This week’s ONSIDE is about rediscovering your roots. Is it important to make a physical connection to our island homelands? Why is it that more of us don’t make an effort to do so? Karl Samuel makes his case.
We all talk about being proud of our Pacific heritage, whether we’re from Tonga, Samoa, Fiji, Tuvalu or Aotearoa. But in January I went on a trip to where it all began for my family – the small island atoll called Aitutaki – and amid the hard, rough, isolated and remote lifestyle I got to thinking about how a lot of urban Polynesians must react when they go back to their “roots”.
You might be proud of where you come from, but how much of an “islander” would you be if you went back to the villages where your parents and grandparents grew up and learned how to cook over an open fire, bathe in a river, work in a taro swamp, or catch and prepare your own dinner?
Aitutaki is a tiny island tucked away north of Rarotonga with a population of less than 2000 people. Life there is much slower than it is in New Zealand, as well as a lot of bigger Pacific islands like Tonga or Samoa.
I am perhaps more fortunate than most Polynesian expatriates in that my family have travelled back and forth to Aitutaki since I was a youngster. So I’m somewhat used to “island living”.
But my first trip to Aitutaki as a kid was one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced to date, which – thinking back on it – was weird because I had always declared my “Cook Islandsness” to my pakeha friends at school.
I thought myself a “cultural person” and yet was being “culture shocked” by the very “culture” I assumed was mine!
I remember the feeling of being left out of conversations full of laughter because I couldn’t speak the local language; I remember being mocked for not knowing how to get my hands dirty in the plantations; I remember having to pull buckets of water from the family well to have cold baths; and I remember being excited about having pet chickens around the home and then discovering their number was declining because of the contribution they were making to peoples’ dinner tables each night.
Thankfully, with a few lengthy Aitutaki holidays under my belt, I’m confident to say I’m now an “island boy” (providing my family in the islands don’t leave any blog comments suggesting otherwise). Well, I might not be able to tough it out with the best of the plantation-digging, tuna-catching, reo-speaking locals, but I’m pretty sure there are a lot of you out there worse than me.
The fact of the matter is, living in places like New Zealand and Australia has changed us to the point where our sense of identity is kind of back-to-front. We call ourselves islanders, but what does that mean exactly? Do we have to go on one of those intrepid journeys to unearth our island roots before we can call ourselves Samoan, Tongan, Tokelauan, or Cook Islanders? If we haven’t made a physical connection to our island homelands aren’t we just urbanites from whatever country we’ve adopted?
I suspect the back-to-basics lifestyle would prevent many Polynesians from traveling back to where they came from, but I believe it’s vitally important because it gives a better sense of who and what we are. This includes urban Maori and the rural areas they originate from too.
I’ve always thought our parents and grandparents had the wrong attitude when they migrated to the big cities and decided it would be better to keep their culture at arms length. I understand the whole “when-in-Rome” mentality and it’s true that change was necessary in order to take full advantage of the opportunities in western societies like education and employment. But amid all the change to become better people we should have remained anchored to the lands the defined us in the first place.
For example, most of our parents and grandparents migrated in search of better education but the opportunity was squandered by many of their children. These children were often those born and raised in New Zealand without having the chance to experience life in the islands. If they had more of a connection to their land, however, and a better sense of what life was like there, it may have been a very different success story.
My point is not to let the thought of living in a shack or using a long-drop toilet hinder you from rediscovering your roots. The creature comforts you’re used to at home get left at the door of the airplane when you touch down on island territory, but that’s okay. It all adds to the experience and you come away better for it.
In Aitutaki I’ve experienced petrol shortages, water shortages, electricity shortages, even ice cream shortages, but it just gives you an appreciation for how far we’ve come as migrants, and it also inspires you to act in a way that makes you want to give back, which is how it should be.
Share your comments. As Polynesians, is it necessary for us to connect with the lands we originate from?