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TEDWomen 2010

Elizabeth Lindsey: Curating humanity's heritage

December 8, 2010

It's been said that when an elder dies, it's as if a library is burned. Anthropologist Elizabeth Lindsey, a National Geographic Fellow, collects the deep cultural knowledge passed down as stories and lore.

Elizabeth Lindsey - Explorer, ethnographer
Elizabeth Lindsey is a fellow of the National Geographic Society. Her mission: to keep ancestral voices alive by recording indigenous wisdom and traditions. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
As a child,
00:15
I was raised by native Hawaiian elders --
00:18
three old women
00:21
who took care of me while my parents worked.
00:23
The year is 1963.
00:27
We're at the ocean.
00:30
It's twilight.
00:32
We're watching the rising of the stars
00:34
and the shifting of the tides.
00:38
It's a stretch of beach we know so well.
00:41
The smooth stones on the sand
00:45
are familiar to us.
00:48
If you saw these women on the street
00:52
in their faded clothes,
00:54
you might dismiss them
00:56
as poor and simple.
00:58
That would be a mistake.
01:00
These women are descendants
01:03
of Polynesian navigators,
01:05
trained in the old ways
01:07
by their elders,
01:10
and now they're passing it on to me.
01:12
They teach me the names of the winds and the rains,
01:15
of astronomy according to a genealogy of stars.
01:19
There's a new moon on the horizon.
01:23
Hawaiians say it's a good night for fishing.
01:26
They begin to chant.
01:29
[Hawaiian chant]
01:32
When they finish,
02:02
they sit in a circle
02:04
and ask me to come to join them.
02:06
They want to teach me about my destiny.
02:09
I thought every seven-year-old went through this.
02:13
(Laughter)
02:15
"Baby girl,
02:19
someday the world will be in trouble.
02:21
People will forget their wisdom.
02:24
It will take elders' voices
02:27
from the far corners of the world
02:30
to call the world into balance.
02:33
You will go far away.
02:37
It will sometimes be a lonely road.
02:39
We will not be there.
02:42
But you will look into the eyes
02:44
of seeming strangers,
02:46
and you will recognize your ohana,
02:49
your family.
02:52
And it will take all of you.
02:54
It will take all of you."
02:57
These words, I hold onto
03:01
all my life.
03:04
Because the idea of doing it alone
03:06
terrifies me.
03:09
The year is 2007.
03:12
I'm on a remote island in Micronesia.
03:15
Satawal is one half-mile long
03:18
by one mile wide.
03:21
It's the home of my mentor.
03:24
His name is Pius Mau Piailug.
03:26
Mau is a palu,
03:28
a navigator priest.
03:30
He's also considered
03:32
the greatest wave finder in the world.
03:34
There are fewer than a handful
03:37
of palu left on this island.
03:39
Their tradition is so extraordinary
03:42
that these mariners sailed
03:45
three million square miles across the Pacific
03:47
without the use of instruments.
03:50
They could synthesize patterns in nature
03:53
using the rising and setting of stars,
03:56
the sequence and direction of waves,
03:59
the flight patterns of certain birds.
04:02
Even the slightest hint of color
04:05
on the underbelly of a cloud
04:08
would inform them
04:10
and help them navigate with the keenest accuracy.
04:12
When Western scientists would join Mau on the canoe
04:18
and watch him go into the hull,
04:21
it appeared that an old man
04:23
was going to rest.
04:25
In fact, the hull of the canoe
04:27
is the womb of the vessel.
04:29
It is the most accurate place
04:31
to feel the rhythm and sequence
04:34
and direction of waves.
04:37
Mau was, in fact,
04:39
gathering explicit data
04:41
using his entire body.
04:43
It's what he had been trained to do
04:46
since he was five years old.
04:48
Now science may dismiss this methodology,
04:51
but Polynesian navigators use it today
04:55
because it provides them
04:59
an accurate determination
05:02
of the angle and direction
05:04
of their vessel.
05:06
The palu also had
05:08
an uncanny ability
05:10
to forecast weather conditions
05:12
days in advance.
05:14
Sometimes I'd be with Mau on a cloud-covered night
05:16
and we'd sit at the easternmost coast of the island,
05:19
and he would look out,
05:22
and then he would say,
05:25
"Okay, we go."
05:27
He saw that first glint of light --
05:29
he knew what the weather was going to be three days from now.
05:31
Their achievements, intellectually and scientifically,
05:35
are extraordinary,
05:38
and they are so relevant
05:40
for these times that we are in
05:42
when we are riding out storms.
05:44
We are in such a critical moment
05:48
of our collective history.
05:51
They have been compared
05:56
to astronauts --
05:58
these elder navigators
06:00
who sail vast open oceans
06:02
in double-hulled canoes
06:05
thousands of miles
06:08
from a small island.
06:10
Their canoes, our rockets;
06:13
their sea, our space.
06:16
The wisdom of these elders
06:20
is not a mere collection
06:22
of stories about old people
06:24
in some remote spot.
06:27
This is part of our collective narrative.
06:29
It's humanity's DNA.
06:32
We cannot afford to lose it.
06:35
The year is 2010.
06:38
Just as the women in Hawaii
06:42
that raised me predicted,
06:45
the world is in trouble.
06:47
We live in a society
06:51
bloated with data,
06:54
yet starved for wisdom.
06:56
We're connected 24/7,
07:00
yet anxiety,
07:04
fear, depression and loneliness
07:06
is at an all-time high.
07:09
We must course-correct.
07:11
An African shaman said,
07:15
"Your society worships the jester
07:18
while the king stands
07:21
in plain clothes."
07:23
The link between the past and the future
07:30
is fragile.
07:33
This I know intimately,
07:35
because even as I travel
07:37
throughout the world
07:40
to listen to these stories and record them,
07:42
I struggle.
07:46
I am haunted
07:53
by the fact that I no longer remember
07:56
the names of the winds and the rains.
08:00
Mau passed away
08:09
five months ago,
08:12
but his legacy and lessons live on.
08:14
And I am reminded
08:18
that throughout the world
08:22
there are cultures
08:25
with vast sums of knowledge in them,
08:27
as potent as the Micronesian navigators,
08:31
that are going dismissed,
08:35
that this is a testament
08:37
to brilliant, brilliant
08:39
technology and science and wisdom
08:41
that is vanishing rapidly.
08:44
Because when an elder dies a library is burned,
08:46
and throughout the world, libraries are ablaze.
08:49
I am grateful for the fact
08:53
that I had a mentor like Mau
08:56
who taught me how to navigate.
08:59
And I realize
09:02
through a lesson that he shared
09:04
that we continue to find our way.
09:07
And this is what he said:
09:09
"The island is the canoe;
09:12
the canoe, the island."
09:14
And what he meant was,
09:17
if you are voyaging
09:20
and far from home,
09:22
your very survival depends
09:24
on everyone aboard.
09:26
You cannot make the voyage alone,
09:29
you were never meant to.
09:32
This whole notion of every man for himself
09:34
is completely unsustainable.
09:36
It always was.
09:38
So in closing I would offer you this:
09:41
The planet is our canoe,
09:45
and we are the voyagers.
09:49
True navigation
09:52
begins in the human heart.
09:54
It's the most important map of all.
09:57
Together, may we journey well.
10:00
(Applause)
10:03

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Elizabeth Lindsey - Explorer, ethnographer
Elizabeth Lindsey is a fellow of the National Geographic Society. Her mission: to keep ancestral voices alive by recording indigenous wisdom and traditions.

Why you should listen

Elizabeth Kapu'uwailani Lindsey wants the world to remember the people who came before us. The actor-turned-anthropologist has made it her mission to find, preserve and share the knowledge and traditions of indigenous populations before they disappear. She’s working with Google to create a geospatial Map of the Human Story, using the indigenous science of wayfinding to chart tales at risk of being lost.

In 2011, Lindsey, who's the first female fellow and first Polynesian explorer at the National Geographic Society, will set out on a 186-day global expedition to document what she calls "teachings critical to navigating the complexity of our times." Lindsey’s 1996 documentary Then There Were None, which chronicled the near-extinction of native Hawaiians, has become a must-see in many history classrooms. She was named Hawaii’s Woman of the Year in 2004.

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