Monday, February 28, 2011

Polynesian Cultures

What do you think these men are doing? Did you guess that they are twirling flaming batons so fast that the two burning ends look like circles? Who do you think used this as part of their ceremonies or celebrations? The answer is the people of Fiji, one of the Polynesian cultures.
I spent an entire day and evening learning about various Polynesian cultures. Do you know where Polynesia is and what countries are part of it? Polynesia includes a large grouping of islands located in the central and southern Pacific Ocean. Polynesians are the people who inhabit these islands. Their cultures are similar in many ways. While the languages are different, like Hawaiian, vowel sounds are prominent. These island nations also share many belief systems. Until the arrival of missionaries in the mid 1800s, the Polynesians practiced their beliefs and way of life for a multitude of generations. They lived off the land and ocean using what was readily available for clothing, shelter, and food. According to one of the tour guides, Polynesians had no cloth until it was introduced to them by the missionaries. Prior to that, their clothing was woven from native grasses and other foliage. There were also no written languages among the Polynesians until the arrival of the missionaries. And it was the missionaries who taught Polynesians how to sing in harmony.

Many of the Polynesian island groups eventually became protectorates or territories of other countries. As an example, New Zealand, once a British colony, is now an independent country that is part of the British Commonwealth. Tonga--the only Polynesian country to still have a king--is a British protectorate. And today part of Samoa is called American Samoa because it is a territory of the United States, as Hawaii once was.

At the Polynesian Cultural Center, the focus is on how various groups of Polynesians lived before they were visited by Europeans. Included in the center's historic interpretations are the cultures of Fiji, Tonga, Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Raponui (Easter Island), Marquesas, and Aotearoa (Maori of New Zealand). All day as I listened to the rhythmic sounds of Polynesian languages, I became vividly aware of how difficult it is for children from other countries who come to American schools and do not understand English. It can be very tiring and frustrating to listen for hours and not understand what is being said. My guide, of course, spoke English, but part  of the presentations, as well as all of the songs, were in native tongues to add authenticity. I learned an enormous amount and now am eager to visit Tonga, Fiji, Samoa, and other Polynesian nations. 

Patriarchal societies with men serving as leaders, there were clearly defined gender roles. It was common in Polynesian cultures for men to do all of the food preparation with women responsible for weaving. Food included what could be gotten from the ocean as well as what grew naturally--tropical fruits and vegetables. Elders were highly respected and often taught children cultural traditions. There were cultural differences, of course. As an example, Fijians practiced human sacrifice. And in mountainous regions of Fiji where there was no access to food from the ocean and very little available for hunting, during times of famine some tribes resorted to cannibalism.

This is one of only three Fijian temples in the world. This one was constructed on Fiji in 1973 and moved by ship to the Polynesian Cultural Center.

In Samoa, it was traditional for men to shinny up a coconut palm tree to harvest the fruit.

Most all cultures have dances. What kind do you like to do? This Tahitian man demonstrates how to do a traditional dance.
A Hawaiian presentation
Aotearoa (New Zealand) demonstrating a native dance. The next several photos show other Polynesian cultures doing traditional dances.
A Polynesian interpreter demonstrates a traditional drum.
Drumming and rhythms featured prominently in Polynesian cultures.
A traditional Hawaiian hut
The interior of a traditional Hawaiian hut. The children slept on mats on the floor. Adults slept on the bed. The higher off the ground the bed was, the greater the status of the person who slept in it.
A Fijian chief's hut. Only the chief was allowed to sleep on the huge bed. His wives slept on mats on the floor. The hut had four doors, one facing each direction. Only the chief could use the door that faced west; it was guarded 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Because the sun was associated with power, his bed near the west door meant he had the last of the sun's power for the day. The doors facing north and south could be used by the chief's family and other important individuals. The east-facing door was used by other visitors.

Yes, our beautiful state of Hawaii has a rich Polynesian cultural heritage. In fact, Hawaii is the only American state to have ever been ruled by a king, and the only royal palace in our entire country is located right here on the island of Oahu. After the Spanish-American war in 1898, Hawaii became a United States Territory. Then, in 1959, it became our 50th state. That's why the popular television show is called Hawaii Five-O. So, for what reasons do think Hawaii became a state? Why did our government think it wise to grant statehood to a group of islands way out in the Pacific Ocean?

It is commonplace on the Polynesian islands for people to call one another cousin. Many times since I've been here I have been called cousin or family. It immediately reminded me of the old Sly and the Family Stone song, "We are Family." Part of the lyrics tell us, "We got to live together. I am no better and neither are you. We are the same whatever we do." How true this is. No matter what other cultures you learn about, you can readily find things in common with your own culture. We ARE family.


Rach said...

What a *wonderful* post! I, as I'm sure many others as well, had never given much thought to Polynesian cultures, other than they must all be the same.

Now I know while they were all SIMILAR--using what they had available to them to meet their needs--they were in fact quite different.

I would LOVE to do more research on these diverse cultures. Thank you so much for posting this.

P.S. Ironically, my word verification is "cousn". :o)

Kelly said...

I would be like a kid in a candy store at that cultural center. How fantastic that you can learn about various Polynesian cultures in an authentic way while visiting one location. (Of course, the bonus will be when you can actually visit those other places in person.)

Thanks for posting such amazing pictures. I love the vibrant colors.

Safe travels! You're in my thoughts every day.

Jess said...

What an interesting post! I really learned so much, thank you.

Melissa said...

WOW - This is beautiful! And I too learned so much. Especially that Hawaii Five 0 thing. I thought it was a cop call code!

joy said...

How wonderful and moving this all was! I wish I were there!


aloha and Bula thank you for sharing our culture with the world, just thought I clarfiy some infor that Im reading. the Fijian temple that you took a snapshot of was built at the center, it was not shipped over from Fiji. My dad built it and you re right there is only three of this type here today. The men twirling the batons with fire that is unique of the Samoan culture. IN Fiji they walk on fire but the tiwirling of batons are our cousin from Samoa. Mahalo n Vinaka