French Polynesia and Kava

We now move on to the third and final region of Oceania, the region of Polynesia.  First stop on our Polynesian tour none other than regional namesake, French Polynesia.

French Polynesia

To begin with, French Polynesia is a French overseas collectivity. What, might you ask IS a French overseas collectivity?  Simply put, it is a French territory outside the boundaries of mainland France.  French Polynesia has the further designation as a POM (pays d’outre-mer au sein de la Républiquean or, an overseas country inside the French Republic).  Along with this designation comes a good deal of symbolic self rule as there is an elected President and assembly with 59 members.  However, most of the major decisions involving the basics of governing a nation (education, health care, defense, etc) come from mainland France.

French Polynesia was born from volcanoes some 20 million years ago.  It is made up of approximately 130 islands which total 1,622 square miles of land mass.  These islands are scattered over 965,255 square miles of the South Pacific.  The region known as French Polynesia is actually comprised of 6 island chains or archipelagos. The islands in the Society, Marquesas, Austral, Bass and Gambier groups remained high islands, while the Tuamotu Islands group became atolls.  Atolls, as we have discussed, are islands which have returned to the sea, leaving minimal land mass and are ringed by coral reefs.

Within the Society Islands group you will find the best known of the French Polynesian islands, Tahiti. This is the most populous island as well as the seat of government.  The largest French Polynesian city is Faaa, while the seat of government is located in the capital city of Papeete.  Tahiti was also the gateway for European exploration into the region.  Although it is thought the first explorers to see the region hailed from Spain in 1606, they made no effort to make landfall.  It wasn’t until Samuel Wallis, an English captain and explorer, arrived on the shores of Tahiti in 1767 that Europeans and Polynesians met.  As we’re creeping into the area of French Polynesian history, let’s take a deeper look and start at the beginning.

French Polynesian History

Around 4000 BC, a great migration began from Southeast Asia across open ocean to settle the Pacific Islands. Many researchers conclude that Tonga and Samoa were settled around 1300 BC and from here colonization voyages were launched to the Marquesas Islands in about 200 BC. Over the next several centuries, great migrations to colonize all the French Polynesian islands and virtually the entire South Pacific took place. ??This area of the Pacific Ocean is now called the “Polynesian Triangle” and includes Hawaii to the north, Easter Island to the southeast and New Zealand to the southwest. As a result of these migrations, the native Hawaiians and the Maoris of New Zealand all originate from common ancestors and speak a similar language collectively known as Maohi. ??As mentioned above, Captain Samuel Wallis was the first to visit the island of Tahiti.  This happened during his journey to discover terra australis incognita, a mythical landmass below the equator thought to balance the northern hemisphere. Wallis named the island of Tahiti “King George III Island” and claimed it for England. Soon after and unaware of Wallis’ arrival, French navigator Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, landed on the opposite side of Tahiti and claimed it for the King of France. ??European fascination with the islands grew as news spread of both the mutiny of Capt. William Bligh’s crew aboard the H.M.S. Bounty and of tales of tropical beauty and the friendly Polynesian people. Knowledge of modern day French Polynesia continued to grow as Capt. James Cook brought back thousands of illustrations of French Polynesian flora and fauna as well as the first map of the islands of the Pacific. In the 1800s, the arrival of whalers, British missionaries, and French military expeditions forever changed the way of life in French Polynesia and created a French-British rivalry for control of the islands. The Pomare Dynasty ruled Tahiti until 1847 when Queen Pomare finally accepted French protection of the islands of Tahiti and Moorea. ??In 1880, following the queen’s death, King Pomare V was persuaded to cede Tahiti and most of its dependencies to France. In 1957, all the islands of Tahiti were reconstituted as the overseas French territory we now know to be French Polynesia.

French Polynesian Culture

The modern day French Polynesians maintain the heritage and traditions of their ancestors. Oral history recounts the adventures of gods and warriors in colorful legends where javelin throwing was the sport of the gods, surf riding was favored by the kings, and Aito strongmen competed in outrigger canoe races and stone lifting as a show of pure strength.

Like many of the cultures of Oceania, French Polynesian culture is strongly linked to the clan and the clan hierarchy.  At the center of every clan was their marae, an open air stone structure that was once the seat of power within the clan.  These large, stone structures, akin to temples, hosted the important events of the times including the worship of the gods, peace treaties, celebrations of war, and the launch of voyages to colonize distant lands

One French Polynesian cultural contribution that is seen the world over today was first introduced into European culture by sailors returning home.  It is the tattoo.  The word tattoo originated in Tahiti. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans’ fish in beautiful colors and patterns. In French Polynesian culture, tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty and in earlier times were ceremoniously applied when reaching adolescence (not much different than high school and college students acquiring their first tattoo as a symbol of their arrival at adulthood.)

French Polynesia and Kava

Many researchers believe this region of Oceania, Polynesia, is the where Kava originated in this south pacific incarnation of the sacred plant found the world over.  In French Polynesia the drinking of Kava is based on clan status and class.  It is characterized by a formalized, detailed etiquette that not only serves to promote harmony and lucid discussion, but also supports indigenous rank and prestige. Kava’s use and the ritual that surrounds it is an essential part of traditional French Polynesian decision-making, rites of passage, and other matters of communal importance. Traditional values, as epitomized by the kava ceremony, have served to strengthen the community while allowing outside influences to be progressively absorbed.  As with many regions of Oceania, Kava was formerly used all across the French Polynesian island chains, but in time it was seen as a symbol of pagan ways and consequently suppressed by missionary influence and government decree early in the 19th century. As might have been anticipated, alcohol consumption increased, creating havoc throughout society and in general proving immune to traditional methods of stricture and control.  In recent years, as the region has gained more autonomy from the French, Kava has made resurgence in the region in attempt to get back to more traditional roots.  We wish the people of French Polynesia the best of luck in this quest.

4 Responses

  1. Kava root has been brought back to Tahiti since the late 1990s. After being banned after the arrivals of the missionaries, the Tahitians turned to alcohol. That was a bad mistake. Only a few tahitian men known as TAHUA (priest, medicine men) have been given authorization to replant and now prepare kava drink which now is used in some ceremonies which is also authorized by the government of Tahiti. The idea of its use today in Tahiti is culture because the Tahitians want to bring back many of their lost culture. The 2 men who grow and prepare the kava drinks are Patrice Lenoir ane Tunui Salmon. It was an honor to see their small plantation of kava roots. I hope that the kava root does not go overboard, to be over abused by todays generation. The hypocricy part of this story is that today this plant which was part of our culture then banned by the missionaries, is now being marketed for business by westerners. Thank you for reading my letter. Mahalo Bernie Kamalamalama

  2. Thank you Bernie

    I also find it ironic how this plant was once banned by Western people but now is being used to make a profit by those same people. On the plus side, I’m happy that more people are being exposed to the healing powers of this plant. I hope that this allows for the resurgence of traditional use among local peoples and for the increased acceptance of traditional plant medicines. Things are improving. It warms my heart to know that there are people like the men you mentioned who are bringing this medicine back where it belongs. I wish them the best possible future!

  3. just to say hello , i’m from Haururu cultural association of Papenoo (Mahina district) and we are rather known as having been the first as a community to perform kava ceremony in early 2000 and mainly during the Matarii celebration (we are also the pionier for the Matarii celebration) . Of course i know well Tunui Salmon and Patrice for their individual and personal contribution regarding the Kava …it is also very interesting to point out that we got the ancestral plant of Kava in our valley of Papenoo and then replant it … tks for yr contribution for the safe of our history …

  4. It’s always a pleasure to hear from the people who we write about on our website. If you have any personal stories you’d like to contribute, we would be honored to publish them in their own article(s) here, with links to anywhere you wish. Same with photos as well; we’d love any images of Kava ceremonies you’d be interested in sharing as well.


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