LAC QUI PARLE STATE PARK — A stiff breeze kept a steady procession of waves chopping away at the swimming beach on the west shore of Lac qui Parle Lake on Saturday morning.
“This is good,’’ said Michael Elias as he took measure of the wind.
And it was: The winds were just right to propel a handcrafted, outrigger sailing canoe across the prairie lake as easily as if it were gliding over the waves of the Pacific Ocean.
Elias was among some 30 residents of the Micronesian community in Milan who had built this craft, known as a “wa” in Chuukese. It is an authentic version of the watercraft their ancestors from the state of Chuuk in Micronesia have used for centuries to navigate the ocean.
The modern-day boat builders used only hand tools to build this craft, just like their ancestors did. They relied on the knowledge and guidance provided by a master canoe builder and master navigator from the Pacific nation, Lauriano Dillipy and Mario Benito, respectively.
Dillipy and Benito were on hand for the local launch of this craft, but both already knew it was sea worthy. Just over one week previous, the boat builders from Milan joined with members of the Dakota communities of the Upper and Lower Sioux to launch this outrigger on the Mississippi River.
“This is just the start,” said Vincente Diaz, an associate professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, shortly before the launching on Lac qui Parle Lake. Funding from the University has helped make this project possible. Diaz is an instructor for a class on Native Canoes of the Pacific and Great Lakes, and he brought his students along for the launching.
Diaz has been working to help the Micronesian residents of Milan learn about their heritage.
Just as important, he is working to connect the “Milaneasans,” as he playfully called them, with the two Dakota communities. Both of the indigenous peoples have long histories and technologies involving watercraft. It’s important to preserve this knowledge and use it as the cultures continue to move forward, he explained.
Along with the outrigger canoe, the two communities also joined to carve a traditional Dakota dugout canoe, or wata, from a cottonwood tree.
The Lower Sioux community had also previously built a traditional canoe. Diaz noted that these two canoes likely represent the first time since the 1860’s that Dakota watas have been crafted in Minnesota. This represents a resurgence as well as a preservation of this rich and important knowledge, he pointed out.
In Micronesia, outrigger canoes were traditionally carved from bread-fruit trees. They provide a softer and more easily worked wood than the Minnesota grown, green ash that was used for this craft. Carving the hard ash made for difficult work, and there was definitely a learning curve, said Elias.
He and the others who joined to build this outrigger had left Micronesia in their youth, and came to this challenge with no experience in traditional boat building. Benito said they quickly acquired the necessary skills. “They had the rhythm, they were very fast,’’ he said of their carving.
Diaz said the launching of an outrigger canoe on the plains of Minnesota, more than 2,000 miles from the Pacific Ocean, should not really surprise us. After all, the Micronesians have always been a people who have stayed on the move and traversed great distances.
The island states of Micronesia cover an area of the ocean larger than the continental United States. The people who call the islands home routinely crossed large expanses of the ocean in these craft. Benito, as a master navigator, knows the art and science of navigating the open ocean by relying on the stars, ocean currents and other natural phenomena.
He was not called on for his navigation skills on Lac qui Parle Lake, where the opposite shore was never out of sight. But his knowledge and involvement in the traditions of the Micronesian people mattered greatly. Before the craft touched the waters of the lake, Benito sounded a call on a conch shell and gathered everyone for a ritual prayer.
Speaking in his native tongue, he asked the good spirits of the local waters for permission to sail and fish on them. And, he asked for good luck and safe times for those who venture on them.
Those who may be reluctant to sail the waters of Lac qui Parle Lake or the Pacific Ocean in an outrigger can still appreciate the experience. Joining at the launch was Dan Keefe, an associate professor in computer science and engineering at the University of Minnesota. He is developing a virtual reality program that will allow virtual travels in outrigger canoes. Strap on goggles, and it will be possible to sail hundreds of miles from the Island of Romanum in Chuuk state, home of the Micronesians in Milan, to the home of master navigator Mario Benito on Polotwat Atoll in the state’s outer islands.
Michael Elias prefers to experience the real thing. He and others in the community are looking to keep the outrigger in Milan for its continued use. He said he is also looking to carve his own canoe now. He’s already made arrangements with a new friend in the Upper Sioux community for a tree.