Searching for the heart of Te Fiti: Environmentalism in Polynesian mythology

Te Fiti from Moana © Disney, 2016

Early peoples the world over have a common thread running through their mythologies: their connection to nature. That is to say, they have at the heart of their creation myths some version of a primordial being or couple that created the earth and all the inhabitants upon it (Yakar, 2018) (Sepie, 2017). In many, this connection between nature and man becomes both a point of synergy and competition as they struggle for resources in an oftentimes semi-hospitable world (Hakluyt Society, 2020). A situation of growing importance in this world of rapid climate change and environmental uncertainty, especially to island and coastal peoples who are on the front lines of this seemingly unbeatable war, aka. climate refugees (UNHCR, 2021).

For the many ethnic groups that make up Oceania, and Polynesia specifically, this synergistic cohabitation takes the form of both a religious and cultural connectivity to nature that is passed down culturally and states that man, animals and the environment are all siblings, or at least distant cousins we still need to look out for. In this way, a theme of environmentalism crops up again and again in the mythologies, but unlike many western mythologies, this thread is woven into the daily lives of the various island peoples: from cultural taboos and political activism, all the way to the silver screen.

In 2016, Walt Disney Pictures produced its first Oceania inspired princess-film, Moana, which combined several mythologies from Oceania, most notably the Polynesian Māui, Papahānaumoku and Pele (a conglomerate that form the Te Kā character). Without getting into the good or bad of the movie, the central theme is a connection between the people and the environment and arguably a form of landscape ecology that is key to understanding Polynesian society and the current environmental issues facing island peoples (Nunn & Kumar, 2020) (Clark, 2010).

As Clark (2010) explains, “the development and dynamics … in landscapes is a central theme of ecological studies, especially the effects of conversion of natural ecosystems into human dominated systems such as agricultural or urban land use”. For Polynesian peoples like the Māori of New Zealand, this takes the historical form of a tapu, or taboo as Anglicized by James Cook, however, there is a stark difference between the Western and Polynesian meaning behind the word. In the West, a taboo is something that holds a cultural or social stigma, but does not necessarily have a legal aspect attached to it (Fershtman, Gnezly, & Hoffman, 2011). In Polynesia however, the term has both a spiritual and political dimension: transgressions were once punishable by death and were typically centred around sacred sites or linked to the rahui, that is the restriction of marine harvests for one year. This is another difference, the tapu in Polynesia had a time limit and was used predominantly to allow for the replenishments of stocks in a specific geographical area as decreed by the arii or the head of the community (Tara Expeditions, 2021). This shows a level of environmental understanding that many modern fisheries do not.

Likewise, the concept of the kaitiakitanga, a way of managing the environment, is found within Māori culture (Royal, 2021), but it is also showing up in modern legislative acts. The Resource Management Act of 1991 (and again in 1997) in New Zealand defined kaitiakitanga as “the exercise of guardianship … in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship” (New Zealand Government, 2021).

Tane, god of the forests and birds in a Maori carving at Auckland Zoo (Avenue, 2011)

However, it is important to note a subtle difference between those traditional groups whose beliefs and rituals inadvertently conserve natural resources (such as Hindus not eating beef) and those like the Māori, whose tapu are designed to prevent resource depletion. All parts of the plants and animals available were utilized in some manner and the almost sacredness of animal protein has a thread of scarcity running through it, something an island people would have dealt with constantly.

Taro farming in Moana © Disney, 2016

Similarly, in the Lau islands of southern Fiji, hereditary officers called vaka vanua were in charge of watching the crops and forests and could place a tapu on the major food-crops to ensure there were enough for the population. Likewise, the ndau ni nggoli (master fishermen) supervised ocean harvests (Chapman, 1985). These two positions mirror the Polynesian gods Ronogo-mā-Tāne (god of cultivated food), Tāne Mahuta (god of the forests) and Tangaroa (god of the sea), three of the seventy-plus offspring of the Earth and Sky deities. It is interesting to note that while Ronogo-mā-Tāne is the god of cultivated food, his brother Haumietiketike is the god of uncultivated food (Royal, 2021). This distinction is interesting because while the vaka naua managed the cultivated crops, the forest fruit custodian’s role was much more flexible and varied by island, showing the necessary difference between wild harvesting and cultivation practices (Chapman, 1985).

In smaller regions, the two roles were combined, such as in Mangaia in the Southern Cook Islands, where one ‘Ruler of Food’ presided over both crops and fishing and kept track of food stores. Individual ownership rights also prevailed in some regions, but in resource scarce zones a tribal tapu could override an individual’s rights, such as on Samoa when the council placed a tapu on a specific lagoon, overriding the owner’s fishing rights (Chapman, 1985). This link between origin stories and the pragmatic aspects of sustaining human populations showcase the mutually dependent nature of Oceanic peoples and their eco-spiritual connection (Sepie, 2017) and while not all Oceanic cultures over time found the balance (the Māori, for instance hunted the emu to extinction in New Zealand while in Tonga, one traditional fishing method involved the destruction of coral reefs), the socio-cultural link between resource management and cultural identity prevails (Monson, 2004).

Future policy makers looking towards sustainable agriculture and fishery management, may want to take a page out of their local traditions and set examples based on a combination of scientific and cultural understanding. And as the climate warms and sea-levels rise, this mythological knowledge may turn out to be the key to these islands very survival.

Tamisan Latherow is a third year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences. @SeshatofMars


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