A Hawaiian voyager juggling motherhood and saving her homeland

For generations, Leilani’s family farmed the islands for kalo (taro), which, for Kānaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) people, holds a direct connection to the ancestors. She went to school at Kamehameha and grew up immersed in her culture and language, learning to sail with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Her biggest sail yet is coming up, on the all-women crew of the Hōkūleʻa, a double-hulled canoe that will traverse the Pacific Ocean using the sun, stars, and swells. On her voyages around Polynesia, she is invited onshore and learns from other island nations about how they are dealing with rising sea levels. With her embodied wisdom and her background in research from the University of Hawaiʻi, she is mapping out how quickly the shores will overtake the islands her family has lived on for generations, and collecting oral stories about what can be done about it, from local people and leaders.

On the eve of the journey to Tahiti, she drops off her kids at her sister’s place and the two of them get into a fight. Her sister stands in the doorway, asking: “Why you always leaving? Leaving the family and for what?” Leilani yells back that she’s not abandoning her kids—she’s doing this voyage for her kids, and their kids.

Her sister feels hurt, and the kids have overheard the conversation too, she knows it . . . but still, Leilani leaves, reminding herself this is about her responsibility to honua (the earth). Raising kids, supporting the extended ‘ohana (family), farming kalo, working on the sea level–rise project—it’s a lot for just one person to handle. She is exhausted, too, and finds comfort and rest being on the voyage with an all-women crew. She doesn’t need to have all the answers. She just knows this is the path she needs to take.