Tagata Pasifika! Where my disruptors at? Thought Leaders, Influencers and any Brave Young Voice ready to take control of our collective narrative. We got a problem on our hands and I’m not sure we’re even aware that it is in fact a problem. Maybe it’s denial. I dunno. But what I do know is that we are the only ones who are responsible for it and the only ones who can fix it.
Before I delve deeper into a number of issues I feel are important for all of us, I wanna point out that this isn’t about trashing anyone or creating division. It’s about taking an honest, critical look at ourselves and not dismissing it as “hating”.
I’m talking about the fact that we are handing out passes to people and situations that are misrepresenting our cultures [yes, plural with an S] and the only rationality behind this attitude in its simplest terms is “at least they’re repping us”. Break that down. We are accepting, we are excited and even more than that, we are validated by any acknowledgment of our culture regardless of how inaccurate it is.
And I think it’s time we expand beyond our complacency with simply being seen regardless of how we’re being seen. We, as a people, are more diverse, more expansive, more colourful and far greater than the small, limiting ideas we find ourselves celebrating. We are a complex people, multidimensional and rich in culture. How do we best honour our intricate identity? Well let’s examine what we’re dealing with.
Lemme start with one example. Tatau. I go to a gym in Hollywood where on any given day I will see at least two palagis wearing Pacific designs on their sleeves.
Immediately I was inspired to do a collection of shots, captioned with the meanings of their tattoos in their words and their reasons for obtaining them.
“I don’t know I just googled it online and it looked hot”.
Posting these got very mixed responses. It was just about an even split between people who laughed, people who got mad and people who defended them. I’m talking about Samoans, jumping at me with “if they wanna show love, we should be grateful” and “maybe you should ask Samoans if they know what their tattoos mean first”. Let’s dissect that – a young Samoan was ready to question our people carrying our own patterns that are part of our heritage compared to a random white person in America who did a search for what’s trending? That shit is so backwards. What I found was people were even more ready to hand out a free pass if a guy was cute!
Let’s take it up a notch and look at Hollywood’s recent love affair with the Pacific. Hollywood has caught Pacific Fever. It’s grown exponentially over the last few years and I’d say it’s currently at its peak with more and more of our faces appearing on screen. So let’s take a closer look at that representation.
Last month I shared a well written article by Tina Ngata where she referenced Moana Jackson and the myth that Maori are a “warrior race”. It was triggered by Jason Momoa’s haka on the red carpet for the “Aquaman” premiere. I strongly encourage you to take it in before reading any further.
Just wanna stress Miss Ngata’s sentiment that this isn’t about tearing anyone down. It’s about taking an honest look at what we’re perpetuating. Is this the kind of “repping” we want? Consultation and education is key. Here we have an A List celebrity with an international platform presenting us to the world in an uninformed and uneducated way. And he has Maori around him to correct that. But by the looks of it noone did. We gave him that pass in that moment and in the moments that followed cuz of his fame or cuz we didn’t wanna hurt his feelings. So the US and International press is having a blitz with it [headlines like “This Is How You Carry Your Culture To Work”] and our Pacific people are reposting videos all over the internet all because we’re being “repped”! We are celebrating ignorance. Who is responsible? We celebrate it, perpetuate it and when you look closer, we actually created it ourselves too.
Wanting to get a better understanding of where non-Pacific people get their information about our Pacific communities, I asked a couple of questions on my social media networks directed at Americans in particular:
Where does your current knowledge of Polynesian culture come from [specifically Samoans/Maori/Tongans/Hawaiians]? From what you can tell, what are the differences between Samoans, Maori, Tongans and Hawaiians? If any.
The findings weren’t surprising. To summarise the answers, unless you travelled abroad or had a friend/relative who was of Pacific descent, your source was entertainment, namely TV. And noone could really articulate the differences between our seperate island nations [please note, I only used the four above cuz they have the largest communities/most exposure here in the US oooh and thanks again to everyone who responded and had the courage to essentially open up about your ignorance. Our ignorances aren’t the easiest things for us to admit and we ALL have them so I appreciate your vulnerability!]
My intention behind my post was to get a sense of the root of our representation in the hopes of encouraging dialogue and creating change. And ultimately I want us all to take an active role in shaping truthful portrayals of our people.
Going back to my question: who is responsible? We are.
A couple of years ago I wrote about the flawed Asian/Pacific Islander label in the US and how we are lumped together for no good reason. One of the factors I rasied was the lack of knowledge and leadership within the Pacific community out here:
Why would Pacific Islanders in the US push to be recognised on their own if they don’t really have the impetus to? I attribute this to the fact that most Pacific people I come across here are ignorant of the Pacific. Sure this happens in Aotearoa where you get kids who don’t know where Niue is on a map but in the US it goes way beyond that. I mean you just gotta look at mainstream media to see you’ve got hundreds, probably thousands, of Pacific and non-Pacific people here performing haka when they have absolutely no ties to Tangata Whenua let alone the iwi from which they originate.
Not only are they pronouncing the words horribly but they really don’t understand/respect and honour the culture enough to know that what they’re doing is just not appropriate. I appreciate being inspired, being proud and wanting to pay tribute but that needs to be done properly. If you want something truly meaningful to you and your ancestry, find that. It’s out there. There’s a disconnect and a lack of leadership to inform this.
When looking at the depictions of Pacific people in the media, we only really have ourselves to blame. How can we expect non-Pacific people to be educated when we aren’t even educated? Or holding ourselves accountable. That goes across the US, Samoa and New Zealand and so on – we’re not holding ourselves or each other accountable.
Polynesia has become one country in our eyes and therefore in the eyes of the rest of the world. We just made up a monolithic species where all our customs and traditions and dances and legends are interchangeable [not to mention our body type resembles that of an NFL line backer]. I see “Poly Pride” thrown around a lot in the US. We talk about how much pride we have for our ‘Poly’ heritage, yet we are so ready to throw away the very nuances that make each of our cultures unique and beautifully so.
Being born and raised in Aotearoa, I have a very strong love for Tangata Whenua. The majority of my cousins are Maori and I spent time in a Kohanga Reo [Maori early childhood care] cuz my late Aunty Anna helped run one. “Ka Mate” itself [the haka popularised by the All Blacks rugby team] was composed by Te Rauparaha who hails from Ngati Toa, the iwi of Porirua where I grew up. But y’all ain’t about to catch my ass performing it up and down Santa Monica Boulevard. Dat ain’t it!
You don’t know how many times I’ve been asked to do “the haka” [as if there’s only one!] while I’m in an interview. My response is “well to start with, I’m actually Samoan” and they’re looking at me like “and?” I have no doubt in my mind that there are people who are willing to pull it out in that scenario and maybe it’s already happened. We are so much bigger than that!
So what do we do? I think the first step is to admit we have a collective ignorance. A lot of us were not exposed to our cultures like that, being born in another country and/or having parents who made the choice to suppress any expression of Pacificness cuz it could disadvantage us in the palagi world which ties into the intergenerational effects of colonial programming that impacts us all – this is no fault of our own.
BUT there comes a point where the only person responsible for your ignorance is YOU.
Noone is perfect. Don’t worry, I be f.cking up ALL the time. However I’ve learned to admit my mistakes and ignorances and open myself up to a greater awareness and understanding. I mean shit, I was out in these streets celebrating “Moana” like it was the greatest day on Earth for our people.
There were many great things about that movie like creating work opportunities for our artists and introducing our kids to loving characters they can see themselves and their families in. There were also a lot of problematic things about it that I recognised and understood to be way off but chose to see past them still because 1. I was benefitting from the hype and 2. I had family involved in the project.
Even before that, I have declared on numerous occasions how my uncle, Peter Maivia, put Samoa on the map through wrestling. I will always be proud of him and his achievements but what I won’t ever say again is that he “put Samoa on the map”. Samoa existed long before the world of wrestling and its global viewership recognised her. It does not take THEIR acknowledgment for us to exist. That’s some Christopher Columbus Syndrome type shit.
Just a couple of examples to demonstrate the many ways programming has thwarted my thinking. So we start by admitting we have a real problem on our hands. That we are reducing ourselves and contributing to the loss of identity. And then we build upon that. We start holding each other accountable.
This is a call to action for all my Pacific brothers and sisters [including Maori cuz y’all be getting it right!] to participate in open dialogue around our representation, no matter how big or small your platform is. Speak up when you see a random haka being performed by non-Maori. Speak up when you see a sloppy, lazy mish mash of cultures on the big screen because it sells. Speak up when you see something that’s a blatant stereotype/caricature of who we are. Speak up when you see something that’s culturally and factually incorrect. It can be through writing a thought piece, giving an honest review of our depictions or hopping on a live stream/podcast to share both insightful opinions and real facts. Let’s have real discussions around sensitivity and awareness with people of all levels of understanding. Let’s create content that reflects us in our fullness.
Aotearoa – I truly believe we are in a position to advance and influence this change. We are looked to as leaders in the Pacific on many levels. From our academics and politicians to our athletes and artists. New Zealand is a hub of the Pacific that has the knowledge and resources to spark a bigger conversation worldwide. We are a generation that has a renewed social awareness and vigor that has been given a head start by those who came before us. And it is a privilege to be where we are. So let’s help build and foster our leadership even further.
Very thought provoking and interesting article. To be honest, the confusion lies with us, if we don’t know who we are as a people then how can we represent ourselves. Identity, sense of place, connection to land are intergral to our existence, but like our forefathers we’ve navigated the seas for a “better life” and in some ways we’ve lost who we are, and not ashamed but realise that’s who I am. We’ve become the melting pot of cultures, a mix of western/pasifiic identities. I know I’m a Palagified Samoan in many ways lol. Gaining the best from worlds. So the question is, “who are we?”. We are not just patrons of the haka and tatau, we are more than that! Thank you for raising such an important issue. Hoping for more enlightening dialogue.
Malo Jo! You’re most welcome. I hope to come across more too!