“A Sea of Islands”

“A Sea of Islands”
by Sam Low

Where land people see a barrier – island people see a road.

Seeing the Pacific as ancient Polynesians once did is a bit like the problem of perceiving solids and voids in the art of M.C. Escher. When you first look at Escher’s work you see only the solid figures in his composition. Then, blinking, the voids between the solids pop into view – a different perception of his work, crafted by the artist as a clinical psychologist might conjure optical illusions to test human perception – the perplexing difference between foreground and background.

Continental people, looking down on Hawaii from an airplane, see tiny islands in an immense ocean. When they deplane and travel around, the landscape often seems tinier still. Some visitors to Hawaii who come with plans to settle are so afflicted with this perception they get a malady called “island fever” and depart hastily. Of the total island world constructed by land and ocean, they see merely the land. But perhaps the ancient Polynesians perceived not the limits of tierra firma, not the foreground in the parlance of scholars of perception, but rather the boundless space of the ocean around them, the background. From this mental vantage point Polynesia is huge – larger than all the continents of Europe combined – and it is composed of islands joined, not separated, by ocean.

Thoughts like these have come to Nainoa Thompson unbidden during his lifetime of sailing and thinking about the process that he calls wayfinding – a concept that includes navigation but also embodies, as he once said simply, “a way of conducting yourself, a way of life.” Which is to say a way of looking at the world – what anthropologists call “culture” and philosophers call “cosmology.”

“I think that how people make a living, how they survive, and how their culture evolves are all interrelated,” Nainoa once said. “Pacific Islanders are ocean people. They know how to live and survive within the ocean environment. I think that people who for generations almost without end have evolved in an ocean world evolved a much different culture compared to people who lived in large land masses like continents.”

Pondering the difference between the perceptions of continental people (or mainlanders as they are sometimes called in Hawaii) and Pacific islanders, Nainoa’s reasoning goes something like this: survival is the engine of world view; Pacific people had to sail to survive because they needed to find new land to accommodate their expanding populations; whenever they sailed out from their home islands, they found new ones; therefore the world view of Pacific islanders must been one of almost infinite space. Even though the individual islands they lived on may have been small, Nainoa reasons, to his ancestors of long ago the sea and the many islands it contained must have seemed infinite.

“Maybe,” He says, “our ancestors didn’t think of the ocean as having boundaries. We simply don’t know. If we look at their oral histories and study their genealogies, we find evidence of long ocean voyages and we find connections between different families living on islands a great distance apart. That tells me that my ancestors considered their world to be very large, an immense undefined ocean world. I think that’s a much different view of the world than the one I imagine a continental people might have. I think that people who lived on large land masses saw their world as much more finite and bounded.”

This is a thought that is interesting enough in itself (it’s always edifying to journey around in the minds of people from distinct cultures) but it’s also a thought that has political implications among scholars who are rethinking the future role of Pacific peoples – Professor Epeli Hau’ofa, for example, a sociologist at the University of the South Pacific.

For years, Hau’ofa had accepted the view that most of today’s Pacific islands are, as he puts it, “much too small, too poorly endowed with resources, and too isolated from the centers of economic growth for their inhabitants ever to rise above their present condition of dependence on the largesse of wealthy nations.” But being a Pacific Islander himself, this view of the world that did not please him.

As a teacher, Hau’ofa became more and more disillusioned the more he propagated this dark vision to his students: “…the faces of my students continued to haunt me mercilessly,” he wrote in an article published in The Contemporary Pacific – A Journal of Island Affairs. “I began asking questions of myself. What kind of teaching is it to stand in front of young people from your own region… who have come to the university with high hopes for the future, and you tell them that our countries are hopeless?”

Hau’ofa began to think he might be a part of the problem rather than the part of the solution and this thought caused him to rummage around in the history of his people. Doing so, he came to conclusions similar to the ones that Nainoa was pondering a few thousand miles away in Hawaii.

Hau’ofa reasoned that Pacific peoples today consider themselves inhabitants of tiny, remote and resource poor islands largely because of recent boundaries drawn around them by European colonizers in the 19th and 20th centuries. The French and English, for example, created an arbitrary border between French Polynesia (Tahiti and her sister islands) and the Cooks and New Zealand – alienating a Pacific people who had for centuries exchanged goods and genes with one another. The Marshall Islands; Easter Island; Tonga, Samoa and Fiji were likewise partitioned into tiny colonial states and eventually all of Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia suffered the same fate. Dominated by continental nations, islanders began to think of their once infinite watery world as did their colonial masters. “When those who hail from continents… see a Polynesian or Micronesia island,” Hau’ofa wrote, “they naturally pronounce it small or tiny. Their calculation is based entirely on the extent of the land surfaces they see.”

“But if we look at the myths, legends, and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania,” Hau’ofa continued, “it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions.”

“Smallness,” Hau’ofa later wrote, “is a state of mind.”

It’s a powerful state of mind, though. One that continues to give people from the “mainlands” of the world difficulty when confronting the “big thoughts” now reforming in the imagination of Pacific peoples. Thoughts, for example, of sovereignty in Hawaii and other islands that were once nations or confederacies of nations, thoughts, even, that the oceanic “sea of nations” might provide a model for the rest of the world.

“There are no people on earth,” Hau’ofa writes, “more suited to be guardians of the world’s largest ocean than those for whom in has been home for generations.”