Focus: Embrace the Pacific
During the months of June and July 2013, the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies held a series of forums on Fijian navigation culture and Samoan Dance, lead respectively by the young Fijian navigator Setareki Ledua and the Samoan dancer Tupe Lualua. Together, they participated in various educational and cultural exchanges, mostly with students on the East Coast of Taiwan. The objective was to empower young Taiwanese aborigines by bringing other Austronesian cultures to them. Setareki and Tupe's experiences occupy us this month as they share with us the amazing times, the people met, and the knowledge gained in their stint on the island.
At the end of her six weeks spent in Taiwan animating a workshop about Samoan dance, choregrapher Tupe Lualua reflected back on her trip and her rich experience making connections between Austronesian cultures.
Epeli Hao'Ofa, the most significant Pacific scholar of his age, wrote a momentous paper Rediscovering our sea of islands, in which he laid out an indigenous vision of the Pacific, one in which the people were united by their "sea of islands" rather than constrained by the seas, the passport system implemented by the colonial powers and acquired linguistic differences. I experienced these words in all their emotional and symbolic power during the six weeks that my newly discovered siblings, Fijian Ledua Setaraki (Seta) and ethnic Samoan New Zealander Tupe Lualua, spent in Taiwan, where they had been invited to engage in exchange with Taiwanese aborigines to explore with one another their common Austronesian heritage through the mediums of dance and navigation, both revived traditional forms of indigenous wisdom which they had employed to re-engage with the contemporary world. Indeed, Seta had been a part of a navigation team which had put into practice 'uniting the sea of islands' by sailing the breadth of the Pacific using the traditional navigational methods of their forefathers.
Pacific scholar Vilsoni Hereniko once told me in this 2010 interview that the important point was that indigenous communities were empowered with 'cultural autonomy' rather than them to be perceived as 'culturally authentic'. From then on I always maintained some doubts when participating in or researching cultural projects commissioned by the government that are inevitably imbued with a self-congratulatory character and language and often have a superficial focus on supposedly authentic regalia, song and dance that seem detached from the real everyday lives and struggles of the participants, who are nonetheless often obliging due to the pride that cultural recognition furnishes them with and the jobs provided by the indigenous cultural revival industry. I often find these projects like to blow their own trumpets in terms of the diversity that they supposedly foster and their focus on praising Taiwan as the source of migration to the Pacific, a claim that is underlain with domestic political and geopolitical functions. I had heard too often indigenous peoples adopting and internalising the Han Chinese trope of the "indigenous person with the great sense of humor", or what one could term a "stage aborigine", commonly found in different media representations of the indigenous community. The tendency to focus on rediscovery of lost cultural traditions I feel often clouds contemporary social justice issues between the ethnicities in Taiwan and within the individual tribal groups. For example no cultural exchange group has ever received government funding to come and see the urban indigenous communities such as the Sanying tribal village or the Sao'wac Amis who suffered the full violence of the state machinery with the demolition of their riverside communities.
Another doubt I have harboured relates to the ethnic and racial historical burden. Although I generally try not to think in racial terms, having experienced being marked as a clear and obvious racial group, in a relatively racially homogenous island, being viewed sometimes in both an unfairly positive and unfairly negative light, in the context of this trip, I couldn't help having a discomforting nagging feeling that led me to question my very role in this trip. What was I, an English national, the very same English who had once been colonial masters and profiteers over both the Fijian and Samoan peoples, doing assisting in this project, translating between one colonially-received (or acquired?) language to another colonially-received (or acquired?) language forced on the local indigenous populations during their centuries of Han Chinese domination and marginalisation, for a project which was commissioned by the same ROC government (albeit from the Council of Indigenous Peoples) and being implemented by the Ricci Institute in which the main organizers were Han Chinese? Was this empowerment?
Primarily serving as a translator and guide for the visiting Pacific guests, our entourage spent much of our time dining, drinking, singing, dancing, swimming, capsizing, crashing and generally living together as a swiftly improvised family and support network. In the host of parties and welcomings we were jovial partners in celebration. On a personal level, Seta shared with me some of his local knowledge, helping to reignite a passion for re-immersing myself in nature and all the daily survival struggles in the age of pre-convenience, as he taught me how to make my first sling spear, to ferment coconut and pineapple based alcohol which bared an uncanny resemblance in taste to indigenous Taiwan's infamous millet wines and finally to prepare and serve Kava, a tree root based powder mix, in the traditional way they drink the mix in his native island of Fiji. "Ta-kii" Seta called, and he clapped twice before I handed him the coconut half-shell cup, which he drank and clapped once more before handing the cup back to be passed on to the next person. And in that moment I felt a tingle of belonging and my own status doubts were somewhat resolved, as I realised that to live together in a globalized world, we are filled with both a need for universal fraternity in the goals of peace, love, unity and respect, and also a sense of belonging in a community of familial love and understanding.
Indeed on the trip certain doubts were assuaged, especially after seeing the reaction of the children in the schools where Tupe's energetic and inclusive singing and dancing, such as the mosquito swatting dance, brought smiles to the faces of all the school children and the tales and video footage of Seta's two year boating trip left the children staring in awe, filling the kids with a sense of adventure and a sense of their own potential to achieve their dreams. THIS was empowerment. That some of Tupe's works bring up contemporary social issues was also enlightening, and people did question to what extent Tupe's dances were similar to the dances of old, to what extent had they overturned the thorough religious, linguistic, cultural and artistic colonization and to what extent their revival had a positive effect on society. Furthermore Seta's talks and demonstrations always contained a strong environmental message, "my grandpa used to say, every second breath that you take in comes from the ocean", he went on to build awareness of the state of the ocean, with his gripping tale of his experience saving a huge sea turtle that had been dying, stranded on the masses of plastic waste irresponsibly left there from humanity's excesses. These children of Formosa, and Orchid Island, I believe will never forget that the stewardship of the oceans is one of their great missions and perhaps a generation later they will be the ones leading the fight to clean the Pacific.
I still had some doubts, however. For example, while Tupe often mentioned how some of her dance works could also function as a critical art medium to express social problems in marginalised communities, in general it seemed to draw little attention from the audience, with still too much attention on selling an 'authentic look' to improve their economic benefits. Furthermore as expected the group did not visit the controversial settlements mentioned above, and barring the unavoidable exposure to Orchid Island's nuclear waste dump, these politically sensitive aspects still tended to be glossed over in the sea of dance and cultural display. I would hope that in addition to cultural renaissance, future projects could also put more emphasis on ocean wide Austronesian land rights and community inequalities. The Pacific, must be 'united as a sea of islands' facing a common set of environmental and social struggles.
Impressions of another island
About 40 miles southeast of Taiwan lies an island called Lanyu, which means "Orchid Island" in English. The local people on the island used to call this island Bon Showao Dawa which means island people. However, after winning an orchid race a long time ago the island became known as Lanyu. It is actually rare to see an orchid on the island, I saw more goats than orchids during my stay there.
Currently the island is comprised of six villages and one tribe called the Yami (or the Tao). Despite the island's small population the local people on Lanyu have been working hard to keep the tradition of canoe building alive. Each man is expected to build a canoe by the time he reaches the age of 18, however, it is becoming more common for young men on the island to wait until they reach their twenties or thirties before they start building their own canoe. Community efforts are critical in the process of canoe building and once the canoe is built the local people on the island will have a ceremony to celebrate.
It is in the deepest interests of the island's elders to preserve the tradition of canoe building and efforts to preserve this tradition focus on the island's elementary school. According to Principal Syamen Womzas at Lanyu Elementary School, they have been trying their best to negotiate with the Department of Education to revive the tradition of canoe building as well as sailing by including these activities as a form of extra curricular activity at school.
As part of the school's extra curricular activity, it often takes its students to watch the elders build canoes so that they can learn from participating in the canoe building process.
The manner in which they teach canoe building on Lanyu is similar to that in Lau, because no plan or drawing is involved in the canoe building process. The son just learns from his father or grandfather, by watching and practicing.
The locals use Breadfruit trees to build their canoes, they use the gum from the trees as glue to join the planks together. It doesn't last long but its lighter for when they want to row against the wind instead of sailing. They only use the sails if they are going with the wind or with the wind at their backs.
The Taiwanese take pride in their culture and tradition and have strived hard to revive ancient songs and dances with a lot of passion. Their interest in how our ancestors sailed the ocean is huge. After being invited to the Formosa Song and Dance Troupe, formed by indigenous people from the 14 tribes in Taiwan in 1991, they were given an insight into traditional Fijian navigation and sailing. The Taiwanese believe that the fruit of the barringtonia asiatica — vutu in Fijian and which grow in the coastal area of southern and northern Taiwan and Orchid Island — is dispersed by the ocean connecting the islands and shows how humans migrated (floated) from Taiwan into the many lands of the Pacific spreading their seeds of hope, possibility, culture, language and knowledge.
The Drua Project — a proposal to build a drua in Fiji that will sail to the Pacific Arts festival in Guam in 2016 — is of particular interest to the Hualien Tribal College (Taiwan Indigenous), which may send one of its own to Fiji in August to learn and take back our traditional boat-building skills. There's only one club in Taiwan which teaches about the sea and I was glad to be back in the water with some of its members. I was taken aback by their surprise when I returned from paddling three miles out. One of the old men thought I was going to paddle back to Fiji.
The Taiwanese pride themselves in traditional revival and the Formosa troupe, which travels the world performing in theatre and stages, is working with other stakeholders to try trace their past to revive all indigenous cultures, songs and dances in all their tribes.
Earlier on, I did my first presentation at the National Taiwan University, which was organised by Taiwan Society of Pacific Studies and co-hosted with the Taiwan Indigenous Peoples Resource Center, with the support of the Council of Indigenous People. This workshop was well attended with more than 100 participants of all ages and walks of life. They were given an insight into the Te Mana O Te Moana voyage and the Uto Ni Yalo bole, a traditional challenge that was written by Manoa Rasigatale. It was only right that I made this traditional call as this here is a new journey for me and the Uto ni Yalo Trust (formerly the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society) with our Taiwanese friends and kin. The bole is what they have requested I must teach them before I leave but first they must understand the meaning of the chant. I began with short clips of the soon-to-be released documentary, Our Blue Canoe. Then I shared with them the history of the Uto ni Yalo Trust and its role in the epic voyage across over 50,000 kilometres of the Pacific Ocean. I shared with them some activities we've carried out such as turtle tagging around Ringgold Islands and whale watching near Ovalau, the community visits and sails with children and how we are trying to reach out to revive our traditional sailing knowledge.
After Hualien, I travelled to Taitung, one and half hours by train towards the southern side of the island, and was welcomed by the students and principal of the National Guan Shan Vocational Senior High School, which has a special class for students learning about their culture, carving, weaving and traditional designs. Fiji must do the same if we are to safeguard our traditional knowledge. We must act fast and also start a school to revive the ancient arts of navigation and boat-building for those with the knowledge back home are in old age and time is running out on us. We need to teach primary schoolchildren. I hope the Ministry of Education can allow such a school or a special class for each school to learn chants, songs and meke.
There is much to learn from the Taiwanese and there are a lot of similarities between us. While I was on the island, I discovered there were some words that I found were similar to our Fijian language, such as "ulu" for head, "daliga" for ear, "mata" for eye, "gusu" for mouth, "lima" for five, "vitu" for seven, "walu" for eight, "tina" for mother, and "tama" for father. My only regret is that I didn't fully understand their language so I was unable to dig for more information.
Seeing the response from the people of Taiwan made me eager to see the UTO NI YALO sailing up to Taiwan as soon as possible in order to reinforce the message that I had shared with them on behalf of Fiji, and hopefully reconnect the people of both our islands.
moce mada vakalailai
Photo by Tupe Lualua
Watch here a video overview of the workshop in Orchid Island
At National Taitung University, during one of the workshops engaging Fijian navigator Setareki Ledua and Samoan dancer Tupe Lualua, aboriginal Tao writer Syaman Rapongan (夏曼●藍波安) talks about his own experience sailing in the Pacific in 2005 on a 8 persons canoe.
During the months of June and July 2013, the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies held a series of forums on Fijian navigation culture and Samoan Dance, lead respectively by the young Fijian navigator Setareki Ledua and the Samoan dancer Tupe Lualua. Together, they participated in various educational and cultural exchanges, mostly with students on the East Coast of Taiwan. Thus they visited schools and villages in Hualien County, Taoyuan County, Taidong County and Orchid Island. For example, they met with the Formosa Aboriginal Song & Dance Troupe (原舞者舞團) and Tao writer Syaman Rapongan.
This month's Focus gives you an overview of their trip in Taiwan as well as an insight of the way the two young pacific islanders carry and reinvent their heritage.
In June and July 2013, the Fijian navigator Setareki Ledua and the Samoan dancer Tupe Lualua toured Taiwan for a cultural workshop designed to enhance the exchanges and links between Taiwan Austronesians and other cultures from the Pacific. Here are some videos filmed, compiled and edited by members of our team and participants in the workshop.
On June 8th, the Pacific workshop organized by the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies brought Saloan dancer Tupe Lualua and Seta Ledua to Hualien County on Taiwan East Coast where they met with the renowned Formosa Aboriginal Song and Dance Troupe (原舞者). This video records Tupe's interaction with three members of the Troupe, including a section in which they teach each other dance moves.
Setareki Ledua, whom we generally just called "Seta", is 22 years old and he is from Fiji. Between 2010 and 2013, he spent two years navigating on "Uto Ni Yalo" ("Heart of Spirit" in Fijian), one of the canoes from the Pacific Voyager fleet that roam throughout the Pacific ocean using traditional navigation methods. During June and July 2013, he was invited to Taiwan by the Taiwan Society for Pacific Studies for a 6-weeks workshop in order to share his knowlegde and his experience as the youngest Chief Officer ever on the Pacific Voyager fleet.
In this first interview, he had just arrived to Taipei and he shyly introduces himself and traditional canoe sailing: