In his recently published memoir of the sea, Soundings: Diving for Stories in the Beckoning Sea, regular E-Tangata contributor and National Geographic author Kennedy Warne writes about climate impacts on coral reefs and atoll islands in Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Philippines. He also speaks of kinship and custodianship in Oceania, and the inspiration he draws from Tongan-born scholar Epeli Hau‘ofa.
“There are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home,” wrote Hau‘ofa. “We seem to have forgotten that we are such a people.” In the following excerpt, Hau‘ofa’s words offer a foundation for how to think about political, environmental and stewardship issues in the Pacific.
I came to Kiribati with the words of Epeli Hau‘ofa in my mind. In his writing and teaching, he rejected the portrayal of the Pacific as weak, disconnected and dependent on outside help for survival — a soul-sapping belittlement that the Pacific has endured for centuries.
“What kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region, people you claim as your own, who have come to university with high hopes for the future, and to tell them that their countries are hopeless?” he asked in a seminal essay published in 1994.
“Is this not what neocolonialism is all about? To make people believe that they have no choice but to depend?”
The title of Hau‘ofa’s essay, “Our Sea of Islands”, comes from one of his most cited ideas: that the Pacific should not be regarded as isolated specks of land in a vast and empty ocean, but rather as a magnificent web of islands connected by countless voyaging pathways.
The first view — a European framing — puts the focus on tiny islands far from the centres of cultural relevance and political power. The second puts the emphasis on the expansive network that connects them. Pacific people, wrote Hau‘ofa, “were connected rather than separated by the sea. Far from being sea-locked peoples marooned on coral or volcanic tips of land, islanders formed an oceanic community based on voyaging.”
Smallness is a state of mind, he wrote. He refused to accept that state. He had what he called his “road to Damascus” experience on the Big Island of Hawai‘i. It seemed, in a single moment, to sum up all that was wrong about belittling and patriarchal attitudes towards the Pacific — attitudes that reeked of colonial snobbery.
He was watching red-hot magma flow from a volcano. Its power was unchallengeable. “Under the aegis of Pele, and before my very eyes, the Big Island was growing, rising from the depths of a mighty sea,” he wrote. “The world of Oceania is not small; it is huge and growing bigger every day.”
“Oceania” was Hau‘ofa’s favourite word for the Pacific, because it suggested a bigness of vision. “Oceania is vast, Oceania is expanding, Oceania is hospitable and generous, Oceania is humanity rising from the depths of brine and regions of fire deeper still, Oceania is us. We are the sea, we are the ocean, we must wake up to this ancient truth . . . We must not allow anyone to belittle us again, and take away our freedom.”
I found the same rejection of implied weakness in the writings of Teweiariki (Tevi) Teaero. Rather than focus on sinking atolls, Tevi wants to draw attention to a resurgent Pacific, islands of confidence in a sea of troubles. He urges the people of Kiribati and the Pacific to reach deep into their past to find solutions for the problems of the present.
I was initially sceptical about this call. A rapidly changing climate is a contemporary phenomenon (at least since humans have been on the planet) that surely requires contemporary technologies and approaches to solving it. But then I recalled that, in the Pacific mind, it’s normal to seek ancestral answers to contemporary dilemmas.
This orientation towards the past is embedded in language through an intriguing dual usage of words relating to time and position. In the languages of Austronesia (a swathe of islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans that span from Rapanui in the east to Madagascar in the west) the word for past is the same as that for in front, and the word for the future is the same as behind.
Westerners have the opposite view of time. We speak of “looking back” on the past and “looking forward” to the future. Many of us peer anxiously into the fog of the future, seeking to know what it will bring. Life is full of projections, forecasts, prognoses and contingencies. Pacific peoples tend to see things differently. Why should the unknowable occupy the mind more than the knowable?
To a mind oriented in that way, it makes sense to respond to a threatening future by considering lessons from the past. One lesson history teaches is that island people possess depths of resilience and adaptability in the face of environmental challenge.
“I see adaptation as not just about seawalls but about revisiting our traditional knowledge systems,” Tevi told me when I visited him at his home on Tarawa, the main island of Kiribati. “We need the collaboration of our international partners, but it must be an active collaboration, as people who are empowered to tackle our own problems.”
As much as anything, what Tevi is calling for is a return to cultural confidence, based in recollection of the voyaging heritage of Pacific peoples. The word for voyaging is “borau”, Tevi told me. The word for floating away is “betinako”. Islanders have the impression that the outside world thinks they are powerless victims. That the elements — storms, droughts, rising seas — are in control.
“The world is telling us we are betinako,” Tevi said. “I want to take a new approach.” By resurrecting Indigenous ways, growing and preserving traditional foods, achieving food security, the people will grow in confidence and self-reliance, and will turn away from “aidiction” — dependence on outside assistance.
When Tevi Teaero wrote a series of poems addressing climate disruption he was going to call them “Songs of Sinking Isles”. But that sounded defeatist, and didn’t reflect his optimism about cultural renewal. So he called them “Songs of Rising Isles”. One poem ends with these lines:
These isles of mine
Garlands of the gods
Will rise higher than tides
Forever ever more
I admire Tevi’s hopefulness in the face of the seismic threats that loom for atoll nations. The ancient name for the main group of Kiribati islands (not including outliers now under Kiribati’s jurisdiction such as the Line and Phoenix Islands) was Tungaru. Some scholars find in this word the meaning of “people standing together in front of a breaking wave”.
Waves breaking over Pacific homelands is becoming a common reality, and will become more common and more damaging as seas rise and storms strengthen. But broaden the gaze and it is all of us who stand in front of a swelling wave of climate harm. It will be humanity’s greatest test of endurance.
Soundings can be ordered from Massey University Press for $39.99.
Kennedy Warne is the co-founder and former editor of New Zealand Geographic magazine and the author of Tūhoe: Portrait of a Nation, published in 2013. Kennedy has written extensively about the connections between people and place, past and present, both in Aotearoa, the Pacific and elsewhere.
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