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LOCATION: Tahiti, in the Society Islands chain
POPULATION: 262,000 (2007)
LANGUAGE: Native languages of the islands; Maori; Tahitian; French;English
RELIGION: Christianity with elements of native religion


The Tahitians are a Polynesian group inhabiting the island of Tahiti, the largest of a chain of islands called the Society Islands. The Society Islands are part of a larger sociopolitical unit called French Polynesia, an overseas territory of France. French Polynesians, including Tahitians, are citizens of France with certain voting rights and privileges.

Polynesians are thought to have first settled in the Society Islands in the 3rd century bc. The first contact by Europeans was made in the 16th century ad. In the late 1760s, both English and French seamen landed on and claimed control of Tahiti: the British Captain Wallis in 1767 and the French Bougainville in 1768. The first Protestant missionaries arrived in 1797 and began teaching the local populace to read and write and converting them to Christianity. In the 19th century Tahiti became an important distribution center for American and European whalers. In 1843 the ruling monarch of Tahiti's Po-mare dynasty, Queen Pomare IV, signed a treaty making the island a French protectorate. In 1880 the last Pomare ruler abdicated and Tahiti became a French protectorate. It became a territory in 1957 and achieved internal self-rule in 1977. With the completion of Faaa International Airport in 1959, tourism became an important factor in the island's economy. French nuclear testing in the area began in the 1960s but ended in 1996. However, concerns about damage to local people's health resulting from the testing continued to reverberate in the 21st century. In 2006 it was revealed that French governments covered up for 40 years the fact that Tahiti was subjected to repeated fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests between 1966 and 1974.


The Society Islands are divided into two geographical and administrative clusters of islands: the windward group and the leeward group. Tahiti is part of the windward group. Tahiti is a "high" island in the typology of Pacific islands, having a volcanic origin. The landscape of Tahiti is punctuated with high peaks and a number of waterfalls. The climate is mild and tropical with an average temperature of about 25°c (77°f). The temperature rarely drops below 18°c (65°f). The rainy season lasts from November to April and the city of Papeete has an average yearly rainfall of 178 cm (70 in).

Tahiti had a total resident population of about 262,000 people as of 2007. The capital and largest city is Papeete, with a population of approximately 80,000 people. Persons of Polynesian descent made up the largest ethnic group in French Polynesia, accounting for 78% of the total population. The Chinese, who were originally brought to the islands in the 19th century to work in the cotton industry, accounted for 12% of the population and Europeans (primarily French) accounted for about 10%.


French and Tahitian are the official language of Tahiti. French is spoken widely and is the primary language used in official documents and in schools. Both social and economic status are affected by one's proficiency in French. However, most Tahitians speak a Tahitian dialect of French rather than Continental French. The Tahitian language, or Maohi, which is the official regional language of the Society Islands, is still used by a majority of the population and is the primary language spoken at home by older Tahitians. However, many young Tahitians have begun to use French exclusively. Tahitian is part of the larger family of Polynesian languages, which in turn belongs to the very large Austronesian language family. The Tahitian alphabet has 13 letters and all syllables in Tahitian end in a vowel. Forms of Pacific English are also spoken by Tahitians. Although there are a number of speakers of Chinese languages in the Society Islands, most Tahitians do not speak Chinese. Two popular Tahitian expressions are "Aita e peapea" ("no problem") and "fiu" ("fed up," or "bored").


The history and lore of Tahiti's native people was passed down from one generation to the next in an oral tradition that included creation myths and stories of gods, heroes, and ancestors (many Tahitians can still list their ancient lineage). Epic poetry recounting the Polynesian past was recited in rhythmic chants and some legends were expressed in ritual dances accompanied by the beat of drums. A belief in ghosts (tupapau) still survives and some people leave lights on all night in their homes to protect themselves against these spirits.


The conversion of the Tahitians to Protestantism occurred early in the history of European-Tahitian contact. In 1797 the London Missionary Society sent a group of evangelical Protestant missionaries to the island of Tahiti. By 1830 the vast majority of Tahiti and the whole of the Society Islands were Protestant. Even after the French takeover in the 1840s Protestantism remained the religion of the Tahitians. As of 2007 Protestants accounted for about 55% of the population and Roman Catholics for 30%. The largest single Protestant denomination was the Maohi Protestant Church (formerly known as the Evangelical Church of French Polynesia), which was established as an autonomous church in 1963. Services at the Maohi Protestant Church are presented in Tahitian. About 6% of the population was Mormon (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and 2% was Seventh-day Adventists. Some of the Chinese on Tahiti practice Buddhism.

The elements of the Christian faith, the church, and the pastor are central features of Tahitian village life. The church building and accompanying schoolhouse are reference points in every village. The village pastor shares in the political decision-making with the village chief. The Tahitian pastor is usually a native of the village where he or she holds a parish. The pastor presides over all of the religious activities of the village, conducts the Sunday school, teaches the Bible, conducts weddings and funerals, and provides communion. Some Tahitian church congregations are very well known for their hymn singing, which mixes European vocal style with traditional Tahitian style. Catholic services are conducted in French, while Protestant services are usually held in Tahitian.


Tahiti's national holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Good Friday, Easter Monday, Labor Day (May 1), Victory Day (May 8), Ascension Day, Whitmonday (Pentecost Monday), Bastille Day (July 14), Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 15), All Saints' Day (November 1), Armistice Day (November 11), and Christmas. The biggest event of the year is Heiva I Tahiti, a celebration of Tahitian culture and the heroic Polynesian warriors of the past. Festivities last for about two weeks, beginning at the end of June, and include dancing, parades, dancing and singing competitions, sporting events, and feasting. On Bastille Day (July 14) there is a military parade in the capital. March 5 is celebrated by the Protestant communities throughout the island as Gospel Day, the day on which the first members of the London Missionary Society landed in Tahiti in 1797. The celebration includes religious services, discussions and religious and social issues, and banquets followed by singing and dancing. The Chinese New Year is also considered an important holiday in Tahiti.


In the past, major life events were celebrated at religious gathering places called marae. Today rites of passage are generally observed within the Christian religious tradition.


Tahitians, like other French Polynesians, are known for their joie de vivre (literally, "joy in life"), relaxed attitude, and un-pretentious, courteous behavior. A favorite saying is, "If you act like old friends when you first meet, you will soon feel that you are." Visitors to Tahiti might receive a lei made from the Tiare Tahiti flower upon their arrival.

Tahitians typically greet each other by shaking hands, and women often exchange kisses on the cheek. The handshake is considered so important that if a person's hands are dirty, it is common to offer a wrist, elbow, or even a shoulder. Unless there are a large number of people present in a room (over 30), it is considered impolite not to shake hands with all of them. It is considered impolite to keep one's shoes on when entering another person's home. When guests are invited for a meal, the hosts are not necessarily expected to eat and may just sit and watch the guests eat. French greetings, such as "Bonjour" ("Good day"), are common in formal situations. A traditionally used Tahitian expression of welcome is "La ora!"

Living conditions

Health conditions on Tahiti are generally good. Life expectancy for all of French Polynesia was about 76 years in 2008 with 74 years for men and 79 years for women. The rate of infant mortality was 7.7 deaths per 1,000 births (compared with a U.S. rate of 6.3 per 1,000). Medical care is paid for by the government.

Most Tahitians live in modern European-style homes with electricity and indoor plumbing. Housing styles range from the ultra-modern homes, townhouses, and condominiums of the wealthy in Papeete to the cement-walled, tin-roofed houses of the middle class. Wood-walled houses with thatch roofs can still be found among some of the poorest communities on the island.

Automobiles are commonly used for private transportation in Tahiti, and motorbikes are also popular. A widely used type of public transportation is called le truck.


The traditional extended family has increasingly given way to the nuclear family in Tahiti, although it is not unusual for newly married couples to live with one set of in-laws for a period of time. Grandparents often play a prominent role in childrearing, and turning children over to adoptive parents (faamu) is also not unusual.


Tahitians wear Western-style clothing as well as more traditional clothing consisting of simple cloths wrapped around the waist. Women ordinarily wear dresses rather than shorts. Thongs or sandals are commonly worn by both sexes without socks or hose. Traditional Tahitian dance costumes include grass or cotton skirts, necklaces, and headdresses made from local plants and grasses.


Staples of the Tahitian diet include pork, chicken, fish, and shellfish; root crops including yams and taro; coconut milk; breadfruit; rice; a type of spinach (fafa) and other locally grown vegetables; and fruits including papayas, pineapples, mangoes, and bananas. Bananas and papayas are pureed to create a popular dessert called poe'. Cooking in the traditional earth oven (himaa) remains popular in Tahiti. The food-which may include pork, chicken, fish, taro, or yams-is wrapped in leaves, placed over heated stones, covered with earth, and steamed for several hours. Also popular is poisson cru, a salad made with raw fish marinated in lime juice.

Village fare is basic. Breakfast typically consists of pancakes made from flour, coconut milk and sugar, coffee, and reef snails. Leftover pancakes accompany the other meals. Lunch is usually eaten around 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon and the meal centers on fish, usually fried, with taro root and cooked plantains. Supper is eaten around 7:00 pm. Leftovers from lunch and breakfast, as well as rice and canned vegetables, may form part of the evening meal. Coffee is an important part of supper.

In Papeete, lunch is the big meal of the day. Men and women arrive home from work about 11:30 am to prepare the meal. After lunch, people typically sleep for an hour and then return to work by 1:00 or 2:00 pm. Supper in the city also consists mainly of leftovers or Chinese takeout food that is brought home by household members returning from the day's work. The Chinese are a major ethnic minority in Tahiti and as a result Chinese food is popular throughout the Society Islands.


Tahiti has a 98% literacy rate. Primary, secondary, and vocational schools were established on Tahiti by the French and conform to French educational standards. Schooling is free and compulsory between the ages of 6 and 14. There are also private schools, run by churches and subsidized by the government, that teach the same curriculum as the public schools. Adult education is also popular and offered at no charge. Tahitian students often attend college in France or other countries.


Performing arts competitions held in Tahiti every July during the Heiva I Tahiti festivities help preserve the traditional performing arts of song and dance in the Society Islands. The Society Islands also send performing troupes to compete in South Pacific arts festivals. Traditional Tahitian dances were once considered so lascivious by 19th-century Protestant missionaries that they were banned in the 1820s. In modern culture Tahitian dancing is extremely popular, with numerous dance competitions featuring troupes of between 20 and 50 dancers held during Heiva I Tahiti. In the aparima, the hands of the dancer express the story through movements and positioning. The dance is generally performed in a standing posture and resembles the Hawaiian hula. It is accompanied by drums, guitar, and ukulele. Also popular is the sexually provocative tamure, in which young men and women dance around each other. The o'tea, performed by dancers lined up in two columns and accompanied by drums, consists of gestures based on specific themes, such as spear throwing. The pata'uta'u involves beating the ground with open palms.

The Tahitian word himene is used to denote all types of song. The word is borrowed from the English word hymn and shows the extent of the influence the early Christian missionaries had on the traditional culture of Tahiti. Himene tarava are songs performed by groups of approximately 100 male and female singers. In former times, the songs would recount the deeds of kings and gods, but now they tell popular tales from the Bible, sung in Tahitian. Guitars and ukuleles are important musical instruments for Tahitian males, as are a variety of drums including the toere, a slit drum made of tamanu wood and hit with a stick; the ofe, a split-bamboo drum; and the pahu, made from a hollowed section of coconut tree and covered with shark skin. Another traditional instrument is the bamboo nose-flute, or vivo.

The word tattoo originated in Tahiti. According to legend, Tohu, the god of tattoo, was responsible for painting the colors and patterns of all of the fish in the ocean. In Polynesian culture, tattoos are considered to be a sign of beauty.


Since the establishment in the 1960s of France's Centre Experimental du Pacifique, which administered France's nuclear testing program, and the growth of tourism that began during the same period, the bulk of employment on Tahiti has shifted from subsistence agriculture to public and private services, each of which employs about 40% of the labor force. The Chinese are primarily employed in retail trade.


Soccer is the most popular sport among Tahitians. Other favorites include basketball, volleyball, boxing, and cycling. Water sports are popular and include swimming, fishing, diving, canoeing, and windsurfing. Canoe races are the most popular sporting event of the Heiva I Tahiti festivities in July.


The leisure-time pursuits of Tahitians include movies, music, dancing, and television. Radio Tahiti broadcasts programs in the Tahitian language.


Many traditional handicrafts, such as weaving, quilting, and carving, are learned and passed on from one generation to the next by "mamas," who are considered the guardians of such sacred traditions. In the past, the Tahitians used cloth made from the inner bark of mulberry, breadfruit, and banyan trees for clothing and other items. After being stripped from the tree and separated from the outer layer of bark, the inner layer was beaten with a mallet, dried in the sun, dyed, and hand-painted with floral or geometric patterns. A traditional craft still practiced is the making of two-layer patchwork quilts called tifaifai, often decorated with colorful floral patterns. Other crafts include needlework, seashell jewelry, and straw hats, mats, and baskets. Pareu- lengths of cotton cloth wrapped and tied to form sarong-like garments-are screened, blocked, and printed by hand with colorful patterns. Natural skin products, called monoi oils, are made from the oils extracted for the Tiare flower and tree fruits.


The topic of independence has been part of many political debates since the 1970s. The island has a semi-autonomous government with an elected president and a great deal of control concerning internal affairs. However, the people are still dependent on France for services such as education and security and France offers economic stability as well. In 2004 the status of Tahiti was changed from an overseas territory to an "overseas country." While those groups promoting full independence are rather prominent, some reports indicate that only about 20% of the general population is in favor of independence.


In traditional villages, men and women shared somewhat equally in the necessary tasks for daily life, particularly in finding and preparing food for the family. Both men and women assisted in maintaining the family gardens and fruit trees. Men were most often in charge of hunting and deep-water fishing while women were in charge of building and maintaining the outdoor ovens made of volcanic rock. Women worked by weaving baskets, mats, and other household items out of coconut leaves and creating jewelry out of shells. Handicrafts for men included carved tiki statues, drums, and other household items. In modern culture, both men and women have opportunities to work outside of the home, particularly in tourist-related services. Many men and women continue the tradition of making handicrafts, with products offered for sale to tourists.


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Ferdon, Edwin N. "Tahiti." Encyclopedia of World Cultures. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Grove, Arthur, ed. The Lure of Tahiti: An Armchair Companion. Honolulu: Mutual Publications, 1986.

Kuwahara, Makiko. Tatoo: An Anthropology. New York: Berg, 2005.

Levy, Robert. Tahitians: Mind and Experience in the Society Islands. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973.

Polynesian Cultural Center.http://www.polynesia.com. (22 April 2008).

Sears, James. Tahiti, Romance and Reality. Wellington, New Zealand: Millwood Press, 1982.

—revised by K. Ellicott