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Polynesian Voyaging & Pacific Self-Determination

Ian S.

Anachronistic and divisive colonial and post-colonial policies, senseless destructive nuclear testing and hazardous waste dumping, over-exploitation of natural resources, the threat of global warming and island inundation - these are some of the issues that haunt the vast Pacific, a region that covers a third of the earth's surface area. But so rarely are Polynesian, Micronesian or Melanesian news items featured in the US media, that the image of dreamy tropic islands persists in the western imagination. A tacit conspiracy by the media's advertisers and proponents of the tourism industry? The dawning of the new millennium at Kiribati and Fiji received blanket television coverage, but the rise of the Guadalcanal Indigenous Revolutionary Party in the Solomon Islands, civil unrest in Samoa, the movements for independence from France in Kanaky (New Caledonia) and Tahiti, and continued battles for justice and reparations in the Marshall Islands, Bougainville and elsewhere - received little or no press. Indigenous voices like those of the Chamorro of U.S. dominated Guam, or the Rapanui of Chilean administered Easter Island, are seldom heard.

The cultures of Pacific islanders are diverse. Since the days of JR Foster, naturalist aboard Captain Cook's `Resolution', scholars have designated three broad and somewhat artificial geographical, cultural and linguistic zones -- Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia -- a division that downplays important similarities and connections between the island nations. The political makeup and living conditions in Pacific nations are also diverse, largely a legacy of the colonial era. By the mid 1800s, most Pacific islands had been claimed by either Germany, France, Spain, or England. Following the Spanish-American War, the U.S. entered the colonial arena by strategically acquiring land for military and other purposes in the Philippines, Guam, Hawai'i and American Samoa. Following World War I, Japan and Australia took control of former German territories.

Between 1962 and 1980, most of the Pacific colonial territories -- Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, and Kiribati -- achieved independence. For many other Pacific Islands, however, the colonial era has not ended. Semi-colonial states in the Pacific include the Cook Islands and Niue which are self-governing entities in free association with New Zealand. U.S. incorporated territories include American Samoa, Midway, Northern Marianas, Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia.

At the same time, the Indigenous Kanaka of Kanaky (New Caledonia), the Maohi of Tahiti and Te Ao Maohi (French Polynesia) are under the direct external control of France. The French view their colonies as part of the French Republic. Inhabitants are first and foremost French and indigineity is construed by authorities as unconstitutional and a threat to the integrity of the French nation. Likewise, the Maori of Aotearoa, the Aborigines of Australia, and the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) of Ka Pae'aina (Hawai'i), have been permanently incorporated into imperial cultures.

In this issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly, our attention is primarily focussed on the Native Hawaiian sovereignty struggle. Listening to the voices of the Ka L...hui movement, it is apparent that the colonial era is far from over in Hawai'i. As with so many other beleagured indigenous societies, massive depopulation, landlessness, political marginalization, institutionalization, poor health and educational profiles, and an increasing diaspora, are key features of the indigenous condition of Kanaka Maoli.

One important way of supporting the indigenous struggle is the promotion of the pre-existing solidarity amongst Indigenous Peoples in the Pacific. In recent times, regional and international cooperation has been facilitated through the emergence of organizations such as the Pacific Island Association of NGOs (PIANGO), which was established in 1990. Its aim is to promote solidarity and provide a common voice for the Pacific's indigenous communities. PIANGO has allowed for the vital exchange of information on the methods of transcending the juridicial frameworks of introduced colonial laws and the promotion of new ways to model systems of government to reflect island custom.

The internet, also, has played a significant part in reducing island isolation. SIDSnet, for example, has become a major forum for the sharing of ideas on biodiversity, sustainable development, and climate change.

Another significant success story in the advancement of island solidarity is the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which, since 1975, has been sponsoring voyages retracing the epic sea travels of early Polynesians. The society's aim has been to show that a voyaging canoe of Polynesian design could be navigated (non-instrumentally) from island to island up to distances of thousands of miles following traditional routes, proving that Polynesian seafarers settled the many islands of the South Pacific through maritime skill and not by accident as some scholars argue. Since 1992 the organization's goals have changed; the society now emphasizes education and is seeking new and innovative ways to preserve `the land, sea and people of Hawai'i.'

According to Native Hawaiian elder Leialoha Perkins, the Polynesian voyaging canoe venture has generated tremendous excitement in the Native Hawaiian community. There is a real sense of connection to all the isolated peoples of the Pacific and of re-establishing the Native Hawaiian sense of their Pacific connections. The voyages have provided an opportunity for native peoples to set aside their differences and consider the possibility of reuniting with their relatives across the seas - and to learn from them -- their strategies, and their mistakes -- and benefit from their achievements. This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly is dedicated to this quest for Pacific-wide solidarity and self-determination for its Indigenous Peoples.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.