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Manoa 17.2 (2006) xi-xxi

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Te Ao Mā'ohi

An Overview

For the world at large, the names Tahiti and French Polynesia conjure up a rich palette of imagery, drawn from sources as varied as the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty, Herman Melville's flight into Taipivai valley on Nuku Hiva, and Paul Gauguin's descent into "nativism" on Hiva 'Oa. Unfortunately, yesteryear's fictions—perpetuated by sailors, rogues, Hollywood directors, and other passers-by—have held these Islands captive to romanticized fantasies and inauthentic tales. Until very recently, it has been difficult to find in literature the emotions, intelligence, and daily lives of the Islands' indigenous people. Many false notions have been conjured up, and many true things have been omitted. Vārua Tupu is intended to offer English-speaking readers the works of a Polynesian literary community that has been growing in strength since the 1960s. By doing so, Vārua Tupu represents the first opportunity for the Anglophone world to experience the region through the voices of the French Polynesian literary community.

Though the fantasy image of Tahiti has long been dominant around the world, the region is far more diverse, culturally rich, and deserving of our attention than even the most exotic accounts by visitors and sojourners suggest. French Polynesia is a vast oceanic realm, over twice the size of the Mediterranean Sea, but with a total land area a third the size of Connecticut. The 118 islands and atolls have been grouped into five geologically, historically, and culturally distinct archipelagos. The largest are the Society, Austral, and Marquesan archipelagos, each consisting of high islands with steep inland valleys. To the southeast is the Gambier archipelago, a handful of much smaller high islands, the largest of which is Mangareva. Between the Gambiers and the Marquesas are seventy-eight sparsely populated atolls—each only a few meters above sea level and surrounded by its own coral-spanceled lagoon—which comprise the Tuamotu archipelago.

In 2003, the total population of these islands was just over 260,000. More than [End Page xi] half of the people, about 150,000, reside on the islands of Tahiti and Mo'orea, where the urban and governmental centers are located. On these islands, many homes have DSL internet; more people have cell phones than not; and consumers compete to buy the latest CDs, DVDs, and SUVs. Global consumerism has indeed arrived. In regard to demographics, French administrators and expatriates make up only a small minority of the total population of the Islands, about four percent; local people of mixed Polynesian and European ancestry are about six percent; and Chinese comprise about twelve percent. The majority of the population, about seventy-eight percent, is Polynesian.

The name for the Polynesian people that appears most frequently in Vārua Tupu is Mā'ohi, used generally by the populace to indicate the indigenous residents of the Society Islands (Tahiti, Mo'orea, Huahine, Bora Bora, Ra'iātea, and Tahaa). The Tuamotus, the Australs, the Marquesas, and the Gambiers of Eastern Polynesia sometimes go by this name, but often refer to themselves according to their own notions of identity. Poet and scholar Turo a Raapoto explains the word "Mā'ohi" thus:

Ohi refers to a sprout which has already taken root, securing itself with a certain autonomy of life, all the while being linked to the mother stem. From a sprout, an ohi, tracing back its roots, one always gets to a trunk. Mā'ohi is the community of all those who claim to be of the same past, culture and language, which constitute the common trunk and which still have the same destiny.

The Mā'ohi world as a whole is sometimes referred to as Te Ao Mā'ohi, rather than French Polynesia, and the phrase has been suggested as a replacement for the current name if France ever gives up its claims to the Islands. Commonly, however, many people continue simply to refer to the entire region as Tahiti—a convenient but serious misnomer.

This emphasis on names and naming is not trivial. The contemporary struggle of Mā'ohi writers to...