Tracking the journey of the humble taro — from the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia where it originated, and across the Pacific where it was transplanted — helps us to see our kinship connections more clearly. (Photo supplied)

“Traces of our deep kinships can be found everywhere if you choose to see them,” writes Lana Lopesi — and one of the most obvious ways to see our contemporary and ancient connections is through food. 

 

“Māori were once Pacific,” wrote scholar and poet Alice Te Punga Somerville (Te Āti Awa, Taranaki) in 2012. Before that, Pacific people were also once Austronesian. 

And I highly doubt that’s where it started, although what was before that are now just secrets that exist in the cosmos. 

Before we became grounded and reliant on the national identities of today, and before processes of colonisation divided and separated us from each other, severing our connections and erasing our memories, my ancestors traversed seas again and again. 

Today I, too, keep moving, in the way my ancestors did — the moana and whenua of each home shaping me. The movement looks different, but the searching for new places and the forging of new kinships continues. 

Traces of our deep kinships can be found everywhere if you choose to see them. 

One of the most obvious ways to see contemporary and ancient mobilities is through food. Across Le Vasa Loloa, Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, the transportation of crops traces clearly the places we have been and the connections we have with each other. 

I can’t say how shocked I was when I found out that taro was introduced to and not from my beloved Sāmoa, or sacred centre, as is the translation. 

At the time, I was making art in Taipei as a Sāmoan trying to think through the Austronesian connection. This meant tending to a recent obsession with the coconut and its origins, as well as the origin stories we give to it across the Asia Pacific. That’s when the humble root vegetable popped up in my research. 

There have been many ways that food has travelled to and through Sāmoa over time. Chinese indentured labour, which was facilitated by the German colonial administration, introduced things explicitly acknowledged as being Chinese, such as kapisi saina, masi saina, keke saina (“saina” meaning Chinese), as well as ingredients like noodles and rice which now have their place in staple Sāmoan dishes like sapasui and koko alaisa

Germans themselves brought over cacao as an industry, today known as koko Sāmoa. But before extractive industries and colonial processes, food travelled with our ancestors, who were carrying food with them to be transplanted from Asia. Taro being one such example. 

I’d always believed the story commonly told that taro never survived the colder climate of Aotearoa — the story being that it was kūmara that survived, hence its place today in contemporary Aotearoa. 

However, a couple of years ago, research showed that taro was part of the Māori diet from the moment Polynesians arrived. It was known as kai rangatira, a food for important people and eaten on special occasions. In retrospect, the original story doesn’t make that much sense when you think of the Pacific families with their own taro patches in their backyards. 

Research on Ahuahu or Great Mercury Island — a group of seven islands found off the coast of the Coromandel Peninsula — found sediment in swamps that contained pollen of taro as well as leafy greens which were radiocarbon dated to the 14th century. It’s thought that this was introduced to Aotearoa from the 1200s. 

The research showed that “frequent burning and perennial cultivation overcame the ecological constraints for taro production.” On the research, Professor of Archaeology Simon Holdaway (Pākehā) commented that: “Tūpuna Māori may have initially focused on taro and created specialised wetland gardens for the purpose; kūmara then became the main crop after AD 1500.”

I wonder if our forgetting about taro in Aotearoa is a draining of the wetlands, or a draining of the whenua of moana. As Alice Te Punga Somerville wrote earlier this year: “The deliberate making of dry land has been a feature of the colonial project in Aotearoa.”

Drainage is a material reality to be reckoned with but also offers a rich metaphor for thinking about the way in which whenua is not just possessed but produced as land by the colonial project . . . We drain our whenua. We have been drained by colonialism, but we have also laboured on drainage because we feel locked into patrolling territory against further loss. 

In her article, Alice Te Punga Somerville probes the way that mana moana and mana whenua have become distinct categories in which Māori and Pacific are separated from each other, and asks how we can reconnect whenua with moana. It’s a reconnection that shouldn’t unhelpfully blur difference, but rather is able to hold the difference as part of the collective. 

Remembering that taro was brought to Aotearoa — just as it was brought to Sāmoa, Hawai‘i and the Cook Islands before that — is perhaps one way to think about that reconnection. 

When I think about taro travelling, I always think about a 2001 piece of writing by scholars Vicente Diaz (Filipino, Pohnpeian) and J Kehaulani Kauanui (Kanaka Maoli). They discuss the origin of ‘ohana, the Hawaiian word for family, which breaks down to ‘oha, as taro corm (the tuberous part of the plant) that grows from older roots — a metaphor for offspring or offshoots — which is then pluralised through the na. 

Taro corms are able to be transplanted in new places, with each transplant becoming a new parent shoot. In that piece of writing, Diaz and Kauanui write that these transplanted taro corms can create new varieties, which I suppose would be undeniably influenced by the land that they are planted into. The taro corm in this case becomes a metaphor for Hawaiians being born in diaspora. 

I wonder what would happen if we extend the metaphor of the taro corm further, taking it back to the Bay of Bengal in Southeast Asia, where taro comes from. Could all the taro transplants from that point on be seen as related offshoots, forming an expansive taro diaspora spreading right across the ocean? 

If we think about those long journeys over time and space, and all those transplants that have taken root and grown offshoots, then it’s no wonder that today we have hundreds of taro varieties, each one shaped by the whenua and the moana of its new home. 

Maybe we, too, can better see and hear each other if we see ourselves not as inherently different, but rather inherently connected and in relation, through long journeys across both moana and whenua. 

* I write this essay as a Sāmoan in diaspora, acknowledging our connections and our differences, both of which are vital to a meaningful understanding of our kinships.

 

Lana Lopesi is Metro magazine’s Arts Editor, and author of False Divides and Bloody Woman.

This essay was originally commissioned as part of Twin Cultivation, an installation inviting people to harvest a ceramic vegetable for a stranger. It runs from Monday June 27 to Sunday July 10, 2022. twincultivation.co.nz.

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.