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LOCATION: Polynesia, a vast string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii, New Zealand , Easter Island, Tonga, Tuvalu, and French Polynesia
LANGUAGE: Native languages of the islands; Maori; Tahitian; Hawaiian; Samoan; French; English
RELIGION: Christianity with elements of native religion


The Polynesians are the original inhabitants of a vast string of islands in the Pacific Ocean that spans from New Zealand in the south to Hawaii in the north. The western boundary is Easter Island, and the Fiji Islands are generally considered to lie just beyond the western boundary of the region. Polynesia means "many islands" in Greek and the cultures of the region share many traits with each other. This does not mean there is no diversity within Polynesia; however, the differences are often subtle and not readily perceived by outsiders.

Independence for Polynesian peoples under colonial rule began with Western Samoa in 1962. Many other island nations have followed suit, the main pocket of colonial possessions being the territories of French Polynesia, which includes Tahiti and the Marquesas. The Kingdom of Tonga is unique in Polynesia since it is a constitutional monarchy and was never a colonial possession. Tonga was a British protectorate during the first half of this century. In 2006 the Tongan king of 41 years died and was succeeded by his eldest son Siaosi Tuou V.


In the Pacific region, there is an important distinction made between "high" islands and "low" islands. Tahiti is a typical high island in Polynesia, being relatively large with steep slopes, luxuriant vegetation, and abundant waterfalls and rushing streams. Coastal plains are absent or extremely limited on high islands. Low islands are of a few different types. Atolls are the most common low islands in Polynesia. These are typically "desert islands" that are low-lying, narrow, and sandy with few, if any, surface streams. Low islands have less biodiversity than do high islands.

At the time of the first known European contact with the Polynesian world in the 1500s, there were probably around half a million people scattered throughout the region. European powers vied for ownership of most of the inhabited islands of Polynesia. The indigenous populations suffered at the hands of the Europeans, with the loss of their traditional lands and resources, as well as discrimination against their cultures and languages. On the North Island of New Zealand, increasing European encroachment into interior lands inhabited by the Maori led to a decade of armed conflict referred to as the "Maori Wars" of the "Land Wars." The result of the conflict was the decimation of those Maori who sided against the Europeans and the absorption of their traditional lands into the larger pool available to European settlers.

Polynesians migrate within the region, especially to New Zealand, where there is a large population of Cook Islanders resident in Auckland. In fact, there are more Cook Islanders resident there than in the Cook Islands themselves. Polynesians also immigrate to California, parts of Europe, and Australia. Samoans migrate to Hawaii and California. Residents of French Polynesia immigrate to France.


The Polynesian languages are part of the larger Austronesian language family that encompasses most of the languages of the Pacific Basin. Polynesian forms a sub-group of this extensive language family; all of these languages are more closely related to each other than they are to other languages spoken in the Pacific. Linguists believe that Proto-Polynesian, the ancestral language of all the current Polynesian languages, was spoken in the area of Fiji-Tonga-Samoa around 300 to 400 years ago. At that time, the original speakers began to migrate to different islands and, as a result, the proto-language began to diverge and change. This movement is responsible for the current language situation in the Polynesian area.

Many Polynesian languages face an uncertain future. Attempts have been made to revitalize the Hawaiian language through educational initiatives at the university and the elementary school levels. Tahitian has been used as a lingua fran-ca (common language) throughout the Tuamotuan Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and the Austral Islands since before European contact and is threatening the viability of the native languages of those islands. In New Zealand, all speakers of Maori-the indigenous Polynesian language of the island chain-are bilingual in English. There has been considerable progress in the revitalization of the Maori language, and a bilingual Maori-English television station was launched in New Zealand in 2004. Maori Television has undertaken a block of completely Maori broadcasting for three hours each evening.


Polynesian societies have an exceptionally rich body of folklore and mythology. There are myths relating the origins of human beings as well as the origins of cultural practices and institutions. There is a considerable body of mythology regarding the origins of tattooing in Polynesian cultures. Some origin myths describe the process of migration via ocean-going canoes from one island to another. Cultural heroes are important figures in the folklore of Polynesian societies.


Polynesian religion changed dramatically with the coming of European missionaries to the region in the early part of the 19th century. From what we do know of precontact practices, there was considerable variation in religious ideas and practices throughout Polynesia. In Hawaii, for instance, priests performed sacrificial rites at monumental temple complexes to provide legitimacy for the authority of the chief. Chiefs were genealogically related to gods and, as a result, were believed to possess sacred power called mana. The Hawaiian system recognized four major gods and one major goddess. Ku, the god of war, fishing, and other male activities, ruled the ritual calendar of ancient Hawaiians for eight months out of the year. Ku was the patron god of the well-known Hawaiian king Kamehameha.

The concept of tapu, English "taboo," was important in all Polynesian societies, generally meaning forbidden or prohibited due to sacredness. There were things that were tapu such as certain body parts of particular individuals-the head of the first-born, for example. There were also rules that served to protect through the prohibition of certain actions. In the Marquesas Islands, a woman's menstrual cloth was not tapu; however, it was tapu to touch it.

Today, most Polynesians are followers of Christianity, both Catholicism and Protestantism. Some traditional beliefs and mythologies have been incorporated into Christian ideology.


Holidays in most contemporary Polynesian societies are events related to the state or the church. In the French possessions like the Marquesas, Bastille Day (July 14) is an important holiday. Many islanders now celebrate a number of Catholic holidays due to influence of missionaries in the colonial era.


From the novels of authors such as Herman Melville, we know a considerable amount about the ways of life in Polynesian societies at the advent of European influence and colonization. For example, we know that the Marquesas Islanders had a birth feast on the day a child was born. On that occasion, the maternal uncles and the paternal aunts of the newborn would cut their hair and an ornament maker would fashion hair ornaments for the child to wear later in life. The newborn was brought presents by family and friends and a type of shrine was built by the infant's father.

Passage into puberty was often accompanied by tattooing rituals in many Polynesian societies. In some societies, such as Samoa, only men were tattooed. In others, both men and women were tattooed, but one group less elaborately than the other. The practice of tattooing in Polynesia is very complicated. It carried with it a number of cultural meanings. There have been recent revivals of the art of tattooing in societies such as the Maori of New Zealand.

Another puberty ritual performed in some Polynesian societies was fattening. Male and female youths were secluded, kept inactive and out of direct sunlight, and fed excessive amounts of food for a period of time to make them more sexually desirable. In the Society Islands these young people were called pahio, which derives from the word for "lazy." These puberty rituals are no longer performed.

Death was accompanied by ritualized wailing on the part of women and the performance of formalized chanting on the part of men in the Marquesas. Women would also perform a specific dance called heva in which they would shed all of their clothes and move in an extremely exaggerated manner. Finally, the female relatives of the deceased would do physical harm to themselves by cutting their hands and faces with sharks' teeth and other sharp implements. Christian missionaries saw these behaviors as "pagan" and quickly found ways to put a stop to them.


Greetings in Polynesian societies vary from island to island. Status determines the nature and extent of the social interaction of individuals in these societies. In rural Tahiti, for example, the standard greeting is, "Where are you going?" There are two expected responses: either "Inland," if the person is headed away from the coast, or "Seaward," if the person is headed towards the coastline. The interaction can continue with a fairly standard second level of interchange that includes the question, "What's new at the inland/seaward end?" This is usually an opener for a conversation.

Premarital relations between the sexes are typically very relaxed in most Polynesian societies. However, once a permanent relationship is established, unconstrained sexual relations are not permitted. The choice of a marriage partner is less fixed than in many cultures of the world. In the times before Christian influence, the preference in some Polynesian societies such as the Marquesas Islands was for cross-cousin marriage. In other words, a woman would marry one of her mother's brother's sons or her father's sister's sons: in English kinship terms, a cousin. Missionaries forbade this type of marriage pattern and the present patterns allow for freedom of choice in marriage partners, not unlike that found in American society.


Traditional Polynesian societies did not possess large villages. Instead, families clustered together in neighborhoods that focused on a set of shared structures that were at the center of social, ceremonial, and religious life. Like many Melanesian cultures, many Polynesians had separate sleeping quarters for bachelors. However, Polynesian bachelor houses were not off-limits to females as they were in most parts of Melanesia. In some parts of Polynesia, households were built on elevated stone platforms. Religious shrines, whether communally- or family-owned, were important parts of the household structure.

Households of the nobility had carved items of furniture including headrests and stools. Sleeping mattresses were also available for members of noble households. In many parts of Polynesia, illumination by torches or coconut oil lamps was common inside houses at night. Polynesia seemed like a virtual paradise to Europeans who ventured there.

Nowadays, Polynesian houses and communities are the products of indigenous design and Western materials. Houses constructed of modern materials are frequently found in Polynesian communities. In rural communities, Polynesian houses may be made in the traditional manners of precontact times, yet utilizing some Western building products.

Transportation was by foot and canoe in precontact times. There were many different types of canoes in Polynesia, and Polynesians are especially well-known for their navigational skills. Polynesians spread throughout the Pacific Basin via ocean-going canoes. War canoes were elaborately decorated and treated with special care when not in use. The war canoes of chiefs were stored in special structures on land in times of peace. Although outrigger canoes are associated with Polynesian seafaring, they probably did not originate in that region, but in Micronesia.

Polynesians enjoy typical modes of transportation, such as driving cars, riding buses, bicycling, boating, and walking.


In societies like Tahiti where there were discrete social classes, marriage was prohibited among individuals from different classes. Children born of sexual relations between members of different classes were killed at birth in traditional Tahitian society. Again, these practices were discontinued as a result of missionary activity in Tahiti.

In many Polynesian societies, polygamy was practiced. The Marquesas Islanders were unique in the region because in traditional society, a woman could have more than one husband at a time, a practice called "polyandry" by anthropologists and fairly rare in the cultures of the world. It was very uncommon to find a man who had more than one wife in the Marquesas. Monogamy, having only one spouse at a time, is now the universal practice in Polynesia.

The role and status of women in relation to men varies between island societies in Polynesia. In a place like the Marquesas, women have always enjoyed a status nearly equivalent with men. One evidence of this equality is in the extent of tattooing that was permitted for both sexes in the precontact society. Men and women were tattooed almost equally as much. In many other Polynesian societies, this was not the case, as women held positions of lower status than men.


Typical Polynesian attire in precontact times was similar for men and women. A section of bark cloth that was worn as a loincloth by men or a waistcloth by women was the standard piece of clothing. The bark used to make the cloth came from various types of trees including the mulberry, banyan, and breadfruit trees. In some cases certain classes of women would protect themselves from exposure to the sun by wrapping themselves in a sheet of bark cloth. On ceremonial occasions, men of high status would also wrap up in sheets of decorated bark cloth. Decorated bark cloth known as tapa was the main item of traditional clothing in Tahiti, although it is no longer manufactured there. There were a number of ornaments that were worn for ceremonial events. Elaborate feather headdresses were signs of nobility. Ear ornaments were worn by both men and women in Polynesia. Traditional patterns of dress have disappeared except for performances or special ceremonial or cultural events. Fashion in Polynesia spans the range that it does in any Westernized developing country.


Most traditional Polynesian societies rely on fishing and horticulture. We know from early European accounts of the region that the Marquesas Islands were unique, for they relied on the production of breadfruit. Breadfruit was preserved and fermented in deep pits. Each family had its own pit for making the fermented breadfruit called ma.

Taro root is another important foodstuff in Polynesia. Early Hawaiians relied on taro as a staple starch in their diet. In Hawaiian mythology, the taro plant originated from the corpse of the first-born of Wakea, a high god in Hawaiian cosmology who had died from premature birth.

In some parts of Polynesia, Hawaii, Tahiti, and the Marquesas in particular, men and women ate separately. In general, this pattern is no longer followed except in the most traditional communities and in certain ceremonial contexts. In rural Tahitian society, young women are not allowed to eat food that has been prepared for adult men. The idea is that male interaction with the spiritual world could have some residual effects that would pass via the food to the young, vulnerable women.


Western-style education has become the standard in Polynesia. Many Polynesians attend colleges and universities both inside and outside the region.


Polynesia has a rich tradition of vocal and instrumental music. Some genres of musical expression have been lost and some new ones have been created as a result of missionary activity in the region. Christian hymns have had considerable influence in the style of vocal music in Polynesia. The Tahitian vocal music known as himene (from the English word "hymn") blends European counterpoint with Tahitian drone-style singing.

One of the most well-known Polynesian musical instruments is the Hawaiian ukulele. It is the Hawaiian version of the Portuguese mandolin that came to the islands with Portuguese immigrants in the 1870s.

The primary use of Hawaiian flutes and drums was to accompany the dance known as the hula. There is a complex structure to the musical accompaniment to the graceful and erotic dance that most Westerns think of when they think of "hula dancing." Hawaiian hula were usually named after the instruments that accompanied them: hula ili ili was accompanied by a pair of smooth lava pebbles that are clicked together like a pair of castanets called ili ili.


Throughout the Polynesian world there is a traditional division of labor along the lines of gender. Men are responsible for fishing, construction, and protection of the family units, while women are responsible for collecting and processing horticultural products and the manufacturing of basketry items and bark cloth. Both sexes participate in gardening activities. Throughout Polynesia, modern contexts of employment are to be found in the cities and towns. As in American society, the type of employment a person has depends on the level of education and training they have received.

Tourism is not a major source of economic support for most modern nations within the Polynesian culture area. Samoa, for example, receives less than 14% of its GDP (gross domestic product) from tourism and tourism accounts for just under 10% of all employment in Samoa. French Polynesia and Hawaii are the two most active participants in global tourism in Polynesia, although their tourism profiles differ considerably. Bora Bora, in particular, has become an exclusive tourism destination where rates for hotel rooms range from $1,000 to $15,000 per night.


Arm wrestling was a traditional Polynesian form of male entertainment as a competition of strength. Other forms of competition between males were common throughout the region as ways to prepare for battle. These forms have either disappeared or been modified, since indigenous warfare is no longer practiced in Polynesia. Surfing was also popular in many parts of Polynesia, although it was only in Hawaii that surfers stood on their surfboards. The world-wide sport of surfing originated through European observation of this traditional Polynesian past-time.


Most parts of Polynesia have running water and electricity. Television has made its way into most Polynesian communities. In some parts of the region, Polynesian peoples are taking control of the images of themselves presented in the popular media, producing popular films as well as documentaries.


Decoration of objects of utilitarian nature is common in most Polynesian societies. Wood carving has been particularly well developed among the Maori of New Zealand. In most Polynesian societies, the designs and patterns that appeared on bark cloth or wood carvings also appeared on the human body in the form of tattoos. In some societies, tattooing was the primary art form. Many traditional art forms, including tattooing, are being revived in many Polynesian societies.


The right to self-determination is important for many Polynesian peoples. Increased nuclear testing in French Polynesia has been a central concern for the region and the world. In September 1995, France sparked widespread protests by resuming nuclear testing on the Mururoa atoll, which is part of the Tuamotu Archipelago, after a three-year moratorium. Nuclear testing was suspended in January 1996. As a result of wide-spread international pressure and extensive social protests, French Polynesia's autonomy has been greatly expanded.

Many Polynesian groups like the Maori continue to deal with the social problems of alcoholism and domestic violence. The 1994 film Once Were Warriors is a moving, insightful portrayal of modern, urban life for the Maori.


There is some debate in the scholarly literature about gender roles in traditional (precontact) Polynesian societies and their manifestations in post-contact environments of urbanization and a wage economy. Most scholars agree that in traditional Polynesian societies, the concept of tapu governed the interactions of males and females. Tapu dictated that men and women should eat their meals segregated from each other to prevent any form of pollution. The tapu system did not, on the other hand, stipulate that women were subservient to men. There were several mechanisms by which women attained high status in traditional Polynesian societies.

Traditional Tahitian society has recognized a transgendered role for men who dressed and assumed the social roles of women since precontact times. Mahu as the role is called in the Tahitian language also observe the taboos and restrictions of women; however in modern Tahitian society, mahu no longer dress like women although they do engage in occupations that are considered as female, such as household care. The category of mahu is considered to be natural in Tahitian sexual ideology, although an individual does not have to remain mahu throughout the course of his entire life. Mahu are not socially stigmatized in Tahitian society and neither are their heterosexual male partners.


Gell, A. Wrapping in Images: Tattooing in Polynesia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Goldman, I. Ancient Polynesian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Hooper, Anthony and Judith Huntsman. Transformations of Polynesian Culture. Auckland, New Zealand: The Polynesian Society, 1985.

Melville, Herman Typee. New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1876. Thomas, N. "Complementarity and History: Misrecognizing

Gender in the Pacific." Oceania, 57(4):261-270, 1987.

—by J. Williams