Moana: “We Know the Way”

I’ve been listening to the Moana soundtrack on heavy rotation lately. It gives me a connection to the film while I wait to go see it again. One song that I keep coming back to is this one, “We Know the Way.” Spoilers will come after.

Last night, I wrote about Moana and the ocean. This song appears at that crucial moment in the film when Moana learns that her ancestors were sea voyagers. The scene, which involves a cave in that epic sort of way would make Joseph Campbell proud. We can learn so much of ourselves when we go into caves, or at least that’s what the myths tell us. Moana goes into the cave at her grandmother’s advice, because Moana is trying to learn why the island is dying. She is instructed to bang the drum and listen to what the cave tells her. The cave sings “We Know the Way” to her.

Here’s a lyric excerpt:

We read the wind and the sky
When the sun is high
We sail the length of the seas
On the ocean breeze
At night we name every star
We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are

The wayfinding tradition is that they learn how to read the stars, the ocean, and the wind to navigate the sea. Because they have been landlubbers for so long, they’ve forgotten how. The secrets weren’t passed down. When Moana’s father tried to venture beyond the reef, he didn’t know how to sail, so when he encountered a storm, he lost his best friend to the depths. He never forgave himself, and when he became the chief, he put an end to voyaging past the boundary of the reef. Moana, whose name means ocean, couldn’t ignore the call.

Learning the origins of her people is a significant moment for her–it gives her the validation that she can, in fact, heed the call of the ocean. She realizes that if she can revive the sailing tradition with her people, it would solve their food shortage and dying island problem. Her father is displeased by this idea, and threatens to burn the boats. Her grandmother uses this time to fall ill (again, in a perfectly Joseph Campbell pushing-you-on-the-adventure sort of way). Her grandmother tells her to go, and while everyone’s back is turned…she does.

My interpretation of the song hinges on the line,

“We know where we are
We know who we are, who we are”

The very identity of the people is wrapped up in the adventure. By adventuring, they know who they are. They always know where they are, and they’re never lost. Importantly, their collective Self is never lost. It’s a rather popular notion in contemporary culture that “not all who wander are lost.” But what does it mean to be lost really? Can one be lost if one knows exactly where one happens to be?

This is something that I think American culture values in our myths. From pirates, to cowboys, to space explorers, American myth is filled with people who are never lost, yet are constantly on the move. The constant state of being rootless has created a weird phenomenon that Rollo May sums up through his analysis of “the lonely cowboy” (The Cry for Myth). We perpetuate the myth of this character, even if it’s not factually true–we want to be on the move, but it does get lonely.

Moana’s ancestors traveled as a tribe. This is something that is missed in American culture. We may move in our small families, but not the entire extended family. We no longer move in tribes, and seem to value the fact that we don’t. Part of Moana’s boon is relearning the wayfinding tradition so she can reactivate the identity of her people. Imagine what strength we could have as a country if we reactivated our identity as a people, and started to once again sail together as a tribe.

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