Vale Ben Finney

I was deeply saddened to hear that Ben R. Finney passed away around noon on 23 May 2017. Ben was a professor in the anthropology department at UH Mānoa for over forty five years. He will be best remembered as a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society and a member of the first crew of the Hōkūle‘a that sailed from Hawai‘i to Tahiti in 1976. But Ben was much more then that. A pivotal figure in Pacific anthropology in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, he not only helped rekindle voyaging as a form of indigenous resurgence, he also studied capitalism in the Pacific and humanity in space.

Ben was born on 1 October 1933 in Southern California, the son of a Navy man. Ben was part of the ‘silent generation’ of people born between the wars, such as Frederik Barth and Marshall Sahlins: Too young to serve in WWII, but too old to be a baby-boomer. He began surfing in 1953, and earned a BA from Berkeley in History, Economics, and Anthropology in 1955. Ben spent at least part of 1956 in Tahiti, surfing and learning French, and the rest of it working in Southern California’s aerospace industry, at places like Kaiser Steel and General Dynamics. He then did a stint in the Navy in 1957 and 1958, staying in the reserves until 1965.

In 1958 Ben went back to school, moving to Honolulu to begin an MA in anthropology. At UH Mānoa Ben worked with Katherine Luomala (her name was Finish, not Hawaiian) who wrote a thesis on Maui in 1936 with Alfred Kroeber. Luomala, a folklorist and mythologist, was a fixture in the department — she had arrived in 1946, taught Finney in the late 1950s, and was still teaching when he arrived as a professor in the early 1970s! Finney’s committee also included O.A. Bushnell and Ken Emory.

Finney’s 1959 M.A. thesis was on surfing — already a passion of his — and entitled “Hawaiian Surfing: A Study of Cultural Change”. The MA was inspired by Alexander Lesser’s The Pawnee Ghost Dance Hand-Game, no doubt given to him by Luomala. Lesser’s ground-breaking work had studied the diffusion of a culture trait, as Boasians before him had done. But traditional culture trait distributions merely mapped out the distribution of a trait in space. Lesser traced the Ghost Dance Hand-Game developed historically, using the story of its distribution to tell the saga of the United State’s ruthless colonization of Pawnee lands and their subsequent removal.

Ben’s MA followed a similar path, looking at surfing as a cultural complex that had changed as moved through time and across space. Working with Mary Pukui, he reconstructed surfing in old Hawai‘i. He also studied the contemporary surfing scene. His MA is incredibly impressive, with maps of traditional and contemporary surf spots, diagrams of board shapes, photos of contemporary surfers, and rich historical and ethnographic detail. It was also extraordinarily long — 159 pages. Ben was to publish many pieces on surfing over the years, perhaps the most well-known being his 1966 book Surfing: Sport of Hawaiian Kings, co-authored with James Houston (new editions have a different sub-title). Today the history of surfing is a huge field undertaken by surfers, local historians, and professors. But Ben was there at the founding, doing something that would become typical of him: Taking something seriously because he was passionate about it, and proving to the world that it had far greater depth and importance than some would imagine. Today surfer-scholars like Ian Masterson, Jérémy Lemarié and many others (I apologize for not naming them all here) continue his legacy.

For his Ph.D., Ben went from Mānoa to Harvard, where he worked under Doug Oliver, one of the major institutional forces in Pacific anthropology at the time. Oliver was running the “Harvard Society Islands Project”, a multi-researcher study examining social change and economic development in French Polynesia. Between 1961 and 1963 Finney studied “Polynesian peasants and proletarians” comparing a group of farmers (the peasants) and a group of wage laborers (the proletarians) to see how their lives changed with the advent of the cash economy. He earned a Ph.D. in 1964. This research was published in condensed form in a long article in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1965, and then in several shorter papers. The book-length version, which incorporates this earlier work and more material from visits to the field in 1965, 1968, and 1970, was published as Polynesian Peasants and Proletariats in 1973.

After earning his Ph.D. Ben returned to Southern California, where he took a position as an assistant professor in the anthropology department there and, no doubt, spent a lot of time in the water. These were the golden years of expansion in higher education, when baby boomers were swelling enrollments and people with Ph.D.s were in short supply.  Ben was perfectly positioned to get precisely the job he wanted back in his native southern California. It was here in Santa Barbara that Ben returned to the topic of voyaging. At Mānoa Luomala had introduced him to an unanswered question in Pacific history: How did people get to Pacific islands in the first place? Some argued that they had sailed there knowingly, on good ships and using excellent navigational skills. But this seemed impossible given the distances involved. Others argued that Polynesian voyagers drifted aimlessly, or arrived on islands by chance after shipwreck. But this seemed impossible given the distances involved. The argument was at an impasse.

Ben had the solution: Why not rebuild a Hawaiian double-hulled canoe and see how well it sailed? In what we would today call a piece of ‘experimental archaeology’ Ben and his collaborator Steve Horvath got an NSF grant and built Nālehia (so named by Mary Pukui) to test how well it sailed. The answer was: pretty good. This suggested that Polynesians did not get to remote islands by chance. The next step, which Ben described to the NSF in his initial grant proposal, was to get good enough at sailing the canoe that he could actually take it from Hawai‘i to Tahiti.

But before Ben could return to this project, his attention was diverted. In 1967 Ben received a Fulbright award to go to Australia, where he joined the New Guinea Research Unit, a part of the Australian National University. Between February and August 1967 he conducted fieldwork in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province, of the Trust Territory of New Guinea (what would become the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, or PNG).  His topic was local entrepreneurs’ participation in cash cropping. Australian colonialism in PNG was quite mild compared to colonial regimes elsewhere. In Goroka indigenous people were being encouraged to become entrepreneurs, growing and selling coffee and other crops, and the took to these practices eagerly. They were, it seemed, “pre-adapted” to capitalism, with a strong, culturally-specific drive to excel.

For Ben, Goroka must have seemed like heaven. Tahitians, he saw, were “vulnerable” (or “precarious” as we would say today) to economic and imperial power. Their traditions and customs were being eroded by capitalism, leaving them depressing lives of work on plantations and in town. In PNG, in contrast, it appeared that economic development and traditional culture were leading hand-in-hand towards development (btw Goroka’s future was not as rosy as Ben predicted, and Tahiti’s was not so dire). In addition to an open access report based on this research, New Guinean Entrepreneurs Ben’s fullest statement of this research can be found in his 1973 book Big Men and Business. His then-wife, Ruth Finney, also produced a report entitled Would-be Entrepreneurs? A Study of Motivation in New Guinea  which deserves to be read as well.

Ben continued on as a research fellow at ANU’s Department of Pacific History until 1970, when he took a position as an associate professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Hawai‘i had been made a state in 1959 and the 1960s were a time of tremendous economic growth and development (or, depending on how you look at it, settler colonialism and dispossession). High rise tourist hotels rose up in Waikīkī and former farm land was converted into housing. Development and tourism replaced plantation agriculture as the central movers of the economy. The University of Hawai‘i grew at a tremendous pace during this period, strengthened by federal funding of science. According to Bion Griffin’s history of the anthropology department, Ben arrived after the politics of tenure, promotion, and the Vietnam war shredded the department. Dick Lieban had been appointed as chair from outside the department. I imagine Ben arrived as an attempt to bring the department back on track. He must have been seen as an incredibly promising mid-career scholar. 1973 was perhaps the height of his strictly academic career — his books on PNG and Tahiti both came out at the same time.

At this point Ben was known as an expert in the anthropology of economic development in the Pacific. But this was not a topic he wanted to continue. I asked him once why he gave up his PNG work and he told me it was “too depressing.” Although his books use the language of “social change” and “development” in person Ben talked about the racism of Australians in PNG and the power of French colonialism in Tahiti. He was ready for a change. Or rather, a return to his pre-PNG interests.

In 1973, the same year Ben published his two books, he became one of the co-founders of the Polynesian Voyaging Society. For people who know what the PVS is, or are closer to it then I am, there is almost no point in my trying to explain how important it is to contemporary Hawai‘i. When Ben began teaching at Mānoa, it had been around 80 years since a group of American missionaries and businessmen overthrew the last Hawaiian monarch, Queen Lili‘uokalani. Loss of political power was coupled with a loss of culture, history, and pride. The constant pressure to assimilate only became more intense after statehood.

All of this led to a reaction. In the early 1960s, Hawaiians such as John Dominus Holt (who wrote “On Being Hawaiian” in 1964), became interested in returning to and redeeming their heritage. This was part of the world-wide resurgence of ethnic pride. The result is what has been called the “Hawaiian renaissance”. But the Hawaiian renaissance was not like the Italian one. In Florence, cultural activity was supported by wealthy elites like the Medici who patronized the arts to build their legitimacy and maintain their grip on power. The Hawaiian renaissance was a popular movement which helped validate, recover, and revivify Hawaiian culture.

Once of the great landmarks of the renaissance was the voyage of the Hōkūle‘a from Hawai‘i to Tahiti 1976. The PVS — founded by Ben, along with Herb Kane and Tommy Holmes — was the group who put it together. The goal was to create a double-hulled sailing canoe and sail it to Tahiti and back, as Ben has wanted to do for years. Hōkūle‘a’s first voyage to Tahiti and back (with Ben on it) with traditional Micronesian navigator Mau Pialug was a validation of Ben’s hypotheses about the skill of traditional voyagers. But it was also, more importantly, a tremendous source of pride and encouragement for Hawaiian people. Over the years the racial politics of Ben’s engagement in a Hawaiian project have gone through their bumps. But today he is recognized as a founder of the voyaging revival, and Hōkūle‘a is sailing around the world without a map or an engine, not just recreating the voyages of the past, but expanding the work and mission of the navigators in whose footsteps they walk.

Ben continued to be involved in the PVS and to publish about its work. His 1979 volume Hokule‘a: The Way to Tahiti was widely read. In fact, it was a ‘book of the month’ club pick, which was significant back then. Other volumes, such as Voyage of Rediscovery and Sailing in the Wake of the Ancestors continued to update this story. Throughout, his clear prose mixed engineering, narrative non-fiction and anthropology. As a result, he established himself as a unique blend of academic, practitioner, and public anthropologist.

But as early as the 1980s Ben was on to his next project — the colonization of space. Ben was, after all, from Southern California, where the aerospace industry was a constant presence. So he began turning to his last major project, how human beings could colonize not the ocean, but the universe. Much of this work took the form of conference papers, grey literature, and book chapters published in places where anthropologists do not normally look. Probably one of the major statements of this period of his career was his small 1992 book From Sea to Space, based on his Macmillan Brown Memorial Lectures at Massey in New Zealand. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ben began working on Russian space theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, often collaborating with Mila Finney, his wife.

Ben continued to be of service to UHM as well, serving as chair of the department from 1986 to 1995. His 1994 article “The Other One Third of the Globe” was tremendously influential and widely-taught at UH Mānoa. It gives an overview of the entire history of human settlement of the Pacific from the first voyagers to the Hōkūle‘a, emphasizing the centrality — not the irrelevance — of the Pacific and its people to human history. His under-read 1991 article “The Sin at Awarua” dove into the ‘invention of tradition’ debates of that period, using a detailed account of voyaging in the past and present to disprove that there was something illegitimate or inauthentic about cultural revival in Polynesia.

Ben became emeritus in 2000 but continued to come in to the department regularly. He had the office two doors down from me — he chose it shortly after our building had been built because it had an extra nook in it, which he used as a small private library. I first met him in 2004. He made a big impression — he was tall, lean, and weather-beaten. Laconic but intelligent, you didn’t have to spend much time around him to recognize that his reputation was well-earned. After his stroke, when he finally stopped coming to his office, I inherited his PNG books. I often come across his hand writing in the margins, and they are stuffed full of pieces of paper with hand-written notes on them, drafts of book reviews, and correspondence with publishers and authors.

Ben received many accolades. The UH’s Regent’s Medal for Excellence in Research, the Royal Institute of Navigation Medal, the French University of the Pacific Medal to name a few. In 2012 he was declared a living treasure by the Hongwanji Mission here in Hawai‘i.

It is sad to see Ben go. But he lived a good life. He found a career that made intellectual and emotional sense, knitting together disparate projects into a coherent whole. And, less we end on too pious a note, he enjoyed himself tremendously — and always found a way to do it without too much trouble. In the era of modernization theory, he studied economic development. When ethnic awareness grew worldwide in the 1970s, he worked to revive voyaging. At the height of the cold war, he worked with NASA. In the Post-soviet era, he studied Russian space theory. I don’t think it would be disrespectful at all Ben deserves to be remembered for being good at making sure he lived the life he wanted!

But Ben was hardly driven by self-interest. He leaves behind bright young scholars such as Joe Genz, whose work has been featured in the New York times. Sam Low (another Harvard anthro Ph.D.) continues Ben’s work documenting Hōkūle‘a. The PVS has grown to include not just voyaging, but also cultural resurgence and an environmental justice program. Ben will be missed, but he lives on in so many of the people and institutions that he was part of here in Hawai‘i. His memory truly is a blessing.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

3 thoughts on “Vale Ben Finney

  1. Dear Dr. Golub,
    Thank you for writing your thoughtful and informative obituary for Ben Finney. Ben had just returned to the UH when I entered graduate school in Anthropology in late 1972 / early 1973. He was a very interesting and talented scholar involved in fascinating lines of research that lay slightly outside the traditional bounds of anthropological inquiry. He added much to the Department.
    Best wishes,
    George Lovelace, MA (’74) Ph.D.(’83)

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