Monday, May 19, 2008

Polynesia (Samoa, Aotearoa, Tonga)

One of the highlights of my trip to Hawaii was a visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center. Located in La'ie, on the famous north shore of Oahu, the Polynesian Cultural Center has been instrumental in entertaining and enlightening the world on the people and the culture of Polynesia. A part of BYU Hawaii, PCC has been employing students, earning pay for their studies. These students are encouraged to share their customs and traditions with the world, helping to preserve their identities and the Polynesian culture in the modern world.

If you ever go to Hawaii, the Polynesian Cultural Center is another must see on this paradise! A ticket to this wonderful attraction includes a tour of different Polynesian island villages, with their own native houses, with native speakers, and full of arts, crafts, dances, and food from each island are showcased. There's even a lu'au, a canoe pageant, and an incredible night show that features an enormous amount of talented dancers, singers, and incredible music and fire artists. You will need a few days to spend at this exciting attraction, but one day should be enough to give you a mini tour of the Polynesian islands and a day full of fun and good times.

The name Polynesia is a Greek derivative meaning "many islands", for the more than 1000 islands that make up the Polynesian Triangle. The Polynesian Triangle extends northward to Havai'i (Hawaii), to the southeast towards Rapa Nui (Easter Island), southwest towards Aotearoa (New Zealand). About 3,600 years ago, it is believed that the first Polynesians left the Malay Archipelago and entered the Pacific via Papua New Guinea. With their 'alia (or double hulled canoes), the Polynesians would spend the next millennium exploring and settling the vast Pacific, with only the sun and stars to guide them. No other people in known history has ever migrated as far on the sea as the Polynesians did, across an ocean that covers more than half of the world's surface. Such great navigational skills have spawned numerous theories about the origins of the Polynesians.

(Click on pic to enlarge OR right click, then open in new tab)

The genetic record indicates that the Polynesians share a link with people of the New Guinea highlands and amazingly enough, the natives of North American tribes, particularly the Tlingit, Kwakiutl, and Haida of Alaska and Canada. In fact, some customs and words are very similar. The Haida name for their homeland is Haida'gwai'i, similar to the Polynesian belief that their original place of origin is Hawaiki (as in the island of Havai'i in Hawai'i or Savai'i in Samoa). The term Tongass means southern in Haida is similar to the Samoan term for south, Toga, which also identifies the islands to the south named Tonga. Plant studies find that the Maoris of Aotearoa even ventured as far as South America and brought back plants to farm in New Zealand.

The adventurer Thor Heyerdahl himself theorized that the South American Indians are the ancestors of the Polynesians; he even sailed in a raft with a group in his famous Kon Tiki Expedition to prove his point that such a feat could be done. While such an astonishing feat did prove that it was possible to sail the Pacific using ancient designed rafts, the genetic, archaeological, and anthropological evidence suggests that Polynesia was settled from the west towards the east. Furthermore, no traces of South American Indians DNA are present in Polynesians.

Regardless of their point of origin, the Polynesians culture came into being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. All Polynesians agree that their journey into the rest of the Pacific began in Samoa, the heart of Polynesia.


means "hello" in Samoa, the cradle of Polynesia! The launching point of all Polynesian islanders, Samoa means "Sacred Center". Our visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center Villages began, appropriately, at the Samoan Village. Samoans are known in the Pacific as the happy people, famed for their generosity and for their zest for living life to the fullest. They are the life of the party, among the loudest and most passionate of the Polynesians. I luved this village, because they were funny!!! And thus, they set the tone for a great visit.

Our host at the Samoan village was this young fella, who came out to warm up the crowd. Not that we needed any warming up with the Hawaiian sun burning down on us. He taught the crowd different types of claps and led the crowd in a rendition of a traditional Samoan beat...which turned out to be an awfully familiar tune in sports stadiums around the globe.

He then introduced us to the next Samoan, a funny fella who taught us a little about the Samoan culture. In Samoa, the men do the cooking; women cook also, but as he pointed out, that in preparing a meal from coconuts,

"The record is 3 minutes for men," he paused," The ladies, 2..."
The crowd cheers, then he continues,"days." And we laughed.

He also talked about how Samoans are known as the happy people. The secret, he said, was to "keep the women happy, and everyone is happy." And a happy woman has "someone who cooks for her, which makes her happy." Again the crowd claps, "That makes men happy. I'm happy," he paused, "that I'm not back there cooking all the time." Again, we laugh.

Then, he proceeded to show us how to husk a coconut, extract the fluids and meat, and the difference between coconut milk and coconut juice. But the most fantastic thing of all was how he asked the crowd, "How did man first make fire without a lighter or match stick?"

And the crowd responded, "Rubbing sticks together" and he proceeded to do just that! Within two minutes, he did start a fire! I tried to take a picture, but those people in the front stood up and blocked my view! Bastards!!!

This was followed by a demonstration of coconut tree climbing. The host climbed a 40 ft coconut tree! As he was climbing, his buddy, the fire starter was narrating. When the host got to the top, he started doing tricks and poses, much to our amusement.

Fire starter was telling us how Samoan men are known for their climbing skills and their amazing ability "jump from one coconut tree to the next one!"

At which point, the host was preparing to jump. We were all on edge, as fire starter asked us if we wanted to see the host jump. We cheered! The host got ready, pointed out the next coconut tree about 20 feet away, and then...

He said, "Are you people crazy? I'm not going to the hospital today!", and proceeded to climb down as we laughed and clapped.

The demonstration concluded with a standing ovation from the crowd and an invitation from the host and fire starter to join them inside one of the three Samoan houses; a house in Samoan is called "fale" (fah-leh). Inside the fales, there were arts and crafts such as basket weaving, fire starting, making a flower or shell ula (ooh-lah) or lei, and cooking and eating Samoan foods. There were delicious samples! It was like a small village, with a number of other hosts, men and women dressed in native costumes and showing us how to make Samoan artifacts and tools.

After spending some time at the Samoan village, we moved on to the next village, Aotearoa, New Zealand.

Kia Ora

(Kee-ah Oh-rah)
means "hello" in the language of the Maori, the natives of New Zealand. The Maori name for their land is Aotearoa means "land of the long white cloud." Ao (cloud), Tea (white), and Roa (long/great). The only islands in Polynesia to experience the seasons, Aotearoa is home to a warrior people. Such a vast and rich land would only cultivate one of the most beautiful designs and art ever to come out of the earth and seas.

The warrior culture would shape the customs and the traditions of this strong and proud people. Our introduction to Aotearoa began with a customary meeting at a Maori whare (hwa-reh), house. A visit to a whare is often led by women; women who greet each other by singing in beautiful voices these haunting chants of greetings.

The singing is the greeting.

Upon seeing this woman or hearing her song, the villagers react.

Is this friend or foe? Warriors are dispatched to investigate!

And thus we are witnesses to the Haka,

the war dance made famous by the one of the most talented rugby teams in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks.

With a display of prowess and skill, the warriors try to intimidate any possible enemies that may be posed to attack the village. They sing and chant and stomp and swing their weapons in their war dance.

A single warrior is sent to scout out the woman and her traveling party.

He finds them safe, and signals his fellow villagers that these visitors come as friends.
Now, a new dance to welcome the visitors, as the host Maori woman sings out "Haere Mai" (Hah-eh-reh Mai), Welcome.

And such a beautiful, haunting voice that echoes across the marae (mah-rah-eh), the village green.

The green marae (malae to Samoans) is the front of the meeting house we are now invited to enter.

And what a beautiful whare we are entering...

Carved out of fallen trees that were made sacred or tapu (tah poo) after a blessing from the god of the forest, Tane Mahuta (Tah-neh Mah-ooh-tah). Notice the faces of the gods carved in it's walls and roof.

The mother of pearls used for the tiki eyes to symbolize the living spirits and life itself.

Inside, we were instructed to greet each other with the hongi (hong geh), the pressing of noses and foreheads together to welcome each other. This was probably why disease helped to decimate the Maori population when they first met the plague bearing Europeans. Some sailor had the flu, then next thing you know, bam! Half the Maori population dies, making it easier for the Brits to take over.

As you can see, we ended up sitting in the back; why? Because we found a fan to sit under, and it was getting hot as it was now noon in Hawaii.

We were welcomed with evocative Maori singing and chants...

Notice the white balls hanging around the ladies waists? Well those are call poi (poh--ee) balls. Those balls are attached to ropes and were used by ancient Maori warriors to exercise their wrists for strength. It has now developed into an amazing dance.

With amazing dexterity, the girls swing the poi balls in circles, making delightfully pleasing patters in the air.

With a pair of poi balls in each hand, the girls weave their magic overhead, in front, back and all over the stage in a flurry of fast moving white streaks.

In addition to the poi balls, they also performed the ti rakau (tee rah-kah-ooh), the stick game, often mislabeled "lemmi sticks" by that racket known as the Girl Scouts. I couldn't take a picture because they were sitting and the audience was blocking any good shots, but I did capture another game of ti rakau at another Maori exhibition later that day. Don't worry, I'll share that foto soon.

We ended our visit to Aotearoa with more Maori songs and dances and tribal chants. These villagers honored our armed forces by recognizing their efforts and bravery. They had the vets and current armed forces stand up as the Maoris sang a traditional warrior song reserved for the heroes and the dead. It was a fitting tribute of one warrior culture praising the deeds and glory and sacrifices of the nation's defenders.

The Maoris offered classes on the haka, poi, and other arts and crafts native to Aotearoa. The henna facial tattoos were particularly popular with the crowd, esp. the little kids. After saying farewell, to Aotearoa, we move on the village of Tonga.

Malo E Lelei
(Mah-lo eh leh-leh-ee)

is the greeting of the Kingdom of Tonga. Samoa shares close ties with Tonga, and malo is another way to say hello in Samoa. The last true kingdom of the Pacific, Tonga is the only Polynesian island group to have maintained its independence long after others were subject to foreign rule. It is also the last true kingdom on earth.

Here, the king rules absolute. Similar to the Samoan chiefs style of leadership, the King of Tonga is responsible for the welfare of the people. In other words, the King takes care of the people, not the other way around as is common in feudal systems. Not just a figurehead like some monarchs, his word is law, and his rule extends over all his subjects. And his subjects are a very friendly people, known for their graceful dances and their energetic entertaining of guests.

The Tongans welcomed us with loud drum beats that echoed across the village grounds.

They smiled and shared with us some of their music and fantastic beat of their drumming. Our host was a friendly fella who exhibited some amazing drumming skills. Like all of Polynesia, the Tongans relied on oral traditions to maintain their history prior to contact with Europeans. Thus, poetry and oratory skills are highly prized. In fact, like Samoa, Tonga has "talking chiefs", high ranking orators skilled in poetry and communication among the people.

The drums were not only used for dancing and celebrations, it was also used as a means to communicate over long distances. There were four different drummers, and in solo and group fashion, they beat out some thrilling tunes that had the audience clapping and dancing. The host invited several members of the audience to participate in an impromptu drumming session that had us laughing. The participants were each given a weaved crown as a reward for their jam session.

After the drumming demonstration, we were invited to participate in lafo (lah-foh), spear throwing! Visitors were taught Tongan games and phrases. The villagers also taught their graceful dances and other crafts. Of particular popularity was learning how to weave hats and crowns and headbands from coconut leaves. Truly a friendly people, the Tongans treated us like cherished guests, singing and dancing and sharing their wealth of arts and music with us.

After spending some time throwing spears and making headbands, we said farewell to Tonga and made our way to the lagoon. My brother said that there was a canoe pageant that showcased all the different villages, and it was an incredible sight to see. He was right. That pageant was unlike anything I had ever seen before. But before I share those pics, I'm going to have to post more about the other villages we visited after the canoe pageant.

It's taken me quite a while to organize my fotos from PCC, because there were so many! I ran out of memory and batteries taking fotos at PCC, but it was so worth it. I was originally going to put them all in one post, but good lordy that would've been one HUGE post that would take forever to load! So, I've spent the last few days reorganizing my fotos, trying to showcase the best.

I don't know if fotos can do any justice. The Polynesian Cultural Center is just one of those unbelievable experiences that no words nor fotos can capture. If you can't see all of Polynesia, then the Polynesian Cultural Center is a great way to experience some of the magic of the other islands. It's one of the most fun times I've ever had in my life.


  1. What MJ said

    My question, there were many though, is if they wear underwear under those traditional outfits?

    Looks really gorgeous.

  2. MJ, unfortunately, my poi balls will not make an appearance as they are due for some servicing.

    CP, I didn't ask them, though truth be told, most natives didn't wear underwear. In fact, the coconut bras women wear is an invention of hollywood. Most went topless; London Missionary Society missionaries forced the Polynesians to cover up. The natives nudity gave the missionaries immoral thoughts ;)

  3. Well how about that. That is so strange, I mean who'd get immoral thoughts from watching naked tanned people.

    I'm shocked!

    Did you work your poi balls too hard on the trip?

  4. No, they were worked just right ;)