What makes us Pacific Islander?

by Marita Davies

‘We sweat and cry saltwater, so we know that the ocean is really in our blood’.

Teresia Teaiwa[i]

I grew up in Sale, Victoria.

A majority white, working class and farming community, Sale and the wider Gippsland region prides itself on its produce, agriculture, snowfields and the Ninety Mile Beach. But as a brown child growing up in a large country town, for me it didn’t feel like it prided itself in its diversity of people or culture.

My mother is from Kiribati and came to live in Gippsland in 1983 at the age of 22 when my father got a job with the local council. With a small baby and then myself arriving in the local hospital in 1985, my sister and I grew up as minority brown kids in a largely white community.

As much as my mother tried to immerse Kiribati culture into our home, the country Victorian way of life overpowered it all too easily.

At home, Kiribati culture was evident in our household. Pacific Island music playing, phrases spoken in I-Kiribati, woven mats, fans and baskets sitting on shelves. Our placemats, laundry baskets, coasters were all made in Kiribati and shells sat on various window ledges around the house.

However, whenever I left the house, my culture was left at the door.

There weren’t very many kids around that had my skin colour and nor were there very many parents that looked like my Mum – brown skin, long dark hair down to her waist. 

I remember other kids at school would see my white-skinned Dad at school pick up and say, ‘Is that your Dad?’ in a tone that I could only describe as disbelief. As an occasional occurrence these comments didn’t bother me, but they did give me an awareness that other kids noticed that my skin didn’t match my Dad’s. Which to me, made it clear that I was different – and I wasn’t too sure if that was a good thing.

Without a Kiribati community, my Mum would cry about missing her family and friends. I remember her getting visibly upset when my sister and I stated that we didn’t want to speak Kiribati at home anymore. She was trying to connect us to our Kiribati culture but we were trying our hardest to connect to Australian culture.

What I do remember in my early school years, is spending time with another family that lived in a neighbouring town, 15 minutes away.

There were four children in their family – their mother was Fijian and their father white. The same colour pairing in my own parents. Although a little bit younger than my sister and I, we connected in a way that we couldn’t seem to comprehend at the time. We spent a lot of time together in our younger years.  While our mothers prepared fish and rice to share for lunch, we would jump on the trampoline together, play hide and seek and watch TV all huddled on the couch.

Image 1: Marita primary school portrait

Our houses looked the same with woven artefacts dotted around the place. Our mothers had the same skin colour although mine had long thick hair and their Mum had an afro. We would compare our own skin colour with each other and debated who had the darkest, thickest hair of all the kids. We each had different versions of our names – the names we were called at school and the names our mothers called us – the difference being a slight tilt of an accent or a rolling of an ‘r’.

Our mothers spoke of their families back home, talking about uncles, aunties, cousins and relatives we didn’t really know. They spoke of being on the phone to their family, wiring money overseas and connecting their experiences as two brown women living in Gippsland. I never knew the specifics. As us kids flowed in and out of the house their conversations circled around us.

When my sister and I entered into high school, our playmates were still in primary school. The times we spent together grew further and further apart but whenever we did see each other it was like bumping into old cousins.

‘Tell your Mum I said hi!’ we’d say to each other in passing.

This family were my Pacific community growing up in Gippsland. A coming together of two families to form a Kiribati/Fijian community. Small but important.

Despite Kiribati and Fiji being somewhat close in geographical in proximity, there are as many differences in the culture as there are similarities. Kiribati is Micronesian and Fiji Melanesian. The countries have completely different dance, music, cooking methods, weaving and hair styles, and yet the importance of each of these cultural markers is held in the highest regard.

Looking back, the relationship formed with our Fijian friends began to form my identity of a Pacific Islander. A Pacific Islander that knew that in other Pacific Islanders, I could always find a village.

This part of my own identity feels like it is made up of two parts. Imagine a whole circle – symbolising myself as a Pacific Islander, but at the centre of that circle is a smaller core – my Kiribati identity.

I know what makes me I-Kiribati. My ancestors, the islands I am from, the land, the language, the dancing, the singing. But how do we describe the connection with other people from our wider Pacific community?

Which leads me to ask – what makes us Pacific Islander?

First of all, it is worth understanding where the term Pacific comes from.

In the 16th century Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan came up with the term when his voyage was smooth sailing on the regions seas. He called it Mar Pacifico which in Spanish and Portuguese means peaceful sea.

But our ocean had a name before Magellan referenced it as the Pacific.  For people across the Oceanic region, our ocean was referred to as Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (Maori) or Moana (Tonga, Samoa, Hawaii). In Kiribati we referred to it as Marawa.

So although in modern day terms we reference the ocean as the Pacific, we must also recognise that our lineage is older than the name suggests. Our ancestors knew the ocean and the land with it and sky above, as one.

‘There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as “islands in a far sea” and as “a sea of islands.” The first emphasizes dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centers of power. Focusing in this way stresses the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships’.

‘Our Sea of Islands’, Epeli Hau’ofa (1994, pp.152-153) [ii]

Another aspect to note is that as Pacific Islanders, we have been brought up to view fellow inhabitants and explorers of this great sea with a colonised mindset.

In 1831, Dutch explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville officially used the terms Micronesian, Polynesian and Melanesian to divide the people of the Pacific into three different ethnic groups. Melanesian, meaning people of black skin, Micronesian, people of the small islands and Polynesian, people of the many islands.

Invisible lines were drawn across the Pacific ocean, dividing a whole community of oceanic explorers into small descriptors. These terms are still used today but we must always remember that as Pacific Islanders, we never proposed for these labels to be instilled upon us.

Our identity is not for a Dutch explorer to decide, nor is it their place to divide our community.

We are people from the Pacific with shared indigenous knowledge that we have been sharing for thousands of years.

So if our ancestors did not make up the term Pacific and if our islands were divided into parts from someone not from the area, how do we answer the question – what makes us Pacific Islander?

What makes us who we are?

Image 2: Marita with Kiribati family

What is it that ties us all together?

To someone who isn’t Pacific Islander, perhaps it is because of the way we look. Brown skin, thick dark hair, hips on the women, broad chests for the men.

Or perhaps some people think it is in our nature. Happy, smiling people who love singing and laughing. The jokers. The ‘no worries’ attitude.

Maybe some believe it is people who speak a language from at least one of the many nations that span across the Pacific? Or that we must have been brought up in the Pacific to be Pacific Islander.

We know that it is none of these makes us who we are.

We don’t have to be born somewhere specific to know the land that we come from.

We don’t need a certain skin tone, to know who we come from.

We don’t need to know how to dance, to be connected to our culture.

Nor do we need to speak the same language of our relatives to feel connected to our ancestors.

Being Pacific Islander is our birthright.

What makes us Pacific Islanders is our ancestral calling. Our inner knowing that the ocean will call us and will always be our motherland.

We are united in our culture, embracing its differences across all of the islands within the Pacific.

We are ocean people, no matter how far away we are from it. The ocean, the land and sky above it will always welcome us home. We are Pacific Islander because we feel it.

‘Moana futures are rooted in the past – but it’s that rootedness that allows us to move into the future’

False Divides, Lana Lopesi (2018, p. 21)[iii]

Marita Davies is an Australian/I-Kiribati writer. A storyteller at heart, Marita explores Pacific themes, including women, culture, domestic violence and climate change. She is passionate about recreating the animated and insightful oral storytelling of Pacific Islanders in written form. Marita is the author of children’s book Teaote and the Wall, and has written for The Guardian, frankie, Lindsay, The Big Issue and Dumbo Feather.

[i] As quoted by Epeli Hau’ofa 2008 We are the Ocean: Selected Works, Honolulul: University of Hawai’i Press.

[ii] Epeli Hau’ofa 1994 ‘Our sea of islands’ The Contemporary Pacific vol. 6, no.1 pp. 148- 161.

[iii] Lana Lopesi 2018 False Divides, Wellington: Bridget Williams Books.

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