LOCATION: Polynesia, a vast string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, Tonga, and French Polynesia
LANGUAGE: Native languages of the islands; Maori; Tahitian; French; English
RELIGION: Christianity with elements of native religion
The Polynesians are the original inhabitants of a vast string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, from New Zealand in the south to Hawaii in the north. The western boundary is Easter Island. Polynesia means "many islands" in Greek. The cultures of the region share many traits with each other. Their differences are often subtle and not readily perceived by outsiders.
In the Pacific region, there is an important distinction between "high" islands and "low" islands. Tahiti, a typical high island, is relatively large with steep slopes, rich plant life, and many waterfalls and rushing streams. Coastal plains are absent or extremely limited on high islands. Atolls (ring-shaped islands made of coral) are the most common low islands in Polynesia. These are typically "desert islands" that are low-lying, narrow, and sandy with few, if any, surface streams. Low islands have less biodiversity (variety of plant and animal species) than do high islands.
At the time of the first known European contact with the Polynesian world in the 1500s, there were probably around half a million people scattered throughout the region. European powers competed for ownership of most of Polynesia's inhabited islands. The indigenous (native) populations suffered greatly at the hands of the Europeans. They lost their traditional lands and resources, and suffered discrimination against their cultures and languages.
The Polynesian languages are part of the larger Austronesian language family that includes most of the languages of the Pacific Basin. Polynesian languages form a subgroup of this extensive language family.
Many Polynesian languages face an uncertain future. Attempts have been made to revitalize the Hawaiian language through educational programs at the university and the elementary school levels. Tahitian has been used as a lingua franca (common language) throughout the Tuamotuan Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and the Austral Islands since before European contact. It is threatening the survival of the native languages of those islands. In New Zealand, all speakers of Maori—the indigenous Polynesian language of the island chain—are bilingual in English.
Polynesian societies have an exceptionally rich body of folklore and mythology. Myths relate the origins of human beings as well as the origins of cultural practices and institutions. There is a considerable body of mythology regarding the origins of tattooing in Polynesian cultures. Some origin myths describe the process of migration from one island to another via ocean-going canoes. Cultural heroes are important figures in the folklore of Polynesian societies.
Polynesian religion changed dramatically with the coming of European missionaries in the early part of the nineteenth century. From what is known of precontact (before European contact) practices, there was considerable variation in religious ideas and practices throughout Polynesia. In Hawaii, for instance, chiefs were genealogically related to gods and, as a result, were believed to possess sacred power called mana. The Hawaiian system recognized four major gods and one major goddess.
The concept of tapu , English "taboo," was important in all Polynesian societies. This refers to anything forbidden due to sacredness. There were rules that served to protect through forbidding certain actions. In the Marquesas Islands, a woman's menstrual cloth itself was not tapu; however, it was tapu to touch it.
Today, most Polynesians are followers of Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism. Some traditional beliefs and mythologies have been incorporated into Christian ideology.
Holidays in most contemporary Polynesian societies are events related to the state or the church. In the French possessions like the Marquesas, Bastille Day (July 14) is an important holiday. (Bastille Day is a French national holiday. It commemorates the fall of the Bastille, a French fortress formerly used as a prison that was captured by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789.) Many islanders now celebrate a number of Catholic holidays due to influence of missionaries in the colonial era.
The Marquesas Islanders had a birth feast on the day a child was born. On that occasion, the maternal uncles and the paternal aunts of the newborn would cut their hair. An ornament-maker would fashion hair ornaments for the child to wear later in life. The newborn was brought presents by family and friends, and a type of shrine was built by the infant's father.
Passage into puberty was often accompanied by tattooing rituals in many Polynesian societies. In some societies only men were tattooed. In others, both men and women were tattooed. The practice of tattooing in Polynesia carries with it cultural and symbolic meanings. There have been recent revivals of the art of tattooing in societies such as the Maori of New Zealand.
Another puberty ritual performed in some Polynesian societies was "fattening." Male and female youths were secluded, kept inactive and out of direct sunlight, and fed large amounts of food for a period of time to make them more sexually desirable. This ritual is no longer performed.
In the Marquesas, death was accompanied by ritualized wailing on the part of women, and the performance of formalized chanting on the part of men. Women would also perform a specific dance called heva. During this dance they would take off all their clothes and move in an extremely exaggerated manner. Finally, the female relatives of the deceased would do physical harm to themselves by cutting their hands and faces with sharks' teeth and other sharp objects. Christian missionaries saw these behaviors as pagan and quickly found ways to put a stop to them.
Greetings in Polynesian societies vary from island to island. Status determines the nature and extent of the social interaction of individuals in these societies. In rural Tahiti, for example, the standard greeting is, "Where are you going?" The two expected responses are: "Inland" (away from the coast) or "Seaward" (toward the coast). The interaction can continue with the question, "What's new at the inland/seaward end?" This is usually an opener for a conversation.
Premarital sexual relations are typically very casual in most Polynesian societies. However, once a permanent relationship is established, casual sexual relations outside of the relationship are not permitted. The choice of a marriage partner is less fixed than in many cultures of the world. In the times before Christian influence, the preference in some Polynesian societies was for cross-cousin marriage—a woman would marry her mother's brother's son or her father's sister's son. Missionaries forbade this type of marriage pattern. The present patterns allow for freedom of choice in marriage partners, similar to that found in American society.
Traditional Polynesian societies did not feature large villages. Instead, families clustered together in neighborhoods that focused on a set of shared buildings for social, ceremonial, and religious life. Many Polynesians had separate sleeping quarters for bachelors. In some parts of Polynesia, households were built on elevated stone platforms. Religious shrines were important parts of the household structure.
Households of the nobility had carved items of furniture including headrests and stools. Sleeping mattresses were also available for members of noble households. In many parts of Polynesia, lighting from torches or coconut oil lamps was common inside houses at night. Polynesia seemed like a virtual paradise to Europeans who ventured there. Nowadays, Polynesian houses and communities are the products of native design and Western materials.
In societies such as Tahiti with distinct social classes, marriage was traditionally prohibited among individuals from different classes. Children born of sexual relations between members of different classes were killed at birth. These practices were discontinued as a result of missionary activity in Tahiti.
In many Polynesian societies, polygamy (multiple spouses) was practiced. In the traditional society of the Marquesas Islanders, a woman could have more than one husband at a time. (This practice, called polyandry, is fairly rare in cultures of the world.) It was very uncommon to find a man who had more than one wife in the Marquesas. Monogamy—having only one spouse at a time—is now the universal practice in Polynesia.
The role and status of women in relation to men varies between island societies in Polynesia. In the Marquesas, women have always enjoyed a status nearly equivalent with men. One traditional indicator of this equality was that women were allowed tattooing almost as extensive as that of men. In many other Polynesian societies, this was not the case, as women held positions of lower status than men.
Typical Polynesian clothing in precontact times was similar for men and women. A section of bark cloth was worn as a loincloth by men or as a waistcloth by women. Decorated bark cloth known as tapa was the main item of traditional clothing in Tahiti. (It is no longer manufactured there.) A number of ornaments were worn for ceremonial events. Elaborate feather headdresses were signs of nobility. Both men and women wore ear ornaments.
Traditional patterns of dress have disappeared except for performances or special ceremonial or cultural events. Current fashion in Polynesia spans the range that it does in any Westernized developing country.
Most traditional Polynesian societies rely on fishing and horticulture (growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables). European accounts of the region indicate that the Marquesas Islands were unique in their reliance on breadfruit, a large starchy fruit native to the Pacific islands. Taro root is another important foodstuff in Polynesia. Early Hawaiians relied on taro as a staple starch in their diet.
In some parts of Polynesia—Hawaii, Tahiti, and the Marquesas in particular—men and women used to eat separately. In general, this pattern is no longer followed except in the most traditional communities and in certain ceremonial contexts.
Western-style education has become the standard in Polynesia. Many Polynesians attend colleges and universities both inside and outside the region.
Polynesia has a rich tradition of vocal and instrumental music. Some types of musical expression have been lost and some new ones have been created as a result of missionary activity in the region. Christian hymns have had considerable influence in the style of vocal music in Polynesia. The Tahitian vocal music known as himene (from the English word "hymn") blends European counterpoint (two or more lines of music sung at the same time) with Tahitian drone-style singing.
One of the most well-known Polynesian musical instruments is the Hawaiian ukulele. It is the Hawaiian version of the Portuguese mandolin, which came to the islands with Portuguese immigrants in the 1870s. The primary use of Hawaiian flutes and drums was to accompany the graceful and erotic dance known as the hula .
Throughout the Polynesian world there is a traditional division of labor along the lines of gender. Men are responsible for fishing, construction, and protection of the family units. Women are responsible for collecting and processing horticultural products and for manufacturing basketry items and bark cloth. Both sexes participate in gardening activities. Throughout Polynesia, modern types of employment are to be found in the cities and towns.
Arm wrestling was a traditional Polynesian form of male entertainment as a competition of strength. Other forms of competition between males were common throughout the islands as ways to prepare for battle. Because native warfare is no longer practiced in Polynesia, these forms of competition have either disappeared or have been modified. Surfing was also popular in many parts of Polynesia, although it was only in Hawaii that surfers stood on their surf-boards. The worldwide sport of surfing originated through European observation of this traditional Polynesian pastime.
Most parts of Polynesia have running water and electricity. Television has made its way into most Polynesian communities. In some parts of the region, Polynesian peoples are taking control of the images of themselves presented in the popular media, producing popular films as well as documentaries.
Decoration of everyday objects of utilitarian nature is common in most Polynesian societies. Woodcarving has been particularly well developed among the Maori of New Zealand. In most Polynesian societies, the designs and patterns that appeared on bark cloth or woodcarvings also appeared on the human body in the form of tattoos. In some societies, tattooing was the primary art form. Many traditional art forms, including tattooing, are being revived in many Polynesian societies.
The right to self-determination (the right to make their own decisions) is important for many Polynesian peoples. Increased nuclear testing in French Polynesia is a central concern for the region and the world. Groups like the Maori continue to deal with the social problems of alcoholism and domestic violence. The recent film Once Were Warriors is a moving, insightful portrayal of the modern life of the Maori.
Gell, A. Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia . New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Goldman, I. Ancient Polynesian Society . Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Hooper, Anthony, and Judith Huntsman. Transformations of Polynesian Culture. Auckland, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society, 1985.
Melville, Herman. Typee . New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1876.