views updated May 29 2018



LOCATION: Polynesia, a vast string of islands in the Pacific Ocean, including Hawaii, New Zealand, Easter Island, Tonga, and French Polynesia


LANGUAGE: Native languages of the islands; Maori; Tahitian; 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, from New Zealand in the south to Hawaii in the north. The western boundary is Easter Island. Polynesia means "many islands" in Greek. The cultures of the region share many traits with each other. Their differences are often subtle and not readily perceived by outsiders.


In the Pacific region, there is an important distinction between "high" islands and "low" islands. Tahiti, a typical high island, is relatively large with steep slopes, rich plant life, and many waterfalls and rushing streams. Coastal plains are absent or extremely limited on high islands. Atolls (ring-shaped islands made of coral) 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 (variety of plant and animal species) 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 competed for ownership of most of Polynesia's inhabited islands. The indigenous (native) populations suffered greatly at the hands of the Europeans. They lost their traditional lands and resources, and suffered discrimination against their cultures and languages.


The Polynesian languages are part of the larger Austronesian language family that includes most of the languages of the Pacific Basin. Polynesian languages form a subgroup of this extensive language family.

Many Polynesian languages face an uncertain future. Attempts have been made to revitalize the Hawaiian language through educational programs at the university and the elementary school levels. Tahitian has been used as a lingua franca (common language) throughout the Tuamotuan Islands, the Marquesas, the Gambiers, and the Austral Islands since before European contact. It is threatening the survival of the native languages of those islands. In New Zealand, all speakers of Maorithe indigenous Polynesian language of the island chainare bilingual in English.


Polynesian societies have an exceptionally rich body of folklore and mythology. Myths relate 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 from one island to another via ocean-going canoes. Cultural heroes are important figures in the folklore of Polynesian societies.


Polynesian religion changed dramatically with the coming of European missionaries in the early part of the nineteenth century. From what is known of precontact (before European contact) practices, there was considerable variation in religious ideas and practices throughout Polynesia. In Hawaii, for instance, 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.

The concept of tapu, English "taboo," was important in all Polynesian societies. This refers to anything forbidden due to sacredness. There were rules that served to protect through forbidding certain actions. In the Marquesas Islands, a woman's menstrual cloth itself 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. (Bastille Day is a French national holiday. It commemorates the fall of the Bastille, a French fortress formerly used as a prison that was captured by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789.) Many islanders now celebrate a number of Catholic holidays due to influence of missionaries in the colonial era.


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. 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 only men were tattooed. In others, both men and women were tattooed. The practice of tattooing in Polynesia carries with it cultural and symbolic 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 large amounts of food for a period of time to make them more sexually desirable. This ritual is no longer performed.

In the Marquesas, death was accompanied by ritualized wailing on the part of women, and the performance of formalized chanting on the part of men. Women would also perform a specific dance called heva. During this dance they would take off all 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 objects. 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?" The two expected responses are: "Inland" (away from the coast) or "Seaward" (toward the coast). The interaction can continue with the question, "What's new at the inland/seaward end?" This is usually an opener for a conversation.

Premarital sexual relations are typically very casual in most Polynesian societies. However, once a permanent relationship is established, casual sexual relations outside of the relationship 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 was for cross-cousin marriagea woman would marry her mother's brother's son or her father's sister's son. Missionaries forbade this type of marriage pattern. The present patterns allow for freedom of choice in marriage partners, similar to that found in American society.


Traditional Polynesian societies did not feature large villages. Instead, families clustered together in neighborhoods that focused on a set of shared buildings for social, ceremonial, and religious life. Many Polynesians had separate sleeping quarters for bachelors. In some parts of Polynesia, households were built on elevated stone platforms. Religious shrines 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, lighting from 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 native design and Western materials.


In societies such as Tahiti with distinct social classes, marriage was traditionally prohibited among individuals from different classes. Children born of sexual relations between members of different classes were killed at birth. These practices were discontinued as a result of missionary activity in Tahiti.

In many Polynesian societies, polygamy (multiple spouses) was practiced. In the traditional society of the Marquesas Islanders, a woman could have more than one husband at a time. (This practice, called polyandry, is fairly rare in cultures of the world.) It was very uncommon to find a man who had more than one wife in the Marquesas. Monogamyhaving only one spouse at a timeis now the universal practice in Polynesia.

The role and status of women in relation to men varies between island societies in Polynesia. In the Marquesas, women have always enjoyed a status nearly equivalent with men. One traditional indicator of this equality was that women were allowed tattooing almost as extensive as that of men. In many other Polynesian societies, this was not the case, as women held positions of lower status than men.


Typical Polynesian clothing in precontact times was similar for men and women. A section of bark cloth was worn as a loincloth by men or as a waistcloth by women. Decorated bark cloth known as tapa was the main item of traditional clothing in Tahiti. (It is no longer manufactured there.) A number of ornaments were worn for ceremonial events. Elaborate feather headdresses were signs of nobility. Both men and women wore ear ornaments.

Traditional patterns of dress have disappeared except for performances or special ceremonial or cultural events. Current fashion in Polynesia spans the range that it does in any Westernized developing country.


Most traditional Polynesian societies rely on fishing and horticulture (growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables). European accounts of the region indicate that the Marquesas Islands were unique in their reliance on breadfruit, a large starchy fruit native to the Pacific islands. Taro root is another important foodstuff in Polynesia. Early Hawaiians relied on taro as a staple starch in their diet.

In some parts of PolynesiaHawaii, Tahiti, and the Marquesas in particularmen and women used to eat separately. In general, this pattern is no longer followed except in the most traditional communities and in certain ceremonial contexts.


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 types 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 (two or more lines of music sung at the same time) 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, which came to the islands with Portuguese immigrants in the 1870s. The primary use of Hawaiian flutes and drums was to accompany the graceful and erotic dance known as the hula.


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. Women are responsible for collecting and processing horticultural products and for manufacturing basketry items and bark cloth. Both sexes participate in gardening activities. Throughout Polynesia, modern types of employment are to be found in the cities and towns.


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 islands as ways to prepare for battle. Because native warfare is no longer practiced in Polynesia, these forms of competition have either disappeared or have been modified. Surfing was also popular in many parts of Polynesia, although it was only in Hawaii that surfers stood on their surf-boards. The worldwide sport of surfing originated through European observation of this traditional Polynesian pastime.


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 everyday objects of utilitarian nature is common in most Polynesian societies. Woodcarving 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 woodcarvings 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 (the right to make their own decisions) is important for many Polynesian peoples. Increased nuclear testing in French Polynesia is a central concern for the region and the world. Groups like the Maori continue to deal with the social problems of alcoholism and domestic violence. The recent film Once Were Warriors is a moving, insightful portrayal of the modern life of the Maori.


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.


Embassy of New Zealand, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.emb.com/nzemb/, 1998.

World Travel Guide. New Zealand. [Online] Available http://www.wtgonline.com/country/nz/gen.html, 1998.


views updated May 18 2018


ETHNONYM: Pacific Islanders


Identification. Polynesia is the culture area of the Pacific Ocean that lies roughly between 170° and 110° E and 40° to 20° S. It is a vast area with a relatively small population occupying a number of coral and volcanic islands. Only the Hawaiian and Line islands are north of the Equator. Despite the large area and geographical spread of the islands, traditional Polynesian cultures were similar linguistically and culturally. The major island groupings, most of which were and are now distinct political entities, are American Samoa, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, the Hawaiian Islands, Niue, Pitcairn Island, Tokelau, Tonga, Wallis, Futuna, and Western Samoa. In some classification schemes, Fiji and the Ellice Islands are included in Polynesia, but more often they are classified in Melanesia. Most Polynesians who have immigrated to and settled in North America have done so in the last thirty or so years and live almost exclusively in the United States. They are mainly from American Samoa, Western Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii.

Location. Polynesians in North America live mainly on the West Coast. The major Samoan communities are in the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, with smaller Communities in San Diego and Seattle. There are also several thousand Samoans in St. Louis and Salt Lake City, most of whom are Mormons. Tongans live mainly near Los Angeles and San Francisco with a smaller community in Salt Lake City. Hawaiians live mostly in California.

Demography. Estimates for 1982 indicate that in the United States there were 24,000 American Samoans, 20,000 Western Samoans, 10,000 Tongans, 1,200 French Polynesians, and 510 Cook Islanders, Niueans, and Tokelauans. In 1981 there were 515 Polynesians in Canada.

Linguistic Affiliation. Because of the long political and economic affiliation with the United States and the British Empire, most Polynesians enter North America already speaking English as well as their native language. There are language education programs in both the Samoan and the Tongan communities designed to maintain the native Language in North America, although the majority of U.S.-born Polynesians speak only English fluently.

History and Cultural Relations

For most Polynesian islands, contact with the Western world goes back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when explorers, missionaries, and business interests visited and eventually settled on the major islands. Hawaii was visited by Congregational ministers in 1819. Later in the century the native rulers were overthrown and the economy and political structure came under control of American business interests, with Hawaii formally annexed by the United States in 1898. It became the fiftieth state in 1959. Because of the long and intense contact with the United States, native Hawaiians who immigrated to the mainland arrrived already assimilated into mainstream American society. American Samoa was claimed by the United States in 1900, and other island Cultures were claimed at various times by Germany, France, and New Zealand. Today, Western Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu are independent nations; American Samoa is a territory of the United States; Wallis, Futuna, and French Polynesia are Territories of France; Tokelau is governed by New Zealand; and the Cook Islands and Niue are independent though affiliated with New Zealand.

Samoan immigration to the United States began in the 1950s and is part of a broader diaspora of Pacific Island Peoples to cities in their own islands, to other islands, New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Tongan migration to the United States began in the 1960s. On some islands, such as the Cook Islands, out-migration is so great that now more people live away from the islands than on them. The major factor pushing people off the islands is the lack of economic opportunity, and the major pull factor is economic opportunity in the cities or in developed nations. The actual host nation one migrates to is determined mainly by the historical ties between an island and the developed nation and the Current immigration policies of the host nation. Thus, American Samoans can enter the United States freely, but Tongans and Western Samoans are subject to immigration restrictions. Cook Islanders and others with ties to New Zealand are more likely to migrate there, although some are now moving on to the United States where economic prospects seem brighter. Most immigration has been in the form of chain migrations, with relatives assisting others who follow them to the United States. In the past, overseas immigration was cyclical; today, most immigrants settle permanently in the United States. It has been suggested that those who do return to the islands are mostly people who have failed economically overseas.

Within the United States, Polynesians remain an Economically disadvantaged group. Their cultural identity is ambiguous, as they are rarely identified by other Americans as being from a specific island or even as Polynesians or Pacific Islanders. Rather, they are more often lumped with Filipinos or Asians in general or with Latinos or African-Americans.


As mentioned above, Polynesians are settled in urban areas, mainly on the West Coast. They do not form distinct ethnic neighborhoods, although there is a marked preference for extended family living arrangements and for relatives to live near one another.


In traditional Polynesia, farming and fishing were the major subsistence activities. But skills associated with farming and fishing are of little value in the urban United States and most Polynesians find employment in unskilled and semiskilled jobs. Men work mainly in construction and in factories, and women work in such low-level service jobs as maids or hospital aides. The unemployment rate among Polynesian men in the 1970s was 25 percent. Recently, more Polynesians are attending college, suggesting the possibility of greater Polynesian involvement in the professional and business sectors in future years. Although Polynesians as a group are Economically disadvantaged in the United States, they perceive their situation there as more favorable than it would be in the Islands. An important feature of the Polynesian economy in the United States is the economic ties maintained with the homeland. These include ownership of island property and regular cash remittances sent to kin on the islands. These transfers are used to pay debts, to support the emigration of kin, to purchase goods, and to finance development projects. In Polynesian nations with a large out-migration, these Remittances are a major economic resource and benefit the nation by raising living standards, increasing employment, and reducing balance of payment problems. They are not exclusively an economic boon, however, as they tend to inflate prices in the local economy.

Kinship, Marriage and Family

Most initial immigrants were young men who after finding a job and a place to live arranged for other family members to follow. The initial stage of this chain migration process is now nearly complete, with the sex ratio in Polynesian Communities nearly balanced. Extended family households are a basic feature of the islands' economic and social systems. In the United States, the extended family serves as a major adaptive mechanism for Polynesians. Domestic groups tend to be large and flexible, readily accepting newcomers to the United States or others in need. In addition, ties are maintained with other kin within the larger Samoan or Tongan community. The household unit also serves a basic economic function, as a mechanism through which money and material goods can be shared and distributed within the extended family and as an employment center for recent arrivals in need of work. Ties to kin in the islands are maintained through visits to the homeland and the remittances. Socialization for life in the United States begins for many Polynesians in their native countries, where formal education outside the home usually emphasizes Western culture and teaches skills useful in the U.S. economy. In America, formal education and the church play major socialization roles, with the latter providing education in the traditional culture.

Sociopolitical Organization

Relationships between individuals and between groups in traditional Polynesian societies rest on an interlocking and intricate set of relations and identities based on reciprocity, land ownership, status, place of residence (island and village), and kinship. To some extent, Polynesians immigrating to the United States, because they are younger, better educated, and more likely to come from cities or towns, are less involved in the traditional social and political structure than those who stay behind. Still, various traditional beliefs and practices, Especially those concerning generosity, obligations to kin, and traditional sources of authority, remain important for the first generation of immigrants, especially within the Polynesian communities. For the second generation, more involved in mainstream society with the emphasis on achievement and status differentials based on wealth, adherence to traditional beliefs and customs is more difficult.

The various churches play a central social and political role in the Samoan and Tongan communities in the United States. With missionary activities going back to the early 1800s in Polynesia, Polynesians who immigrate to the United States are almost all Christians and all were involved in the church community on their island. In the United States, churches remain the center of Polynesian social life, with ministers often playing the role of culture broker in smoothing adaptation to American life while providing continuity with the traditional culture left behind. Samoans, Hawaiians, and Tongans have also formed social, recreational, cultural, and political interest groups outside the church, with a pan-Polynesian identity and movement emerging in the 1970s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

The majority of Tongans in the United States are Mormons, that church's missionaries having been active in Tonga. Some are Methodists, since the Methodist church is the state church in Tonga. The Tongan communities in St. Louis and Salt Lake City are heavily involved with the Mormon church. Samoans are mostly Protestants (Methodist, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal), though some are Mormons, Catholics, and Seventh-Day Adventists. As noted above, the function of churches in Polynesian communities goes well Beyond religion with much of the community social and Political organization centered on the local church.


Ablon, Joan (1971). "The Social Organization of an Urban Samoan Community." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 27:75-96.

Connell, John (1987). "Paradise Left? Pacific Island Voyagers in the Modern World." In Pacific Bridges: The New Immigration from Asia and the Pacific Islands, edited by James T. Fawcett and Benjamin V. Cariño, 375-404. Staten Island, N.Y.: Center for Migration Studies.

Doi, Mary L., Chien Lin, and Indu Vohra-Sahu (1981). Pacific/Asian American Research: An Annotated Bibliography. Chicago: Pacific/Asian American Mental Health Research Center.

Macpherson, Cluny, Bradd Shore, and Robert Franco, eds. (1978). New Neighbors: Islanders in Adaptation. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Center for South Pacific Studies.

Shore, Bradd (1980). "Pacific Islanders." In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, edited by Stephan Thernstrom, 763-768. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press.


views updated May 23 2018


The name Polynesia means "region of many islands," and Polynesia comprises a group of central Pacific islands, including the Hawaiian, Rotuma, Uved, Tokelau, Samoan, Cook, and Easter Islands as well as Tuvalu, Tonga, Niue, and New Zealand. Many traditions were also shared with Melanesians of the central and western Pacific islands. Under the impact of their discovery by the Europeans in the nineteenth century and their subsequently being drawn into affairs of the larger world, including World War II, customs, beliefs, and lifestyles have undergone radical change.

Traditional Magic and Sorcery

Magic in Polynesia used to be the preserve of the priestly and upper classes, although lesser sorcery was practiced by individuals not of these castes. There was a prevailing belief in what was known as mana, or supernatural power in certain individuals. The method of using this power was twofold. One of these was practiced by a society known as the Iniat, where certain rites were carried out that were supposed to bring calamity upon the enemies of the tribe.

The ability to exercise magic was known as agagara, and the magician or wizard was termed tena agagura. If the wizard desired to cast magic upon another man, he usually tried to secure something that the person had touched with his mouth, and to guard against this, the natives were careful to destroy all food that they did not consume. They carefully gathered up even a single drop of blood when they received a cut or scratch, and burned it or threw it into the sea, so that the wizard might not obtain it.

The wizard, having obtained something belonging to the person whom he wished to injure, buried it in a deep hole with leaves of poisonous plants and sharp-pointed pieces of bamboo, accompanying the action by suitable incantations. If he chanced to be a member of the Iniat society, he would place on the top of this package one of the sacred stones. The Iniat believed that as long as the stone was pressing down on the article that had been buried in the hole, the man to whom it belonged would remain sick.

Because of this, as soon as a man fell sick he sent to find out who had bewitched him, and there was usually someone who did not deny it. If the victim did not succeed in having the spell removed he would almost certainly die, but if he succeeded in having it taken away, he began to recover almost immediately. The strange thing was that he showed no enmity toward the person or persons who bewitched himindeed it was taken as a matter of course, and he quietly waited until the time when he could return the "compliment."

These practices applied mostly to New Britain, now Papua New Guinea, but its system of magic was practically the same as that known in Fiji as vakadraunikau, about which very little is known. In his book Melanesians and Polynesians (1910) the Reverend Dr. George Brown, pioneer missionary and explorer, gives an interesting account of the magic systems of these people, in which he incorporated several informative letters from brother missionaries. For example, the Rev. W. E. Bromilow gives the following account of the magic system at Dobu, in southeastern New Guinea:

" Werabana (evil spirits) are those which inhabit dark places, and wander in the night, and gave witches their power to smite all round. Barau is the wizardry of men, who look with angry eyes out of dark places, and throw small stones, first spitting on them, at men, women, and even children, thus causing death. A tree falls, it is a witch who caused it to do so, though the tree may be quite rotten, or a gust of wind may break it off. A man meets with an accident, it is the werabana. He is getting better through the influence of the medicine-man, but has a relapse; this is the barau at work, as we have ascertained from the terrified shouts of our workmen, as some sleeper has called out in a horrid dream. These medicine-men, too, have great power, and no wonder, when one of our girls gets a little dust in her eye, and the doctor takes a big stone out of it; and when a chief has a pain in the chest, and to obaoba takes therefrom a two-inch nail.

"The people here will have it that all evil spirits are female. Werabana is the great word, but the term is applied to witches as well, who are called the vesses of the werabana, but more often the single word is used. I have the names of spirits inhabiting the glens and forests, but they are all women or enter into women, giving them terrible powers. Whenever any one is sick, it is the werabana who has caused the illness, and any old woman who happened to be at enmity with the sick person is set down as the cause. A child died the other day, and the friends were quite angry because the witches had not heeded the words of the lotu, i.e., the Christian religion Taparoro, and given up smiting the little ones. 'These are times of peace,' said they, 'why should the child die then?' We, of course, took the opportunity and tried to teach them that sickness caused death without the influence of poor old women.

"Sorcerers are barau, men whose powers are more terrible than those of all the witches. I was talking to a to obaoba medicine-manthe other day, and I asked him why his taking a stone out of a man's chest did not cure him. 'Oh,' said he, 'he must have been smitten by a barau. ' A very logical statement this. Cases the to obaoba cannot cure are under the fell stroke of the barau, from which there is no escape, except by the sorcerer's own incantations.

"The Fijian sorcery of drau-ni-kau appears here in another form called sumana or rubbish. The sorcerer obtains possession of a small portion of his victim's hair, or skin, or food left after a meal, and carefully wraps it up in a parcel, which he sends off to as great a distance as is possible. In the meantime he very cunningly causes a report of the sumana to be made known to the man whom he wishes to kill, and the poor fellow is put into a great fright and dies."

The Rev. S. B. Fellows gives the following account of the beliefs of the people of Kiriwina (Trobiand Islands group):

"The sorcerers, who are very numerous, are credited with the power of creating the wind and rain, of making the gardens to be either fruitful or barren, and of causing sickness which leads to death. Their methods of operation are legion. The great chief, who is also the principal sorcerer, claims the sole right to secure a bountiful harvest every year. This function is considered of transcendent importance by the people.

"Our big chief, Bulitara, was asking me one day if I had these occult powers. When I told him that I made no such claim, he said, 'Who makes the wind and the rain and the harvest in your land?' I answered, 'God.' 'Ah,' said he, 'that's it. God does this work for your people, and I do it for our people. God and I are equal.' He delivered this dictum very quietly, and with the air of a man who had given a most satisfactory explanation.

"But the one great dread that darkens the life of every native is the fear of the bogau, the sorcerer who has the power to cause sickness and death, who, in the darkness of the night, steals to the house of his unsuspecting victim, and places near the doorstep a few leaves from a certain tree, containing the mystic power which he, by his evil arts, has imparted to them. The doomed man, on going out of his house next morning, unwittingly steps over the fatal leaves and is at once stricken down by a mortal sickness. Internal disease of every kind is set down to this agency. Bulitara told me the mode of his witchcraft. He boils his decoctions, containing numerous ingredients, in a special cooking-pot on a small fire, in the secret recesses of his own house, at the dead of night; and while the pot is boiling he speaks into it an incantation known only to a few persons. The bunch of leaves dipped in this is at once ready for use. Passing through the villages the other day, I came across a woman, apparently middle-aged, who was evidently suffering from a wasting disease, she was so thin and worn. I asked if she had any pain, and her friends said 'No.' Then they explained that some bogau was sucking her blood. I said, 'How does he do it?' 'Oh,' they said, 'that is known only to herself. He manages to get her blood which makes him strong, while she gets weaker every day, and if he goes on much longer she will die.'

"Deformities at birth, and being born dumb or blind, are attributed to the evil influence of disembodied spirits, who inhabit a lower region called Tuma. Once a year the spirits of the ancestors visit their native village in a body after the harvest is gathered. At this time the men perform special dances, the people openly display their valuables, spread out on platforms, and great feasts are made for the spirits. On a certain night, when the moon named Namarama is at the full, all the people men, women and childrenjoin in raising a great shout, and so drive the spirits back to Tuma.

"A peculiar custom prevails of wearing, as charms, various parts of the body of a deceased relative. On her breast, suspended by a piece of string round her neck, a widow wears her late husband's lower jaw, the full set of teeth looking ghastly and grim. The small bones of the arms and legs are taken out soon after death, and formed into spoons, which are used to put lime into the mouth when eating betel-nut. Only this week a chief died in a village three miles from us, and a leg and an arm, for the above purpose, were brought to our village by some relatives as their portion of their dead friend."

Some of the unusual magic traditions of Polynesia were also noticed by the ethnologists working in the area. In New Guinea and Fiji the custom prevailed of cutting off a finger joint in mourning a dead relative, as did the bushmen of South Africa. They firmly believed in mermaids, tailed men, and dwarfs. One group of natives in fact declared to a missionary that they had caught a mermaid, who had married a certain native, and that the pair had several children. "But unfortunately," stated the storyteller, "I could never get to see them." Another tradition connected to the Polynesian belief in magic, noted by the Europeans, was the practice of tattooing. The practice is represented widely in bodies of mythology, as being connected to the people's process of migration.

Like many other races, the Polynesians used to work themselves into a great state of terror whenever an eclipse took place, and during the phenomenon they beat drums, shouted, and invoked their gods.

In Samoa, magic was not practiced to such an extent as in other Melanesian groups, the magician being much more sophisticated. Instead of asking for any trifling object connected with the person he desired to bewitch, he demanded property, such as valuable mats and other things of use to him.

His method of working magic was to get into communication with his god, through his body, which became violently contorted and convulsed. The assembled residents of the village would then hear a voice speaking from behind a screen (possibly through ventriloquism), which indicated the presence of the god invoked.

Sickness was generally believed to be caused by the anger of some god, who could thus be concealed by the priest or wizard and duly placated. The "god" invariably required some present of substantial value, such as a piece of land, a canoe, or other property, and if the priest happened to know of a particularly valuable object belonging to the person who supposed himself bewitched, he stipulated that the property should be given up to the "god." This caste of priests was known as taula-aitu, and they also acted as physicians.

Lost Secrets of Polynesian Magic

In 1917 Max Freedom Long went as a teacher to rural Hawaii and subsequently became fascinated by the idea of discovering the lost secrets of the kahuna magician priests, whose leadership role in the social order had been disrupted in the nineteenth century. Long obtained valuable information on the fire walk ceremony from Dr. William Tufts Brigham, who had taken part in a fire walk 40 years earlier. Brigham had also investigated the ancient kahuna practice of charging wooden sticks with some vital energy, the sticks being used in combat and giving opponents some kind of electric shock that rendered them unconscious.

It was difficult for Long to obtain precise information on kahuna magic, since the laws of Hawaii had, many years earlier, outlawed it through strictures against what was termed sorcery and witchcraft, but Long continued to investigate the subject even after leaving Hawaii in the 1930s. He found his most valuable clues in the Hawaiian language, describing kahuna magic and the use of mana, or vital force.

Eventually Long believed that he had rediscovered the secrets of Polynesian magic, and the concepts of a high, low, and middle self or aka body through which power, mana, was generated and applied for magic purposes. He collated his discoveries with the information on psychic phenomena in the literature of psychical research and published his finding initially in a short work, Recovering the Ancient Magic, in 1936. In 1945 he founded the Huna Fellowship and soon issued several more substantive summaries of his conclusions, The Secret Science Behind Miracles (1948) and The Secret Science at Work (1953). The Huna Fellowship grew into Huna Research Associates for research and experiment in Polynesian magic, now continued by Huna Research, Inc.

Hawaiianists continue their efforts to recover as much of the Hawaiian magical teachings as possible before all traces of them disappear. The sacred sites of the old religion are protected by the state, and still occasionally show signs of private use. Several healing kahunas have survived and pass on the teachings to a select few.

Long's theories of huna and mana make interesting comparison with the researches of Baron Karl von Reichenbach into a vital force that he named " od, " and parallels can also be found in the nineteenth-century concepts of animal magnetism.

In 1952 George Sandwith, a British exponent of radiesthesia (dowsing with pendulums ) who was familiar with Long's work, visited the South Sea islands and made his own investigation of magic practices. In Fiji he investigated fire walking (see fire immunity ) firsthand and discussed with local priests the concept of mana or vital energy involved. He also studied the atua or ancient phallic stones of Fiji, regarded as shrines of ancestral spirits, and their activation for magic purposes. Sand-with tested the magical charge of these stones by radiesthesia, using a pendulum. He experienced firsthand the way in which mana is used in magic when he was bewitched by a local chief.

In sharp contrast to the European accounts of the Polynesian practices and myths, today, these rich cultural tales are used as a tool to expand children's creativity, especially American children's creativity. The creation tales, specifically, are short and vivid enough to attach in a child's mind and therefore aid in their creativity. Today, the religious make-up of Polynesia is largely Catholic and Protestant, with some traditional beliefs and myths incorporated into the Christian ideology.


Black, Sharon. "Using Polynesian Legends and Folktales to Encourage Culture Vision and Creativity." Childhood Education 75 (September 1, 1999): 332-35.

Gall, Timothy, ed. "Polynesia." Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life. Vol. 3. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group, 1998.

Guerreiro, Antonio. "The Pacific: The Coming of the Ancestors." UNESCO Courier (December 1997): 14.

Long, Max Freedom. Recovering the Ancient Magic. London, 1936. Cape Girardeau, Mo.: Huna Press, 1978.

. The Secret Science Behind Miracles. Kosmon Press, 1948. Reprint. Vista, Calif.: Huna Research Publications, 1954.

. The Secret Science at Work. Vista, Calif.: Huna Research Publications, 1953.

Sandwith, George, and Helen Sandwith. Research in Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa. Reigate, England: Omega Press, 1954.

Wingo, E. Otha. The Story of the Huna Work. Cape Girardeau, Mo.: Huna Research, Inc., 1981.


views updated May 29 2018


Polynesia is a region of the Pacific Ocean and forms, together with Melanesia and Micronesia, one of the three cultural areas of Oceania. Polynesia extends from the Hawaiian Islands in the north to New Zealand in the south, and from Tuvalu in the west to Rapanui (Easter Island) in the east. The region includes Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, and the Cook and Marquesas Islands. The name Polynesia derives from Greek words meaning many islands and refers to the numerous islands of the region.

Human beings began settling in western Polynesia over 3,000 years ago but did not reach its fringes until between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago. Polynesians are excellent sailors and discovered and settled nearly every island in the region. Traditional Polynesian society was based on a hierarchical system of hereditary chiefs with individuals divided into nobility and commoners. Polynesian kings extended their control over entire archipelagoes, forming kingdoms such as those in Tonga and Hawai'i.

The first European to visit Polynesia was the Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña (1541–1595), who reached Tuvalu in 1568. Dutch explorers followed in the 1600s, with the English and French beginning their own expeditions in the 1700s. The English explorer Samuel Wallis (1728–1795) reached Tahiti in 1767 and Captain James Cook (1728–1779) reached the Cook Islands (later named after him) in 1773 and Hawai'i in 1778.

As in other parts of Oceania, European colonialism really began in the nineteenth century. Britain claimed New Zealand in 1840 and later claimed the Cook Islands. France seized Tahiti and neighboring islands in 1842, the United States annexed Hawai'i in 1898, and Germany and the United States divided Samoa in 1899. Only Tonga escaped European colonization, and even then it was under the protection of Britain. Many Polynesians resisted European colonization, as in New Zealand, but were subdued by force or by treaties. Polynesians also formed anticolonial associations, such as the Mau in Samoa. Many Polynesian chiefs were also able to exploit European colonists to their own advantage, using them as a source of weapons and other goods. More recently, Polynesians have united in protest against nuclear testing carried out by the American and French governments in the region.

The impact of European colonialism in Polynesia varied from place to place. The British turned New Zealand into a settler colony. The Hawaiian Islands became increasingly important to the United States for both agricultural and strategic reasons. France used Tahiti as its main Pacific center of activity, and Samoa was an important agricultural colony for Germany. After Germany's defeat in World War I (1914–1918) its Samoan colony was turned over to New Zealand. Important Pacific products during the colonial era included sandalwood, copra, vanilla, sugar, pearls, and phosphate. Missionaries came to Polynesia in the early nineteenth century and Christianity soon became widespread.

Today Polynesia contains a diversity of political systems. Hawai'i is a part of the United States and American Samoa is an American territory, Tahiti remains a French colony, Rapanui is a Chilean territory, Tonga is an independent kingdom, tiny Pitcairn is still a British colony, and New Zealand, Samoa, and Tuvalu are independent states.

see also Pacific, American Presence in; Pacific, European Presence in.


Lal, Brij V. and Kate Fortune, eds. The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2000.

Oliver, Douglas L. The Pacific Islands, 3rd ed. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1989.

Scarr, Deryck. A History of the Pacific Islands: Passages Through Tropical Time, 2nd ed. London: Routledge/Curzon, 2001.


views updated Jun 08 2018

Polynesia One of the three divisions of Oceania and the general term for the islands of the central Pacific Ocean; Micronesia and Melanesia lie to the w. The principal islands in Polynesia are the Hawaiian Islands, Phoenix Islands, Tokelau Islands, the Samoa group, Easter Island, Cook Islands, and French Polynesia. Because of their Maori population, the two larger islands of New Zealand are also usually included. The islands are mostly coral or volcanic in origin. The inhabitants show physical similarities, and share common cultural and linguistic characteristics.


views updated May 23 2018

Pol·y·ne·sian / ˌpäləˈnēzhən/ • adj. of or relating to Polynesia, its people, or their languages.• n. 1. a native or inhabitant of Polynesia, or a person of Polynesian descent.2. a group of Austronesian languages spoken in Polynesia, including Maori, Hawaiian, and Samoan.