroad, the first missionaries were on their way to Hawaiʻi to establish missions and eventual political influence. One of the Hawaiian Christian converts and travelers credited with inspiring the first missionary advances in the islands is Henry ʻŌpūkahaʻia (also recorded as Obookiah), an orphaned boy from Kaʻū on Hawaiʻi Island. In 1807, after the death of his parents, he signed onto the Triumph ship. There he would receive care and an English education in Christian foundations, and eventually sail on to New Haven, Connecticut.

After attending school for several years there with a few other Kānaka, his commitment to the Christian faith inspired the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to seek out establishments in the Hawaiian Islands. A strategic move, it was the belief of the ABCFM that Native Hawaiians would be more receptive to religious conversion if the message was delivered by one of their own. In 1820, the first of these official missionary companies arrived from Boston on the Thaddeus, landing on Hawaiʻi Island, and brought with them several classmates of ʻŌpūkahaʻia that made their way back to Hawaiʻi as young adults. Also on board was Reverend Hiram Bingham and his wife Sybil Moseley Bingham, who would work closely with the ABCFM to exert a strong religious and political influence within the Hawaiian Islands and its leadership over the next two decades.


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