Tahiti . . . the very name evokes images of exotic tropical islands. They are images well deserved, for the beauty of the islands is matched by the spirit of the Polynesian people and the richness of their cultural traditions.
Tahiti today is a modern Pacific nation whose population is a cosmopolitan blend of ancient Polynesian heritage and French élan. Most of the Tahitians you will meet at the Polynesian Cultural Center have learned English as their third or even fourth language. For example, most of them grew up speaking Tahitian or another island dialect such as Tuamotu, then learned French in school and English as an elective. While the overlay of French culture and influence is undeniable, the Tahitians still take great pride in their ancient Polynesian heritage.
Tahiti is located about 2,400 southeast of Hawai’i. It takes about five hours by commercial jetliner to get there from Honolulu, or about eight hours from Los Angeles. French Polynesia is situated about halfway between South America and Australia.
French Polynesia, with its capital at Papeete on the island of Tahiti, is comprised of five archipelagos, including the Society Islands (where Tahiti is located), the Austral Islands, the Tuamotu atolls, the Gambier Islands, and the Marquesas. The Society group is further divided into the Windward Islands, or Îles du Vent: Tahiti, Moorea, Maiao, Tetiaroa, and Mehetia), and the Leeward Islands, or Îles Sous-le-Vent: Ra’iatea, Huahine, Taha’a, Bora Bora, Maupiti, Tupai, Maupiha’a/Mopelia, Manuae or Scilly, and Motu One or Bellingshausen.
All of the groups are mostly volcanic high-rise islands, except the Tuamotu chain, which is comprised of low-lying coral atolls.
French Polynesia covers a vast area of the southeastern Pacific Ocean, but its total landmass covers only 3,543 sq. km.
There are approximately 262,000 residents of Tahiti, about 78% of them from the various French Polynesian islands, another 12% of Chinese descent, and the remainder are various Europeans (primarily French).
History and Discovery
Like all Polynesians, the Tahitians did not have a writing system that recorded their ancient sojourns; but anthropologists believe they migrated to their islands over 2,000 years ago from central Polynesia, probably from Samoa. The early Tahitians also spread throughout the area to other island groups, including Rarotonga (the Cook Islands), the Tuamotu islands, the Marquesas, and eventually even Hawai’i.
British Captain Samuel Wallis is the first known European to make contact with Tahiti in 1767, followed by French navigator Count Louis de Bougainville in 1768, British explorer Captain James Cook in 1769 and, of course, British Captain William Bligh and his first mate, Fletcher Christian, in 1789 aboard HMS Bounty.
For the next 50 years the British and French engaged in political negotiations for control of the islands in the area, with France emerging as the colonial power by 1842. In 1847 Queen Pomare accepted the protection of France; however, it wasn’t until the hereditary leader, Pomare V, abdicated his throne in 1880 that France came to full power in the region.
Over the ensuing years, various artists have helped spread the appeal of Tahiti to the rest of the world, including Robert Louis Stevenson in the 1890s, French artist Paul Gauguin who came in 1901 and died in the Marquesas in 1903. World War I veterans Charles Nordhoff and James Hall moved there in 1920 and made the mutiny on the Bounty famous with their trilogy that has been made into a series of movies. American author James Michener was stationed on the fabled island of Bora Bora during World War II and, of course, went on to write his first well-known book, Tales of the South Pacific, partially based on that and other island experiences.
The people became French citizens in 1946, and although the islands are still an overseas territory of France, they gained self-governing status in 1977.
French, Tahitian, other French Polynesian dialects, and some English. Tahitian and the other distinct French Polynesian dialects, such as those spoken in the Tuamotu islands, are closely related to all other dialects throughout the Polynesian Triangle. For example, a Tahitian chief is an ari’i, while a Samoan or a Hawaiian chief is an ali’i. A Tahitian house is a fare [pronounce both syllables] while a New Zealand Maori house is a whare (which is pronounced the same as its Tahitian counterpart).
Like many Polynesian dialects, reduplicated words – such as Bora Bora – are common; and often have the effect of intensifying the meaning of a single occurrence: For example, nui may mean ‘big’ while nuinui means ‘very big.’
While Tahitian is still widely spoken throughout French Polynesia, many young people today communicate almost exclusively in French.
The houses in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s Tahitian “village” represent traditional historical architecture, whereas almost all modern Tahitians invariably live in European style houses.
The fare ari’i or “chief’s dwelling” is also called a fare pote’e because its round-ended style of architecture was usually reserved for chiefs and nobles. The larger this type of house is, the higher the rank of the owner.
The chief’s more important furnishings included many large finely woven mats, the nohora’a or four-legged wooden seats for high ranking individuals, the turu’a or wooden headrest, and an elevated bed. Traditionally, everyone slept on the floor, which was cushioned with aretu grass and covered with mats. The elevated bed, a concept introduced by Europeans, consisted of three parts: first, a layer of dried banana leaves; second, a layer of mats piled on top of one another for softness; and third, a coverlet or blanket which originally was made of woven lauhala (pandanus) leaves. In more modern times thin tifaifai quilts became favored for their bright colors. They are also easy to wash and much more practical.
As in Hawai’i, the wives of early Christian missionaries taught Tahitian women the art of quilting, which they call tifaifai. Tahitian quilting (and the nearly identical Rarotongan tivaevae) differs from the Hawaiian style, however, in that they do not pad tifaifai with batting, nor do they sew the three layers together. Their quilts have only an appliquéd or pieced-together front which is backed with a complementary colored cloth. The design of Tahitian tifaifai also differs from Hawaiian quilts (or kapa) in that they favor either large boldly-colored overall designs which are appliquéd, or they piece together intricate patchwork designs using tiny cutouts of colored cloth. On very special occasions or celebrations, Tahitian women bring out their treasured tifaifai, which have been carefully stored, and display them for all to enjoy.
Other personal effects in the fare ari’i include costumes, small boxes of highly valued red feathers, drums, flowers, and tiki carvings. Tiki were designed and placed to ward off evil spirits. The largest tiki were usually located on the marae or temple enclosures.
Te Tahua Orira’a
The Tahitian “dance platform” originally occupied an important location in the village and was sometimes elevated for better viewing. Ancient Hawaiians had a similar practice of building what are now called “hula mounds,” some of which have survived to this day. The Tahitian dance platform at the Polynesian Cultural Center is part of the fare heiva for the comfort of the guests.
The tradition of entertainment in Tahiti once centered on a special guild of traveling performers called the arioi who sailed on great double-hulled canoes from bay to bay and island to island, performing dance, pantomime dramas and chants. They usually performed in honor of Oro, their deity of peace, agriculture and fertility.
The Tahitians at the Polynesian Cultural Center demonstrate their traditional ote’a or drumming dances, including the graceful yet energetic hip-shaking ori Tahiti or tamure which young and old perform throughout its islands. While the women demonstrate remarkable dexterity with their hip movements, that are accented by the more [pronounce both syllables] or fiber skirts, the best female dancers are expected to keep their shoulders relatively still throughout the performance.
The compelling rhythms of the dance are provided by traditional to’ere or horizontal slit-gong wooden drums, and fa’atete or upright wooden drum. As you listen to the drums, notice the intricate rhythms and how they all blend to guide and inspire the dancers. The pahu or tari parau were the most important of Tahitian percussive instruments: They were covered with sharkskin played with drumsticks. The ancient pahu rima, which was beaten with the hands, has become a common drum in modern Tahiti. Accompanied by the vivo or bamboo nose flutes, these instruments were originally used during sacred ceremonies or to entertain royalty.
More modern Tahitian dances feature the guitar and ukulele which have become important since their introduction by European settlers; but as in Hawai’i, the islanders have added their own stylings and strummings to these instruments. The Tahitians also sometimes use bamboo nose flutes about one foot long with three holes — one for blowing and two for stops. These are nearly identical to the nose flutes of the Hawaiians and Tongans.
Fare Ravera’a Ohipa
Tahitian women created shell lei, woven mats, baskets and other household furnishings, while the men carved tiki statues and wooden drums, or to’ere, in the “house to do work.” Though traditionally a separate house, the fare ravera’a ohipa has been combined into the fare more [pronounce both syllables] at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Before turning them into beautiful jewelry creations, the women gather the shells from both land and sea sources and clean out the animals living inside by leaving them in the direct sunlight or burying them in the sand. The shells that are to be strung must first be individually punched with a single hole using a nail or an awl. Anciently a shark’s tooth was used as a hole punch, and then the shells were strung together using coconut husk fiber sennit (although today nylon is used for its strength and durability). In ancient Tahiti lengths of purau or wild hibiscus fiber were also used as cording or string.
Tahitian women mainly use pandanus and coconut leaves to weave baskets, mats, fans, hats and other household items. Pandanus leaves are dried, cleaned, and stripped to make them more pliable and attractive for weaving. Coconut leaves are used fresh and are kept as long as they are usable.
Skilled men of Tahiti carve native woods into the traditional to’ere, a small drum in which a narrow section has been dug out so when the sides of the wood are hit with a hard drumstick, the to’ere produces a clear, clean, ringing sound. Tahitian drummers are particularly noted for their syncopated rhythms.
In the “dancing skirt workshop” you’ll learn that Tahitian and other Polynesian dancing skirts are not made out of grass. They are, in fact, made from the inner bark of the purau or wild hibiscus tree. The workers strip off the bark layers from the main stem of the branches, then soak them in water until the layers can be easily separated. The outer layers are stripped and discarded. The silky light-colored inner layers are rinsed clean and left to dry in the sun.
After the inner layers are dried, they are shredded into narrow strips. These are artfully looped individually around a rope made from the same fibers. When the rope is completely covered with strands to the required waist size, a cloth waistband is attached to it. A skirt will require approximately 500 strands. Tassels, flower designs, shells, and other items are also used to enhance the more skirt, which accentuates the movement of the hips.
When a woman’s more is completed, it can weigh as much as seven or eight pounds. Dancers find that the heavier the skirts, the better the swaying motion as they move their hips. Another advantage of heavier skirts is they tend not to slip off during the dance. Women’s skirts are usually ankle length, while the men’s go to a little below the knees. For special festivities, dancers try to wear the most elaborately-decorated costumes, including exotic headdresses and headbands.
A Tahitian family who lived near the sea would most probably have a “fishing hut” made out of bamboo and a roof covered with bundled coconut leaves or sugar cane leaves. The fishing hut would contain minimal furnishings, although sometimes it may have a bed; and certainly fish traps hanging from special hooks, a bench or other types of seating, fishing poles, gourds used as containers, nets, ropes and other equipment needed to catch fish efficiently.
Tahitian fish traps were not actually used to trap fish but to store them alive until they were to be eaten. The fish were caught first, whether by line or net, and then placed inside the bamboo trap. The door was then closed and the whole trap placed in the water and kept halfway afloat using floats carved out of purau (balsa or wild hibiscus wood).
Each night a fisherman would bring the nets, ropes, traps, and other equipment inside the shed for repair and safekeeping. The next morning he was ready to start a new day of fishing. From small sheds such as this, fishermen wait for the right time to go fishing, while away the hours chatting with a friend, or watching over their pearl oyster crop.
Fishing for pearls and pearl farming — especially Tahitian black pearl farming — has become a very successful enterprise in Tahiti, especially the warm water lagoons of the Tuamotu archipelago where traditional pearl beds have been revitalized by modern technology and consultation with experts in the overseas pearl business such as Japan. Pearl shells for buttons also constitutes an important export product for French Polynesia.
The “outdoor kitchen” is a partially open structure positioned so its smoke would not interfere with the main house. The fare ututu is built so the prevailing trade winds blow toward the enclosed back, driving the smoke out the open front.
In Tahiti, both men and women shared in the cooking chores. Food preparation took place on the table platform in the back area. A man would typically gather the vegetables, hunt pigs and birds, fish in the deeper waters, and perform the more strenuous cooking chores. Women would help prepare the food and assist the men in making the Ahima’a or Earth Oven: The “earth oven,” common throughout Polynesia, is called an ahima’a in Tahiti. Tahitians traditionally used an ahima’a once a day to prepare a mid-morning meal. Very similar to a Hawaiian imu, to make an ahima’a several dozen volcanic rocks are first heated over a roaring fire set in a hole about a foot or more deep, depending on the amount of food to cook.
When the rocks are glowing red, any remaining firewood is removed and the rocks are spread out. A layer of banana stump fibers, which contain a lot of moisture and have been pounded into a stringy mass, is placed immediately on the hot rocks. Next, food to feed the family for a day is wrapped in a variety of leaves and placed on the banana fibers. Vegetables like breadfruit, taro, umara (sweet potato), ufi (yam) and green bananas are scraped and peeled and placed on the rocks among the other food items. Then broad leaves, specially-woven mats made from the leaves of the wild hibiscus tree, or old mats are used to seal in the heat, essentially creating a steam cooker. Very often earth or sand is spaded on top of everything to ensure the best results.
Tahiti is a French territory and is included with five groups of islands called French Polynesia. Tahiti is home to the fast hip-shaking dance called the tamure, which is sometimes mistaken for the Hawaiian hula.