Navigating Without Instruments: You Have to Know Where You’ve Been to Know Where You Are Going


You know that part in the movie Moana where she and Maui talk about wayfinding? I saw the movie but I didn’t even notice the term or wonder what it involved. It just went way over my head, like a big wave.



I had forgotten that scene, but I’ve been thinking about navigation lately. My two scholar phase children just read Carry On Mr. Bowditch over the summer for a book discussion at our homeschool co-op/ liber school group (Pyramid Project– a LEMI Scholar Project). It started already for the new school year. (I know, school in early August–soooo not my idea! We should still be on vacation like last year, having #notbacktoschool in Utah! Alas, seminary, football practice, and the homeschool group have all started so I’m being more of the attitude of “When in Rome…do as the Romans do” this time around.) Mr. Bowditch lived in the Founding era of American history, and was a pioneer in the field of navigation. As an author, he wrote the book The American Practical Navigator.



Then something else happened to pique this wondering about navigation. When I got back from my Utah vacation, the Summer 2019 BYU Magazine was here  waiting for me. The cover article tells about a modern day Moana, Dr. Linda Furuto. She is a professor of ethnomathematics at the University of Hawaii. Ethnomathematics is math that uses the creations of Heavenly Father as the textbook.



Dr. Furuto also practices the science of wayfinding, which is finding your way without using any man-made instruments, just like Moana. So no compass, sextant, or GPS. Instead you use your hands, your observations of the waves, the wind, wildlife, the sun, the moon, and the stars. I find this so fascinating! You can see how they do it here at the article.


Illustration by Hannah Hillam, from BYU Magazine Summer 2019

If you click on that link, and then scroll down to the subheading “Wayfinding 101” you will see the same illustration above. Then read the explanations for each number. This is so cool!



Some people of the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the PVS, use wayfinding to navigate a Polynesian traditionally-designed canoe, the Hokolea, to circumnavigate the globe. Dr. Furuto has been a master apprentice with the PVS on such a voyage. She holds Google Hangouts with classrooms around the world to answer questions from schoolchildren about math and navigation.



Wayfinding uses the Hawaiian Star Compass, a mental construct. Basically you imagine your canoe  at the center of the Star Compass. Learning the compass involves memorizing the seven star houses for each quadrant between the four cardinal points of the compass, as well as 200 plus stars. This is so cool! Here is a link to look at it. Here’s a description of its history.



Two lessons I see from wayfinding:

  1. We can’t know where to go unless we know where we’ve been. Wayfinders have to observe and remember all the cues coming from the wind, waves, stars, moon, and sun. Isn’t this interesting? It’s the same in real life. We can’t know where we are going unless we know where we’ve been. This applies to both the physical and the spiritual realm. Memory is such a blessing. I read this book, Moonwalking with Einstein, last year (I actually listened to it on my drives to my weekly liber homeschool group), and learned from that book that memory is part of personhood. I’d never really thought about it before. People who lose memory lose their identity. To take it deeper, we can’t really know who we are unless we look beyond our own personally-known past to our roots, to our family roots, and even to our pre-birth roots. Could it be that we can’t really make our way if we don’t know ultimately where we came from, our heavenly home with God?
  2. Things external to us are there to guide us. If we pay attention to them, they can  help us. In other words,  external reality really is a thing, and we can rely on it. It’s created by God and placed here to guide us. Some things are universal to all of us, and not irrelevant or imaginary. This is amazing! If we had to, we could be reliant on these external things, God’s creations, and not technology, to guide us.

Here is a video of Dr. Furuto telling us how she voyaged around the world with Christ as her navigator. (The videographer lost the audio link so the only audio recording done was with the camera mic so it’s not the best quality.)


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