A Yakutat Tlingit canoe from Alaska at O’ahu, Hawai’i, with Hawaiian voyaging double-hulled voyaging canoes Hōkūle’a and Hikianalia in the background. Courtesy Jacob Chinn, Ka’iwakīloumoku Pacific Indigenous Institute.

This year, Wisdom, the oldest banded wild bird alive turned at least 70. Nesting in Pihemanu—the Hawaiian Islands’ Midway Atoll—and summering in the Bering Sea, the Laysan albatross grand dame of marathon travel in her time has accrued enough frequent-flyer miles for 30-some Alaska Airlines Maui-to-Fairbanks trips.

Birds of a different feather, Alaskans cashing Permanent Fund Dividend oil-revenue checks routinely embark on their own transoceanic ventures. Some pale but all restless, they yield to escape fantasies by midwinter at the latest. They burn petro-calories flocking to Hawai’i for Mai Tais, surf, palm sounds, hibiscus scents, lū’au parties, and award-winning coffee. Polynesia’s mark on the North, conversely, exceeds vacation specials, pineapple pizza, and citronella tiki torches. Alaskans sense kinship between the 49th and the 50th, the arctic and tropical, the northernmost and southernmost, noncontiguous, farthest-west states. Both latecomers from the fringes of empires flaunt outlier mindsets. Yet oceans, unlike mountains, Captain Cook knew, form highways, not roadblocks—hard-won knowledge indeed. On his third voyage, stalled by Chukchi Sea ice, he reversed course in Turnagain Arm, the Anchorage inlet bearing his name, and again later to mend a mast and die trying to kidnap Hawai’i’s godlike king. 

Hawaiians and haoles in urban Alaska often rub shoulders cordially. Eight out of 10 of the state’s 13,000 Pacific Islanders call Anchorage home. Some moved to Utqiaġvik, where one marrying locally joined a whaling crew. Grey Daxe, a Samoan, “never thought in my whole life that I would end up here, in such a beautiful place.” Polynesians endowed with warrior physiques composed almost half of the Alaska Wild pro indoor-footballers and currently field four amateur rugby teams, including a female lineup. Many followed relatives in the military or Coast Guard, seeking better health care, education, or employment. Those born here absorb their parents’, aunts’, and uncles’ sun-soaked traditions. 

Hawaiian man dancing with fire in Alaska
A Hawaiian fire twirler shows off his skills at the 2019 Copper River Salmon Jam in Cordova. Courtesy Zachary Snowdon Smith, The Cordova Times

Like spores borne on the trade winds, a Samoan tailor, several churches, a florist, and gas stations’ Spam musubi link home archipelagos and Anchorage’s northeastern Mountain View neighborhood. Dave Rose Park cricketers in lavalava kilts swing three-sided bats patterned in candy colors but modeled on brain-bashers of yore. Stands at the Sullivan Arena sell graduation leis—carnation, frangipani, or orchid necklace-wreaths given in welcome as tokens of friendship and respect, now sewn from Jolly Ranchers and cellophane too. Eateries whip up chicken katsu, raw, diced ahi tuna poke, or kālua pork with pineapple and pink taro. The tight-knit community is an offshoot of villages said to raise families. “We don’t have homeless, we don’t have people living on the street,” says Lucy Hansen, a resident for 35 years. Hansen, from Tau, a speck in Samoa’s Manu’a cluster, worked 15 years in civic organizations, work the White House acknowledged. She hosts Anchorage’s Polynesian Flag Day jubilee whose food and craft vendors, choirs, and dance groups celebrate chiefs in 1900 swearing allegiance and ceding Samoa to the U.S. As the Polynesian Lions Club CEO, she helped ship 49,000 donated books, foundation stock for tsunami-hit Tonga’s first public library. Waves crossing 2,800 miles in a few hours batter either coast. A surge spawned near the Aleutians in 1946 razed Hilo, killing 159 Hawaiians.

Besides fruits and dishes of her youth, Hansen misses village get-togethers, elders chorusing, and “gatherings of ladies swimming in the sea.” But she loves the North’s varied seasons and ethnicities. As for bathing alfresco: garlanded, hula-skirted ladies have taken the Polar Plunge, fundraising in Anchorage’s Goose Lake. At Dimond Center’s skating rink, hula-hoop for kids and mu’umu’u gown and aloha shirt contests for adults provide midwinter diversions during Aloha Days. Aloha, however, is more than simply “hang-loose” fashion or salutation; it’s a way of being in the world, a concept related to grace, a force animating all of creation.

Teen holding Polynesian ornament
During the 2015 Polynesian Culture and History Flag Day, teens fashioned Polynesian-themed ornaments from recycled materials for the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington D.C. Courtesy Alaska Geographic

Polynesian dance and music

Music becomes a vessel for this essence wherever Pacific Islanders congregate. At Bettye Davis East Anchorage High School, with 15 percent Polynesian students, ukuleles surpassed guitars in popularity, and the plinking, short-neck, four-string instruments shrunk to toy size fully replaced shrilling recorders. Anglo and Hmong teenagers too love the portable, cheap, easy-to-learn “uke.” Portuguese sugar plantation workers introduced it and Hawaiians named it “dancing flea,” riffing perhaps on the original player’s fingers jumping along the fretboard.

Juneau, Fairbanks, and Anchorage studios appealing to many ages teach hula performed sitting or standing. The department of a specialized Hawaiian deity, it once roused worshippers to the rhythms of gourds, sticks, split-bamboo rattles, and sharkskin-covered log drums. This temple poetry in motion dramatizes oli and mele, chants and songs today backed by western-influenced orchestras. As in Eskimo dancing, hand gestures illustrate stories. One describes how Hi’iaka, hips and arms swaying, appeased her “earth-eating” sister, the volcano goddess Pele. Hula, a bridge to the past, remains “the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people,” in its final king’s words. 

Women in Polynesian dress dancing
U.S. Army service member Marilynn Leger from Pago Pago, American Samoa, dances during an Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month celebration in Alaska. Courtesy Justin Connaher, U.S. Air Force

Polynesians have danced at Bethel’s (Yup’ik) Cama-i Festival and the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Quyana nights. Alaska Native Heritage Center dancers in turn thrilled Honolulu audiences at the Hawai’i Convention Center Friendship Stage. Exchanges of customs and ideas have been seafaring’s hallmark, a bonus to trade and epic quests everywhere. As further audible proof, H3’s Polynesian-Reggae beats echo through downtown Anchorage when summer solstice approaches.

Historic interaction between Alaska and Hawai’i

Scientists have studied shared South American Indian–Pacific Islander genes and the sweet potato’s dispersal to Polynesia. But Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians (“Kānaka Maoli”) recall historical contacts more recent. Hawaiians harpooned bowheads from Yankee whaleboats—think real-life Queequegs—and crewed gold-rush clippers and steamers; curves of the North Slope’s Hulahula River reminded one salt of those of raven-haired beauties near the equator. Southeast Alaska’s Tlingit treasure counterparts of mo’olelo, tales of historical meetings and migrations. Before ledgers and clocks meant anything there, three Ganaxadi-clan brothers hunting otters in Baker Island’s Port San Antonio spotted a schooner with Hawaiian deckhands. The white sailors were “gull people,” the brown sailors “dark ducks,” and the ship’s yawl stroked to shore by paired oars, a leggy water monster. 

Sounding and surfacing, nomadic whales stitch the two regions together. Humpbacks that Tongans or Aleuts no longer hunt winter on Alaskan feeding grounds and breed, calve, and nurse in the blue engulfing Hawai’i, blue so deep it induces vertigo, blue whose purity only highlights our ecological blindness. Like Maui, Craig, on Prince of Wales Island, thrives on whale watchers and whale festivals while tourists blow their minds snorkeling with Tonga’s behemoths.  

Spruce and koa

Tlingit and Lapita pioneers were expert mariners, the latter settling the Polynesian triangle in large double-hulled canoes. The craft of shipbuilding and the art of navigating by clouds, stars, and ocean swells had withered by the 1970s when the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) revived them with Hōkūle’a and Hawai’iloa, sailing canoes of a type not seen in centuries. Captain George Vancouver’s surgeon on Maui in 1793 estimated the longest of these to measure about 60 feet, surprised that the hull’s material was non-native “pine tree.” The good doctor recognized the kind—possibly Sitka spruce—from HMS Discovery’s Pacific-Northwest stops. It had washed ashore on Kaua’i, a divine windfall. 

The PVS, scouring the islands nine months, could find no suitable koa, the native hardwood formerly used—all tall ones had been felled. Through the aid of a friend, the Sealaska Heritage Foundation chairman and Chilkat Tlingit elder Judson Brown, the Hawaiians were gifted two 400-year-old spruce logs for Hawai’iloa, each weighing as much as a humpback whale. “We will give you the trees so you can build the canoe to carry your culture,” Brown had said. Launched in 1993, she journeyed to Tahiti and Nukuhiva, renewing ancestral ties. In 1995, she reached Seattle piggybacked on a container ship and from there tacked under wind power on a 900-mile thanksgiving tour up the Inside Passage. Haines feted her crew with a uniquely Alaskan gesture—a potlatch. The guests among other presents received a package containing 100-dollar bills. “Our idea of wealth,” Brown told Hawai’iloa’s navigator, whom this kindness embarrassed, “is not about accumulating but giving away.”

Child places lei on bow of yakutat canoe
A lei of tī, laua’e, and palapalai ferns welcomes the Yakutat canoe to Hawaiian waters. Courtesy Jacob Chinn, Ka’iwakīloumoku Pacific Indigenous Institute

After Brown’s death, a red cedar house-post carved for Hawai’i’s Bishop Museum signaled the union and goodwill between two peoples, hailing “common values of preserving and sharing the wealth of our natural environment and our cultures.”

Bonds thus forged strengthened in 2018’s Tleix’ Yaakw (One Canoe) convention during which Tlingit and Kānaka Maoli leaders orated, explored ways to protect nature and indigenous languages, and visited ancient Tlingit village and sacred sites. Proud of their naval roots, Panhandle paddlers in a Yakutat canoe the next year plied Honolulu Harbor’s sapphire bay, a lei ringing the bow. In 2022, Hokule’a will unmoor in Alaska for her 41,000-mile Moananuiakea Pacific circumnavigation. Joey Mallott, a Tlingit who sailed on her thrice calls the experience “an honor and everlasting memory.”

“No man is an island,” John Donne wrote. “Every man is a piece of the continent.” The sentiment, while Eurocentric and ignoring women, captures truth. Between jumbo seabirds and jets, humpbacks and haole cruises, rogue waves and uprooted uber-trees, unseen strands span the North Pacific, wakes of a pelagic brother- and sisterhood bent on mālama honua: caring for our Island Earth.


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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