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Campus & Community

Iosepa's story

The Iosepa was named after several religious figures named Joseph

BYU-Hawaii sailing canoe Iosepa is pictured in the water off the coast of Oahu.
BYU-Hawaii sailing canoe Iosepa is pictured in the water off the coast of Oahu.
Courtesy of the Polynesian Cultural Center

In the ancient annals of maritime history, where the whispers of the wind mingle with the crash of the waves, there exist stories of Polynesian canoes. The story of the Iosepa canoe is a testament the legacy of these vessels has endured with the seafaring culture of the people.

The story of these boats begins with the Polynesian migrations. Guided by the stars, constellations and swells, navigators traversed vast expanses of the Pacific Ocean, settling new lands and shaped the cultural landscape of the Oceanian region. At the heart of these voyages were the canoes – Polynesian vessels crafted with care from the resources of the islands. Made from towering trees and adorned with intricate carvings, these canoes were more than just modes of transportation; they were floating works of art, embodying the spirit and soul of the Polynesian people, said Herb Kawainui Kāne, co-founder of the Polynesian Voyaging Society.

One of the most remarkable chapters in the history of these canoes unfolded during the 19th century when the Pacific Islands were colonized. As indigenous cultures faced displacement and assimilation, the tradition of canoe building became more than just
a practical skill – it became a symbol of resistance and cultural pride. “In the face of adversity, Polynesians continued to work on their craft, passing down their knowledge and expertise from generation to generation, ensuring the flame of Iosepa Canoes would never be extinguished,” said Bill Wallace III, the first director of the BYUH Hawaiian Studies program and founder of the Iosepa.

The Iosepa, the Hawaiian word for Joseph, shares its name with Joseph F. Smith because of his connections to Laie and the Polynesian Utah settlement of the same name, says BYUH’s website. Iosepa also shares the name with other scriptural figures and people of significance to our faith, writes the website.

President M. Russell Ballard, the great-grandson of Joseph F. Smith, dedicated and launched the Iosepa on Nov. 1, 2001.

One of many Iosepa’s

When he was 15 years old, Joseph F. Smith was called on a mission to the ‘Sandwich Islands,’ the name used for Hawaii at the time, writes Eric Marlowe an associate professor in the Faculty of Religious Education.

Ten years before his mission call, Smith’s Father, Hyrum Smith, and uncle, Joseph Smith, were murdered by a mob at Carthage Jail. Two years before his call his mother died as well, leaving Smith an angry orphaned teenager. He later described his teenage years as being “a comet or a fiery meteor, without... balance or guide.” He wrote the mission to Hawaii “restored my equilibrium and fixed the laws...which have governed my subsequent life.”

On his mission, a woman named Naoheakamalu Manuhii nursed Smith back
to health from a severe illness. She and her husband both received the gospel from the missionaries and, years later, Smith promised her she would live to see the temple built, says Marlowe.

More than 60 years later, Manuhii heard he was returning to visit the islands. She waited for days on the steps of the Honolulu mission house. She had gone blind, but when they arrived, she was waiting on the Honolulu pier and called out “Iosepa.” He ran and hugged her, saying “Mama, Mama, my dear old Mama.” By that time, he was prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Marlowe wrote she brought Smith the best gift she could afford: A few choice bananas.

Smith passed away before the Laie temple was completed, but Manuhii was one of the first to attend. She was in her 90s and was carried through to receive her endowment and sealing to her husband. While in the temple, she heard Smith’s voice say, “Aloha,” when a dove flew through an open window. She passed away a week later and a statue of her resides next to the temple in her honor, says Marlowe.

Joseph F. Smith

A different kind of voyage

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a Polynesian settlement was established in the distant land of Utah. In his thesis presented to the Department of History in Hawaii, Dennis Atkins said this colony was established by Hawaiian converts to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who faced discrimination and isolation in the main Utah settlements. Atkins added the colony was named Iosepa in honor of Joseph F. Smith and church leaders encouraged them to establish a community where they could live their customs, culture and religion without facing the prejudice they encountered in the other parts of Utah. “This community became a symbol of hope and resilience for Polynesian immigrants seeking for a better life. Despite being thousands of miles away from the ocean, the settlers of Iosepa remained deeply connected to their maritime heritage and culture, through crafting canoes from local materials,” he added.

According to his thesis, entertainment also became a significant aspect of their lives. Hawaiians performed traditional and songs and dances, becoming popular entertainers in surrounding communities. Despite enjoying a generally happy and healthy community life, Iosepa faced challenges due to its isolation, lack of early telephone and mail services, and occasional illnesses including leprosy. A store was eventually established, easing access to necessities.

By 1917, twenty-eight years after its founding, the experiment of Iosepa came to an end, with most Hawaiians returning to the islands. The town’s lands, cattle, and improvements were sold, and its buildings were dismantled or repurposed.

A map indicating location of Iosepa

Spirit of exploration

“As we reflect on the epic journey of the Iosepa Canoe, we are reminded of the profound impact that these vessels have had on the course of human history,” said Mark Ellis, director for Voyaging Experiences. He said the canoes are more than just boats. They are symbols of courage, perseverance and the unbreakable spirit of the Polynesian people.

According to the Polynesian Cultural Center website, the legacy of the Iosepa canoe continued to grow, transcending geographical borders and cultural barriers. The canoe tells a story of exploration, resilience, love, and the enduring bond between humanity and the sea, says the website.

According to the Polynesian Voyaging Society website, canoes are made to perpetuate the art and science of traditional Polynesian voyaging and the spirit of exploration through experiential programs. They added these programs will inspire students around the world and their communities to respect and care for themselves and their natural and cultural environments.