Pacific Postcards

We Know the Way (Eli Kleinmann)

For centuries now western civilization has exploited and misrepresented Pacific Islanders. The poor treatment of natives as well as the inaccurate ways they have been portrayed in films created pressure for the creators of the film Moana. There was a desire to see change in the way Pacific culture and its people were depicted and Disney’s animated film about a young girl trying to save her people was the place they wanted to see it. One part of the movie that stood out as a resounding success was the song “We Know the Way.” The song received high praises because it shows some of the progress western culture has made in accurately portraying the Pacific Islanders as voyagers and explorers. Yet, western civilization needs to be careful about generalizing the song and the movie to represent the entire culture. Like many pieces of media, Moana and more specifically “We Know the Way'' provides just a glimpse of the rich history and culture that exists in the Pacific.

The song begins with Moana discovering boats that her ancestors used to sail the Pacific Ocean. It is a massive revelation for both the audience and Moana, both who were led to believe that her people had really never left the island. David Chang uses a similar form of media to introduce the idea of exploration in his book The World and All the Things Upon It by using the opening of the ancient song, “Ka Huakaʻi a Pele.” The song's lyrics translate to, “Restless desire for Hawai‘i seized the woman Pele. Ready- carved was the canoe, Honua- i- ākea, your own canoe, O Ka- moho- aliʻi, for sailing to distant lands.” These words are just the beginning of the chapter’s insight into Pacific Island exploration but it is powerful because it uses the words of ancient Hawaiians to prove they were explorers. The same can be said about the beginning of “We Know the Way.” That first scene depicts Moana learning about her ancestors and their journeys in the similar way we learn about it from the poem at the beginning of Chang’s chapter. Moana’s surprise at finding that her ancestors were explorers allows the audience to learn along with her the history of Pacific Island exploration instead of having it lectured to the viewer, or subtly thrown into the movie.

Following the opening moments of the song, Disney provides the audience with one of the most beautiful displays of animation. The audience sees Moana’s ancestors sailing across the ocean in the boats they used during that time. By putting the idea that her people were voyagers and explorers on the screen it lets the viewer actually see them sailing across the ocean. It can often be easier to believe something when a person can see it and while Moana and “We Know the Way” is animated, the riveting animation makes it more believable to the audience. However, the song and its images represent more than just a beautiful scene that the audience can take in. As Chang mentions in his book, song was often a common way to pass down knowledge. “Exploration is retold in the songs and stories that explain the ocean around them and the many lands beyond the horizon” (3) In a similar manner, it is through the images of “We Know the Way” that the audience is provided with the knowledge that Pacific Islanders were explorers and not just land bound.



The meaning of “We Know the Way'' is also impactful. The beginning of the song is in a foreign language believed to be in the Tokelauan language. The inclusion of the Tokelauan language is powerful both because it better represents the culture, and also because it can provide meaning that sometimes English cannot. Chang makes a similar argument in his book with the Hawaiian word “ike''. “Ike expresses a meaning that encompasses the English words ‘see,’ ‘know,’ and ‘knowledge.’” Chang uses this word to prove that Hawaiian’s knew they were a part of a huge world because of their exploration. Hawaiians continued this deep understanding of the Pacific by passing down stories. “To ike something that is unseen is to be as certain of it as if it were visible” (7). Exploration and knowledge of the world was something that existed long before Europeans showed up and both Chang and “We Know the Way” show that through use of native language. 

The second half of the song reverts back to English and describes the process of navigating the Pacific Ocean. As Moana’s ancestors are sailing the ocean they sing, “We read the wind and the sky when the sun is high” and “At night we name every star. We know where we are.” Giving even a brief description of how they navigate the ocean reinforces the idea that Pacific Islanders are excellent explorers and navigators of the ocean. In fact, they were such good navigators that they “maintained direct contact between Hawaiʻi and the far- off archipelagos that included Tahiti, Sāmoa, Nuku Hiva, and Hiva Oa, two thousand miles to the south” (Chang 5) by “long- distance canoe voyages” (5). It was important that the song lyrics laid out how talented Pacific Islanders were at voyaging because in an animated fictional movie, it is the best way to prove that it was a major part of their culture.

“We Know the Way'' also successfully pushes back on the narrative that people living in the Pacific Islands were isolated to their individual island. Captain Cook, the first westerner to visit the Hawaiian Islands, implied “that before he arrived in Hawaiʻi, Kānaka believed they lived alone in a watery world” (Chang 6). There has been a long history of westerner’s believing that Pacific Islanders had no knowledge or understanding of the greater world. A Hawaiian history textbook cited by Chang also references the belief that “‘Hawaiians lived for hundreds of years isolated from the rest of the world,’ they ‘knew nothing of events in Europe or the Americas or Asia, or even on the other Polynesian islands in the Pacific from which they had come’”(6). As we see in “We Know the Way'' that could not be further from the truth — Pacific Islanders were able to navigate and explore the ocean they lived on. By “1778, Kānaka already had a deep and broad knowledge of the world, particularly of the ocean that was their home” (3).

While there is no way to know for sure why this belief became so mainstream, Epeli Hau’ofa believes it came from the placement of boundaries and borders between islands. “No longer could they travel freely to do what they had done for centuries. They were cut off from their relatives abroad, from their far-flung sources of wealth and cultural enrichment. This is the historical basis of the view that our countries are small, poor, and isolated. It is true only insofar as people are still fenced in and quarantined” (155). That is why it is so valuable for Moana to correct this centuries-old inaccuracy. It is not well known that Pacific Islanders were voyagers and excellent navigators but it is one of the most impressive parts of their culture. By putting the idea on display as a central theme in the movie, Disney and Moana help convince Americans that exploration and voyaging is an essential part of Islanders’ culture. 

The demigod Maui also plays a large role in developing the understanding of Pacific exploration by the Islanders, despite not being in the song “We Know the Way.” As Moana looks to return the heart of Te Fiti, Maui puts the song's lyrics into practice. Maui, an expert navigator, teaches Moana how to read the wind and use the stars in order to navigate the ocean. The scene is another powerful representation of Pacific Islander exploration and pushes a similar narrative to the arguments made by Hau’ofa. “The world of our ancestors was a large sea full of places to explore, to make their homes in, [and] to breed generations of seafarers like them” (153). The passing down of traditions is an important aspect to Pacific Islander culture. By creating the scene where Maui is able to teach Moana, who eventually becomes an expert, it puts that tradition on full display.

While Maui’s teaching scene and the traditions of exploration that Moana conveys to the audience were praised by Pacific Islanders, the representation of Maui is something that does not accurately portray what all natives of the Pacific Islands believe. The idea behind Maui was for the character to look like the grandfather of the actor who played Maui, the Rock. Yet the portrayal offended a lot of natives of the Pacific Island. Their belief of Maui is a “teenager on the verge of manhood” (Herman), not the massive human being that Maui appears like in the movie. In fact, many natives of the Pacific Islands find the representation offensive because it reinforces the idea that Polynesian men are overweight (Herman).

That may not have been the intention of Disney and the movie makers but that has been a criticism nonetheless. Disney may have been well intentioned in trying to represent the Rock and his Polynesian ancestry, but by doing so they overlook the majority of Polynesians who so rarely see themselves on the big screen. By being one of the few motion pictures to focus on the Pacific, and more specifically the Pacific Islands, it was imperative that Disney tried their best to represent the majority of Polynesians. Their representation of Maui failed to do that.


“We Know the Way” is considered a successful part of the movie but it does not provide everything there is to know about Pacific history or even exploration by Pacific Islanders. The song could not possibly show the “derogatory and belittling views of indigenous cultures [in Oceania] are traceable to the early years of interaction with Europeans” (149). “We Know the Way” did what it was meant to accomplish: capture an accurate history of Pacific Islanders exploration in broad strokes. Neither the movie nor the song is a history lesson, that is not its purpose. The movie is a fictional animated film about a young girl who travels the Pacific to save her people and although there are some accurate parts the movie is still meant to be entertainment.

Moana also slightly hampered “We Know the Way'' with its most popular song “How Far I’ll Go.” In “How Far I’ll Go” Moana expresses her desire to explore the ocean while also inferring that no one from her island knows much about the Pacific. This narrative plays into the one that Cook believed in and has dominated Western culture for a long time. While the belief is dispelled later in the film, the song is the most popular from the movie despite the misleading claim it makes. The reality is that Moana is a product, entertainment. While Disney may have wanted to be as accurate as possible in their portrayal of the Pacific and its people, it is economic factors that control the business. Ultimately “We Know the Way'' is just a basic piece of information about Pacific Islanders that is a part of a Disney movie.

Another piece of criticism that Disney received about the song and the movie as a whole was that it attempted to combine several different Polynesian cultures into one. Despite Disney’s best intention to try and include all of Polynesia, the movie offends some people because certain aspects of the film may not represent their culture as strongly as it does another. This concern occurs because of the lack of media on Pacific Island culture. If Moana was not one of the very few films that attempt to accurately portray the culture then it would be possible for Disney to focus specifically on one island and its own culture instead of clumping all the islands into one.


For all Moana and “We Know the Way” lacks, it remains a major improvement from past representations of the Pacific in popular culture. By actually giving an accurate portrayal of Pacific and the culture that it holds, it helps inform many people in the United States who have very little knowledge about the Pacific and the people that call it home. While one movie and more specifically, one song, is incapable of teaching a national audience all there is to know about the Pacific Islands and its culture, it is a solid start and lays the groundwork for how it should be represented in the future. Hopefully Moana is just one of the earliest steps in that direction.

Work Cited

Chang, David A. The World and All the Things upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration. University of Minnesota Press, 2016. 

“Exploring Our Fluid Earth.” Wayfinding and Navigation |,

Hau'ofa, Epeli. “Our Sea of Islands.” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 6, no. 1, 1994, pp. 148–161. 

Herman, Doug. “How the Story of ‘Moana’ and Maui Holds Up Against Cultural Truths.”, Smithsonian Institution, 2 Dec. 2016,



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