Next up on our tour of the Micronesian region of the Pacific is Kiribati. Kiribati has a very recent, but very strong relationship with our favorite beverage kava. Before we get to that, let’s look at the Kiribati today and how it came to be.
The island nation of Kiribati-officially known as the Republic of Kiribati-consists of one main coral island and thirty two atolls. What is the difference, you might ask? Simply put, an atoll is a coral island which surrounds a salt water lagoon (like their Micronesian neighbors donut shaped currency, the Rai) where a coral island is formerly a coral reef which has been thrust upward by the shifting of tectonic plates.
To continue, Kiribati’s chain of atolls and islands amounts to a land mass of 280 square miles (or about the same size as New York City). Although the landmass is small, it covers over 1,350,000 square miles of the Pacific. This oceanic isolation has kept then residents of Kiribati (of which there are a little over 100,000) firmly rooted in their traditional culture. Kiribati is divided by the equator and butts up against the international dateline. The capital city of South Tarawa is located on the atoll of Tarawa and is the Kiribati center of politics and commerce, as well as it’s most populous and cosmopolitan city.
Like many islands in Micronesia, as well as Oceania as a whole, the island nation of Kiribati has gone by many names over the years. The native populations of these islands still refer to the islands by its traditional name Tungaru. Then, on December 24th 1777 Captain James Cook first laid eyes on the islands. At this point they had a new name as he dubbed Tungaru “The Christmas Islands”. Later, in 1820, the western group of islands were renamed “The Gilbert Islands” after another British explorer Thomas Gilbert. The Gilberts, upon achieving independence in 1979, renamed their island nation Kiribati. Kiribati is the indigenous pronunciation of the word Gilbert, and thus a nod to their history as a British protectorate.
Kiribati’s history of migration and expansion is similar to many of their Micronesian neighbors. There is some archeological evidence that modern day Kiribati was first settle by the Lapitas approximately 3,000 years ago. Like in the Solomon Islands, the Lapitas apparently used the island as a refueling point, but did not permanently settle the area. Being prolific seamen, the Lapitas were constantly on the move looking for new lands and more resources.
The archeological record indicates the first permanent settlers, the Micronesians, arrived on the islands between 200 and 500 AD. Due to the extreme isolation of the island chain, a Micronesian culture flourished here. This culture was influenced over time by Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. This was brought on by sporadic invasions and inter-marriage with the neighboring peoples of Samos, Tonga, and Fiji.
Again, as with most of the island nations of Oceania, European explorers were next to influence the people of Kiribati. During the 16th century the islands were visited (or some could say raided) by slaving ships, as black birding (the practice of gathering slaves from the Oceanic islands) was the trade of the day. They were also visited by traveling whalers in search of the Pacific’s largest resident, the Blue Whale. Permanent European settlement began in 1777 with Captain Cook’s arrival. This continued on until Kiribati achieved it’s independence in 1979.
The Kiribati people often live in close quarters with their extended family. Living and working in harmony with neighbors and family is of high importance. Few things go unnoticed in a small community, and privacy becomes a premium. As each family still fends for itself, things such as the best places for fishing, handicraft techniques and other skills are kept within the family.
At the center of community life is the Maneaba – a rectangular structure used as a meeting place for the village community. This is where traditional meetings are held, including celebrations known as botaki. The Kiribati hold a very special celebration for the 1st birthday of their children, especially for their first born child. Other big botakis include weddings and the 21st birthday. All of the extended family will contribute to funding the botaki.
Celebration is something the Kiribati people certainly love. Any visitors to Kiribati during Easter or Christmas will see many botakis, and as much traditional dancing and singing as one could ever wish for. The same goes for Kiribati Independence Day (the 12th of July), when there is competitions in dancing, choir, singing, and various sporting event including traditional wrestling, canoe and miniature canoe racing, and Oreano, a sport involving throwing large heavy balls toward the other team and hoping they can not catch it.
The focal point of all botakis is traditional Kiribati dance. Depending on the particular ceremony (birth, death, etc) there is also a particular form of dance to go along with it. By tradition, Kiribati dance was not only a form of entertainment but also a tribute to particular spirits, representative of the unification of two clans, a form of oral storytelling and even the display of the skill, beauty and endurance of the dancer. The different forms of traditional dance, known as Ruoia, Bino, Kaimatoa, Buki, and Tirere, all have one common trait-the use of the arms and head to perform birdlike movements. These movements are done in reverence to the Frigate bird, which appears on the Kiribati flag. The different forms of dance are done both sitting and standing. The act of smiling while dancing is considered vulgar, and is greatly discouraged.
Kiribati and Kava
Due to the harsh environment of the Kiribati atolls, kava is not native to this area. However, once kava was introduced to the people of Kiribati, they quickly embraced our most favorite beverage (making it THEIR most favorite beverage). Being a communal people, the use of kava spread rapidly through out the nation-traveling from clan to clan. As the drink became accepted socially, it was quickly integrated into the existing botakis. Today, kava plays a crucial role in all their ceremonies. Beyond the ceremonial use, kava bars have spring up in most metropolitan areas all over Kiribati. Beyond their own consumption, kava has become a cash crop for the people of Kiribati as well, making it one of their number one exports. Basically, over the last 50 years there has been a kava revolution on the isles and atolls of Kiribati…and we couldn’t be happier for them.