Uniting the Sea of Islands

by on Friday, 30 August 2013 Comments

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.

nick seta zijie

Nick Coulson (聶克)

I was born in sunny Torbay on the south western coast of England's green and pleasant lands. I'm prowling the streets, parks and ruins of Taiwan hunting for absurdities and studying the sociology of the underground. Furthermore with our nomadic arts and action space "The Hole" we attempt to challenge rigid and alienating structures.

出生於英國西南部,海邊的天堂為Torbay。目前在台灣的街上,公園,廢墟尋找世界之荒謬與世界之美,努力盡量在各方面跳脫框框。透過我們的游牧空間「洞」我們不斷地用藝術與行動來挑戰早已僵化的體制。

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