Thursday, February 23, 2017

How the Story of “Moana” and Maui Holds Up Against Cultural Truths

I've said it before and I will say it again: the colonization of Pacific Islands is the greatest human adventure story of all time.

People using Stone Age technology built voyaging canoes capable of traveling thousands of miles, then set forth against the winds and currents to find tiny dots of land in the midst of the largest ocean on Earth. And having found them, they traveled back and forth, again and again, to settle them—all this, 500 to 1,000 years ago.

Ever since Captain Cook landed in the Hawaiian Islands and realized that the inhabitants spoke a cognate language to those of the South Pacific islands, scholars and others have researched and theorized about the origins and migrations of the Polynesians.

The Hōkūleʻa voyaging canoe has proved the efficacy of traditional Oceanic navigation since 1976, when it embarked on its historic maiden voyage to recover the lost heritage of this ocean-sailing tradition. The general scholarship on migrations seems well established, and most current researches now seek to understand the timing of the various colonizations.

But one huge mystery, sometimes called “The Long Pause” leaves a gaping hole in the voyaging timeline.

Western Polynesia—the islands closest to Australia and New Guinea—were colonized around 3,500 years ago. But the islands of Central and Eastern Polynesia were not settled until 1,500 to 500 years ago. This means that after arriving in Fiji, Samoa and Tonga, Polynesians took a break—for almost 2,000 years—before voyaging forth again.

Then when they did start again, they did so with a vengeance: archaeological evidence suggests that within a century or so after venturing forth, Polynesians discovered and settled nearly every inhabitable island in the central and eastern Pacific.

Nobody knows the reason for The Long Pause, or why the Polynesians started voyaging again.

Several theories have been proposed—from a favorable wind caused by a sustained period of El Niño, to visible supernovas luring the stargazing islanders to travel, to ciguatera poisoning caused by algae blooms.

Enter Moana, the latest Disney movie, set in what appears to be Samoa, even though most American audiences will see it as Hawaii.

Moana—pronounced “moh-AH-nah,” not “MWAH-nah” means “ocean”—and the character is chosen by the sea itself to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti, who turns out to be an island deity (Tahiti, in its various linguistic forms, including Tafiti, is a pan-Polynesian word for any faraway place).

The heart of Te Fiti is a greenstone (New Zealand Maori) amulet stolen by the demigod Maui. An environmental catastrophe spreading across the island makes the mission urgent. And despite admonitions from her father against anyone going beyond the protective reef, Moana steals a canoe and embarks on her quest.

But as should be expected whenever Disney ventures into cross-cultural milieus, the film is characterized by the good, the bad and the ugly.

Moana’s struggle to learn to sail and get past the reef of her home island sets the stage for her learning of true wayfinding. It also shows traces of Armstrong Sperry’s stirring, classic book Call It Courage, and Tom Hanks's Castaway.

But the film's story also has a different angle with a powerful revelation: Moana’s people had stopped voyaging long ago, and had placed a taboo—another Polynesian world—on going beyond the reef.

With the success of Moana’s mission and her having learned the art of wayfinding, her people start voyaging again.

And so the Long Pause comes to an end, Disney style, with a great fleet of canoes setting forth across the ocean to accomplish the greatest human adventure of all time. I admit to being moved by this scene.

As someone who lectures on traditional oceanic navigation and migration, I can say resoundingly that it is high time the rest of the world learned this amazing story.

But then there is much to criticize.

by Doug Herman, Smithsonian |  Read more:
Image: Phil Uhl/Wikimedia Commons