The Polynesians came from south-east Asia and after thousands years of migration first settled the islands of what is now known as French Polynesia. They went on exploring the ocean and settled on new lands among which Easter island, Hawai’i and New Zealand. This is the odyssey we want to tell you through a series of articles. In this issue, we embark on a journey in the wake of the Polynesian goddess named Pele…
Mai Kahiki ka wahine o Pele, Mai ka ‘āina i Polapola, Mai ka pūnohu ‘ula a Kāne, Mai ke ao lalapa i ka lani, Mai ka ‘ōpua lapa i Kahiki
From Kahiki came the woman Pele, From the land called Polapola, From the red rainbow of Kāne, From the high blazing clouds of the sky, From the flashing cloud at Kahiki
This is how the mele o Pele, one of the oldest traditional Hawaiian chants relates the arrival of the Polynesians to the Hawaiian islands. According to it, Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, and her party came over to Hawai’i aboard big double-hulled canoes. Tradition has it that this fire goddess named Pere in Tahiti was born in the valley of Papeno’o to Haumea, the goddess of fertility, and Kāne. She had 7 brothers and 6 sisters ; the most famous are Hi’iaka, the patron goddess of hula -the hawaiian dance- and Nā-Maka-O-Kaha’i, a sea goddess with whom Pele was always at odds.
After a family dispute Pelehonuamea departed from Tautira, a district located on the lesser peninsula of Tahiti. These events are recorded in Tahitian place names, from Papeno’o on the north coast where the meteorite Te ‘Ōpūrei a Pere can be seen up to the Fenua ‘aihere on the southern limit. In the village of Tautira the gathering place still bears the name Ti’ara’a o Pere, which means Where Pele stands. Pele and her party fled their angry sister Nā-Maka-O-Kaha’i, and travelled to one island after another in search of new lands where they could settle. Their brother Ka-moho-ali’i the shark-god guided them and they stopped in many islands in the south – Tūpai in the Leeward islands, Fakarava in the Tuamotus, and Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas – before they finally headed North. Many gods were on board among whom Kū, the god of war, and Lono, the god of farming and fertility. The group survived Pele’s sister’s attacks, sailed across the Pacific ocean and finally discovered Hawai’i.
When they arrived there, Pele stopped on Ni’ihau, Kaua’i, Oahu, Moloka’i, then on Maui and finally on Hawai’i. On those islands, the hot-tempered goddess was tormented by her sister who sent big waves to smother the flames of her volcanic house obliging Pele to go even farther east until she eventually found a permanent residence in Kilauea, a volcano on the big island of Hawai’i.
Archeological and DNA evidence
Thanks to archeology and genetics technologies, the scientists proved that the Hawaiian islands were settled in several migratory waves from different islands and spaced in time. According to the most recent estimates the Hawaiian archipelago was peopled by Polynesians coming from the Marquesas islands and then from the Society islands between 800 AD-1200 AD during what scholars name « Foundation period ». The Polynesians, descendants of the Lapita people, arrived on board big double-hulled canoes on which women, children, pigs, fowl and plants were embarked.
Among those plants, there were useful, edible, tinctorial or medicinal plants that are still used on the islands. The kalo/taro (Colocasia esculenta) is one of them ; this tuber is still cultivated in taro patches called lo’i, in particular on Kaua’i and Maui, and every part of it can be eaten ; the roots, but also the stalks and leaves called laulau that are a local delicacy. The wauke/’aute (Broussonetia papyrifera) is the murlberry tree whose inner bark was beaten into tapa, a most favoured cloth in olden days. The Polynesians also brought along the ‘awa/kava (Piper methysticum) whose roots once mashed and put to soak in water provide a ceremonial drink, the sweet potato or ‘uala (Ipomoea batatas), and the calabash called ipu (Lageneria siceraria) ; contrary to the other plants the latter two are not native of Asia but of the American continent, and give further evidence, if need be, that the Polynesians definitely were great navigators !
The earliest known settlement ever studied in the archipelago is located on the south point of the big island of Hawai’i, also the southernmost point in the United States, in a place called Ka Lae. There, old canoe mooring holes drilled in the rocks can still be seen. The oral tradition has it that lots of canoes got drowned there where the ocean currents are particularly strong. Besides, the archeologists stated that the fishhooks found on the site are similar to those found in the Marquesas, in the Society islands and in Wairau in New Zealand.
Beyond myths and stories
Her journey from west to east is coherent with the chronology of the birth of the archipelago and comes along with feats like the creation of mountains or craters : Haleakala on the island of Maui, Kohe-lepe-lepe (Koko crater) and Leahi (Diamond Head) on Oahu, or Mauna Kea and Kilauea on Hawai’i. Beyond the fabulous narrative, the myth also relates the history of a clan coming from South Pacific searching for big volcanic islands, the clan of Pele, whose descendants are among the strongest proponents of Hawaiian culture who make it a point to collect the oral traditions in relation with this clan, to trace their history and perpetuate their old traditions. Some experts of the Hawaiian sky think that the mele o Pele applies to the stars and gives directions enabling to trace the path followed by the ancient navigators. According to them Kahiki/Tahiti which can be translated by the edge or the exterior could refer not to the island of Tahiti but to a point in the sky outside a specific zone. What’s more, on board a canoe, Polapola –Bora Bora- is the deck between the two hulls, and in the sky, it refers to the « deck » between two stars or two constellations. In addition to this the hardened stone plates floating on lava are called vaka –va’a in Tahitian-, meaning canoes…
The story of Pele is not the only one that hints at first settlements. The myth of the Menehune also evokes early people, supposedly small, dark-skinned and very skilled, in particular on the island of Kaua’i. There the Menehune are said to be the builders of huge works among which the large Alekoko fish pond and the Menehune ditch in Waimea on the west coast of the island. According to the same stories when new Polynesian immigrants arrived the Menehune had to seek refuge in the valleys. Similar stories can be heard elsewhere in Polynesia – Samoa, Tahiti…- where the Menehune are said to have first settled the islands. It’s worth noticing that menehune is the equivalent of the Tahitian manahune meaning commoners occupying the lowest social rung.
In the traditional Polynesian society, the manahune formed the lowest social class and they were assigned the most difficult tasks ; for these reasons the word was a disparaging one. When Cook and his men discovered the islands in late 18th century their local informants told them of the menehune, the humblest commoners. The Europeans may have mistaken those « low-grade » people for « small-sized » folks. This is at least the opinion of oral tradition experts who consider this somewhat recent myth as one of the many misunderstandings that often occur in a culture-clash context. Let’s also remember that one of those misunderstandings led to James Cook’s death in Kealakekua Bay on February 14th 1779…
A sense of belonging to a larger world
The links between Ra’iātea and the Hawaiian islands are a recurrent theme in folklore, in the stories of ari’i –chiefs- Hawai’iloa and Mo’ikeha for instance, but the Marquesan heritage is the most obvious, especially in the native language which makes use of k like the Marquesans when locals from the Society islands –except Maupiti- use t or the glottal stop. As an example, fish would be i’a in the Society islands, and ika in the Marquesas and in Hawai’i. The relations between Tahiti, the Society islands and Hawai’i are more recent as evidenced by the genealogies and also the presence of marae –places of worship- called heiau in Hawaiian. When Polynesian people migrated an important marae could be transposed on new lands via foundation stones from that marae. This was the case with marae Taputapuātea located in Ōpoā on the island of Ra’iātea and dedicated to ‘Oro, the god of fertility and war ; that’s why the name Kapukapuākea can be found in the Polynesian Trianle, for example in New Zealand and Rarotonga in the Cook Islands.
The Hawaiian islands are no exceptions ; there can be found the placename Kapukapuākea on Oahu, Kaua’i and Moloka’i. It sometimes refers to a heiau, a sacred place, of which, unfortunately, little remains. But what remains for sure is the feeling of belonging to a wider world the centre of which would be in the southern islands, probably in Hawaiki, Ra’iātea… In the light of these interpretations, one can easily understand that stories and History are always intertwined making it sometimes difficult to get access to the bare chronological scientific truth but, who cares ? As, in the end, the winner is always the reader who thus has the opportunity to imagine, dream and escape…
Text: Josiane Teamotuaitau / Pictures: Danee Hazama