Polynesian islands are a beautifully placed string of more than 1000 islands in the Pacific Ocean. Polynesia builds a triangle from the Eastern Islands to New Zealand and up North including Hawaii, covering French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu, Niue, and many more islands. They are all connected by ancient and rich culture, traditions, customs, and remarkable cuisine.
From delicious food to intricate art and from ancient gods to exhilarating dances, Polynesian islands offer a diverse range of experiences to their guests, which is why we have put together this article for you to learn about the Polynesian culture and what makes it so attractive.
So without taking up too much time, let us dive straight into what Polynesian culture is all about and how you can have a memorable and authentic Polynesian experience.
A traditional Polynesian tattoo is the most distinguishable feature of Polynesian culture. It is a unique craft of the people, and its knowledge has been passed down through generations. Interestingly, the origins of the word “tattoo” are Polynesian as well. For the Polynesian people, a “tatau” represents the character, sexual maturity, personality, genealogy, and rank in society.
Even though its exact origins are unknown, some people believe that the Marquesan Islands are its starting point. This is why, if you are interested in the most authentic Polynesian tatau experience, French Polynesia is the place to be.
Today, the tools of the trade have changed. Earlier Polynesian people used simple tools like shark teeth to make tattoos, but today they use modern methods and tools. But the use of such devices hasn’t affected the connection and the meaning of this traditional art form in the Polynesian culture. For Polynesian people, a tattoo is a part of a person’s identity, so they do not replicate tattoos, and every design is unique.
2. Dancing, Drumming, and Musical Performances
Polynesian culture has a rich connection with music, instruments, and dancing. A native drumming style called Tahitian drumming originated from Tahiti and French Polynesia. It has become a symbol of Polynesian culture and represents Polynesian heiva (entertainment) to the world.
Like tattooing, these dances and drumming performances have a deeper meaning for the Polynesian people. For them, it is a celebration of life and everything that sustains it (more on that in “religion”). These performances symbolize past, present, and the social hierarchies present in their societies.
Perhaps the best way to experience these events is to visit Tahiti for the annual festival of “The Celebration of Life.” It is one of the most famous events in Tahiti. More than 8,000 people participate as volunteers to provide a rich, authentic, and traditional experience of Polynesian culture to the world.
Even though the drumming techniques, method, and overall celebration have changed significantly in modern times, it still carries the true Polynesian spirit that grabs people’s hearts and inspires awe in them.
3. Arts and Crafts
Polynesian culture has a diverse range of native arts and crafts that are unique, inspiring, and creative. Some examples of arts and crafts in the Polynesian culture include:
Polynesian people use the art of plaiting to create bag baskets, mats, and hats. Women from the Austral Islands in Polynesia are the experts of this craft.
Tifaifai is another outlet of Polynesian creativity and artistic spirit. It is a quilt-making craft where bed covers and sheets with stunning designs are hand-sewn ethnic and vegetal motifs.
Sculpting is also found in the Polynesian culture, where traditional and symbolic designs are created in precious wood. The experts of this craft are to be found in the Marquesans.
Lastly, tapa cloth making is another craft of Polynesian culture. It is a cloth created using bark softened through beating and soaking. Designs are then applied on this cloth using natural dyes from vegetables. It has a range of colors like light brown, black, and red.
4. Weddings and Funerals
In Polynesian culture, the family is the central unit. Older people are respected the most, and every family member performs their role. They all usually live together with siblings and grandparents.
Two of the most significant rituals in the Polynesian culture are weddings and funerals. In a typical Polynesian wedding, the responsibilities are divided between a groom’s and bride’s families. Men are in charge of the food arrangements while women take care of gifts and dowries. The bride dances for her man and his family on the wedding day. During the performance, the husband joins in and performs rough, boisterous, and masculine moves to compliment his wife’s graceful and feminine movements.
Similarly, funerals are an essential affair filled with love and respect for the deceased and their family. Like on Tonga people wear ta’ovala, a traditional Polynesian mat, and its type indicates the wearer’s relation to the dead. The more colorful and finely woven a mat is the closer the relationship with the deceased.
Another interesting Fact: on some islands, like the Cook Islands, most locals are buried in the gardens of their homes. So the deceased beloved ones stay close to their relatives – even in death.
Polynesian people are seafaring nations that have been known since ancient times as remarkable sailors. They navigated the open oceans using sophisticated methods and techniques such as knowledge and observation of stars, wind and cloud patterns, ocean swells and currents, sea and sky colors, and birds’ migration patterns. Their senses eventually became navigational tools which they relied on heavily. Therefore, sailing is a distinct and representative part of the Polynesian culture.
The knowledge of navigation was passed down from generation to generation, and these people used, and still use, seagoing vessels known as Va’a or Vaka. Traditionally, they used va’a tele(longship) for long-distance voyages. These were double-hull canoes connected by two cross beams and a central deck that covered them. The triangular sails are a distinct feature of a Polynesian boat, and these vessels can be as large as 60 feet in length. You can enjoy authentic sailing experiences at islands like Raiatea, Bora Bora, Taha’a, Huahine, Tahiti, and Oahu.
People of Polynesia have a spiritual connection with the ocean. And they show it through sailing or fishing. To these people, the sea is their sustainer, providing them consistently with food like fish, octopus, clams, crabs, and others. Therefore, fishing is an integral part of their culture, and a successful fisherman enjoys much respect in Polynesian society.
Traditionally, Polynesian people caught fish using canoes and from the shoreline. They used various methods and techniques like lines and hooks, fishing with spears, and casting nets from canoes.
Even though they have adopted modern fishing methods today, things like hooks hold a symbolic and mythical role in their culture. They used braided olona, a flowering shrub found in Hawaii, to make fishing lines and weave fishing nets. They carved hooks from bones, whale ivory, turtle shells, and wood. There are plenty of fishing tours available in Tahiti and Bora Bora that give you an authentic Polynesian fishing experience.
7. Religion and Belief System
The Polynesian belief system and religion are built upon animism. It is a belief that everything, whether animate or inanimate, possesses a spiritual essence and a sacred supernatural power to some degree. Polynesians call it mana.
Religion greatly influenced their everyday lives, and according to their beliefs, their chiefs had significant mana. Women, too, were considered to possess great mana because of their ability to reproduce and bring life. Inanimate things like buildings, tools, stones, trees, temples, and land areas also possessed mana. The areas considered to have great mana were prohibited from visiting by ordinary people as these places were considered tapu, where the present-day word “taboo” originates from.
Polynesian people also had a pantheon of gods, much like Roman and Greek societies. These deities possess different qualities and include names like Tangaroa, Lono, and Tu. Worshipping methods were different for various gods and included sacrifices, chants, recitations, ritual sex, feasting, and many other practices and rituals.
8. Polynesian Cuisine
Polynesian cuisine is a diverse experience of flavors and ingredients, but seafood, coconut, and roots (such as taro) are the staple food. The cuisine also has French and Asian influences, with ingredients like coconut milk, lime, tamarind, ginger, and vanilla.
Common varieties of seafood such as tuna, mahi-mahi, opah, and swordfish are either prepared on skewers, baked, deep-fried, grilled, or simply raw marinated.
The traditional earthen oven, also known as “umu”, is still a huge part of Polynesian cuisine. On special occasions, food is prepared in pits using traditional recipes and procedures that are ancient and intact. The hosts dig a meter-deep hole and cover its floor with dry wood and volcanic stones. The types of food most commonly cooked in these ovens are wild pig, taro, cassava, uru, and fish. They are wrapped in banana leaves and left in the oven until tender.
And – already hungry? Also, check out our article on delicious South Pacific dishes.
Polynesian people are some of the most lively and hospitable people. They take their culture seriously in modern times and stick to their roots. If Polynesia happens to be your travel destination this year, make sure to give this article a read before you leave.