Celeste Manuia Ha‘o: A rising star

Here is UH Hilo student “Cesi” Ha‘o’s story of heartbreak and triumph as she navigates her way back to Faleapuna, her family’s village in Sāmoa, as an apprentice navigator of the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe. 

By Susan Enright.

Celeste Manuia "Cesi" Ha‘o aboard voyaging canoe. Cap and all-weather jacket, ocean in background.
UH Hilo student Celeste Manuia “Cesi” Ha‘o searches the horizon for directional clues from her environment while navigating the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe Aug.12, 2014. Photo by Kamakanioka’āina Paikai.

In early August, during the last eight hours of the nine-day voyage of the Hōkūle‘a voyaging canoe traveling from Aitutaki, Cook Islands, to the islands of Sāmoa, adverse weather conditions obliterated  any environmental clues to apprentice navigator Celeste “Cesi” Ha‘o. This was a critical turn of events, because the Hōkūle‘a, in its around-the-world voyage currently underway, is being navigated without the help of modern technology, guided only by the skills of rotating navigators reading the sea, wind and stars. With the dismal weather, the only option left to Ha‘o to set the course and direction of the canoe was to navigate by naʻau–her gut instinct and feelings. It was a triumphant moment when she guided that canoe right into port.

“In that moment when we finally pulled the Manuʻa islands out of the sea, I came to realize that the process of learning, voyaging being a metaphor of that, transcends the tangible textbooks and precise techniques that the physical realm offers us,” says Ha‘o, an undergraduate at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo. “True learning, the kind that becomes embedded into your mind, heart and soul requires you to keep these parts of you open. By doing so you become privy to inspiration and guidance not only from your teachers, peers and family, but also from Akua, your kupuna (ancestors) and from nature itself. As a result, it inspires you to become a part of something greater than yourself.”

Cesi with Imiloa cones in background.
Celeste is an education associate at ʻImiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaiʻi.

Ha‘o is currently earning a degree in culture-based astronomy education, a baccalaureate program she designed with the guidance of mentor Keiki Kawaiʻaeʻa, director of Ka Haka ʻUla O Keʻelikōlani College of Hawaiian Language. The education is already enhancing Ha‘o’s passion for teaching and learning astronomy and science through a cultural perspective. She’s on track to graduate next fall. She also is an education associate and the outreach coordinator for ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai‘i, an outreach center of UH Hilo.

Hao family: Cesi with husband Jared and three children pose for photo. Babe in Cesi's arms. Two young boys near Jared, one is bawling (!), the other somber.
Celeste and husband Jared with their three children (l-r) Ethan (3 years and not too happy about standing still for a photo), Ephraim (4 years), and Eleana (6 months). Family photo. Click to enlarge.

The apprentice navigator and scholar was born in Keaukaha and raised in Pana‘ewa on Hawai‘i Island. Her father, Walter Manuia, is from Keaukaha, and her mother, Eva Manuia, is from Sauniatu, Sāmoa (previously known as Western Sāmoa). This union makes Ha‘o a citizen of the world with the ancestry of her father (Hawaiian and Caucasian) and of her mother (Samoan, German, French, and British). She is married to Jared N. K. Haʻo, and they are raising three beautiful young children.

The apprentice navigator

After that intense nine-day journey at sea, Ha‘o says she now experiences the act of learning in an entirely new way. “I got a glimpse into something my ancestors knew and valued, that is the process of acquiring ʻike (knowledge). They understood that new knowledge comes as a result of a holistic way of knowing and learning that encompasses every aspect of ourselves: the cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual parts of us. In voyaging every part has equal weight.”

The story of Ha‘o becoming an apprentice navigator aboard Hōkūle‘a is the stuff of legend. It’s the kind of story where keiki (children) listen with admiration and awe, and then grow up and retell it to their keiki, who retell it to their keiki, and on and on. (And while a familiar story is going to be depicted in modern animation — see the story line of Moana, a Disney film due out in 2016 –, Hawai‘i Island keiki can meet the real thing in person at ‘Imiloa.)

Ten years ago when Ha‘o was 17, her grandfather, Tialavea Morris, the ali‘i and high chief of Faleapuna, Sāmoa, called Ha‘o and her parents to his village in ʻUpolu, on what they thought was a vacation.

Cesi's father walks her down the aisle at wedding. Bride in white lacy gown, father in red-white aloha shirt. She holds large bouquet of white roses.
Cesi with her grandfather Tialavea Morris at the wedding reception. Family photo. Click to enlarge.

“Unbeknownst to us, his intentions were far different from that of a summer getaway,” she explains on her fundraising website. “Instead, his purpose for bringing us there was to make me a Taupou by bestowing upon me the title of Tuloutele, a role that carries an immense amount of responsibility and expectation.” She was now the head of the Nu‘u o Tama‘ita‘i (all women born into the village), and it was expected she would help make decisions for the family and village as spiritual and temporal caretaker.

But unlike other taupou whose duty is to village and family, Ha‘o’s grandfather had different ideas, sending her home to Hawai‘i to continue her education. “There will be a time that I will call for you to return home (to Sāmoa),” he told her. “When I do, it is your responsibility to bring back what you’ve learned and teach your people.”

Celeste, Aunt Tina Tilo and Kālepa Baybayan pose for photo at water's edge.
Celeste, with her Aunt Tina Tilo and her teacher Pwo Master Navigator Kālepa Baybayan, following her homecoming ceremony at her village of Faleapuna on the island of Upolu, Sāmoa, Sept. 4, 2014. Photo by Keli Takenaga. Click to enlarge.

Ha‘o dutifully returned home to Hawai‘i and focused on her education. She studied Polynesian voyaging techniques from pwo master navigator Chad Kālepa Baybayan, navigator in residence at ‘Imiloa. She got married, had three children, became an education associate and outreach coordinator at ‘Imiloa, and enrolled at UH Hilo.

When she was called back to Sāmoa by her grandfather, who was closely watching the progress of her education, he had a stipulation: she must return “by the stars,” and navigate her way home on a wa‘a (canoe). It was a daunting request. She tried to reason with him about the impossibility of achieving his wish. But he was steadfast. He assured her that “when the time is right, things will fall into place and you will return by way of the sea and the stars.”

On board, Cesi speaks to crew. She is holding and looking at/reading from a book.
The apprentice navigator sets course and direction for the day, Aug. 19, 2014. Photo by Kamakanioka’āina Paikai. Click to enlarge.

And he was right, Ha‘o now says, things did fall into place, in a “series of amazing and very interesting events.” Serendipitously, she met master navigator Nainoa Thompson when he visited ‘Imiloa, and one connection led to another. Soon, she was seen as an accomplished student of navigation, and an opportunity arose for her to serve as a navigator’s apprentice aboard Hōkūle‘a, as a part of its Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage now underway (see recent update on Hōkūle‘a and its escort canoe Hikianalia departing American Samoa on Oct. 16, bound for Tonga and Aotearoa).

Cesi on edge of canoe, with ocean, Apia, Samoa, in background.
Pulling into port in Apia, Sāmoa, Sept. 1, 2014. Photo by  Marcel Honoré. Used with permission.
Cesi, seated, holds large framed photo of her grandfather. The photo is colored in a monotone reddish brown. He is wearing lei.
Celeste holds a portrait of her grandfather, Tialavea Morris. Family photo. Click to enlarge.

It goes without saying that for Ha‘o, the voyage is an extremely significant experience in her life. It was a fulfillment of her promise to her grandfather ten years in the making to navigate and return to their islands the way her ancestors once did, “by way of the sea and the stars.” As an added challenge, her grandfather also asked that she share the knowledge that she gained as an apprentice under pwo navigator Kālepa Baybayan with her people in Sāmoa. She says her grandfather’s hope was that the voyage and the knowledge she brought would inspire their Samoan community to leave their shores once again the way their kupuna did and to bring navigation back to the place where it all began.

“Aside from a successful landfall amidst nine days of adverse conditions, I would have to say that my most triumphant moment came when I had the opportunity to teach Ka Pānānā Hōkū, the Hawaiian Star Compass, to a small group of about 30 people following our arrival to American Sāmoa,” she says. “It was the first time I was no longer talking about my teacher’s experiences, but rather, I was teaching from my own. At that moment I became a genuine educator of wayfinding and navigation and to be genuine at anything in life, whether big or small, is definitely a great accomplishment.”

Fulfilling her grandfather’s wish did not come without heartbreak. Upon arriving in Sāmoa, she learned that while she was at sea, her grandfather had suffered two heart attacks while in California and would not be able to see and welcome her home.

“At first I couldn’t understand the reason for the total plot twist but I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she says. “That reason became apparent much later in my trip as I was tasked to develop a way by which I could help teach Sāmoa, the birthplace of navigation, how to navigate again. I thought I was there to fulfill a promise to my grandfather, but it took him not being there to make me realize that this journey was always meant to be so much bigger (than the two of us).”

The scholar

Ha‘o has now returned home to Hawai‘i after her summer adventure aboard Hōkūle‘a. She continues her work at ‘Imiloa and her studies at UH Hilo. She says her passion has always been about bridge building and promoting place-based teaching and learning of astronomy and science through a cultural perspective, and her work and studies reflect this.

Here are some of Ha‘o’s thoughts about the degree program she’s designed for herself, specifically laying the foundation for the future she plans in education and outreach:

Hawaiʻi’s heritage is one that stems from some of history’s greatest innovators and explorers. It is with this same spirit of innovation and exploration that we continue to illuminate and honor Hawaiʻi’s wondrous treasures of the past, present and future. However, through countless examples we have witnessed the dangers that can follow when individuals who see little to no importance in connecting one’s self to place execute such progressive endeavors.

The example that resonates with me most when it comes to these epic clashes of science and culture is that of astronomy atop Maunakea. Since the fifth grade my desire to become an astronomer put me in the compromising position of having to choose whether I wanted to be a world-class scientist or a “pono Hawaiian.” It was as a seventh grader, however, that I realized that I could be both and since then have set out to build that bridge that connects these two worlds.

Over the years, I have come to realize that there are many local keiki, who like me, love science and astronomy, but for various reasons decide to not pursue a future in these fields. I hope to change this. I hope to inspire them to not only go after these dreams, but also, to teach them how to do so in a manner that will allow them to thrive respectfully in their field and in this place. To do this, I believe that the culture-based education is the key.

Therefore, I seek to know how the teaching and learning of modern astronomy and science through a Hawaiian perspective can catalyze community empowerment and produce individuals that are grounded in a Hawaiian worldview who become contributors to our local and global communities. With this in mind, the goals of my proposed major-equivalent program are five-fold:

  1. Build an understanding of how Maunakea nurtures respectful and responsible relationships that connect us to akua, ‘āina, and kanaka.
  2. Utilize Hawaiian educational processes, knowledge, perspectives and applications to acquire scientific reasoning, critical thinking, communication and teaching skills.
  3. Attain a basic knowledge of astronomy, the physical principles underlying it and discover through a Hawaiian lens its relationship to other areas of ’ike (a holistic way of knowing cognitively, emotionally, spiritually and physically).
  4. Evaluate the social, economic and environmental impacts of current and future astronomy initiatives atop Maunakea.
  5. Develop and deliver culture-based education content that engages grades K-12 about Hawaiʻi’s legacy and future of exploration and innovation.

Looking to the future

“Now that I have returned from this amazing voyage, equipped with the skills, knowledge, real-world experiences and relationships needed in order to do so, I am excited to get back to work,” she says. She’s working on the development of ʻImiloa’s newest outreach endeavor, MANU. MANU is the acronym for Modern and Ancient ways of Navigating our Universe.

“My vision is that this program will help motivate young minds to engage in various fields of science in a way that is grounded in their cultural worldview, whether that be Hawaiian, Samoan or anything else,” she says. “With this plan in motion and a graduation next fall with my degree in culture-based astronomy education, everything seems to be falling into place.”

Upcoming event

WHO: Celeste “Cesi” Ha‘o

WHAT: A talk on “Seeking Samoa: A Taupou’s Voyage Home”

WHERE: ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center

WHEN: Friday, October 24, 2014 at 7:00 p.m.

This program will feature apprentice navigator and Hilo native Celeste Manuia Haʻo, as she recounts the heartbreak and triumph of her epic return to Faleapuna, her village of Sāmoa, and the stars that led her there. This presentation will feature ʻImiloa’s world-class planetarium, as Ha‘o orients the audience to the night sky seen through her eyes as a Polynesian navigator.

The program ticketing is $10 for non-members and $8 for members (member level discounts apply.) Tickets may be pre-purchased at the ‘Imiloa front desk or by phone, using Visa, MasterCard, Discover, or JCB, by calling (808) 969-9703 during regular business hours. Tickets are non-refundable.


About the writer of this story: Susan Enright is a public information specialist for the Office of the Chancellor and editor of UH Hilo Stories. She received her bachelor of arts in English and certificate in women’s studies from UH Hilo.

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