A Sea of Islands
The problem of seeing the Pacific as ancient Polynesians must have is a bit like the problem of perceiving solid and voids in the art of M.C. Escher. When you first look at his work you see the solids in the composition. Then, blinking, the voids between the solids pop into view - a different perception, crafted by Escher just as clinical psychologists conjure optical illusions to test human perception - the simple but perplexing difference between foreground and background.
Continental people, looking down on the Hawaiian Islands from an airplane, see tiny islands in an immense ocean. When they deplane and travel around, the landscape seems tinier still. Some, who come with plans to settle, get a malady called "island fever" and depart hastily. Of the total composition constructed from land and ocean, they see merely the foreground. But Polynesians, I think, saw the whole picture, foreground and background, land and ocean, as a single unified composition. From this 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 unbidden during his lifetime of sailing and finding land and thinking about the process he calls wayfinding, a larger concept than navigation that embodies, as he once said simply, "a way of life." Which is to say a way of looking at the world - what anthropologists call "culture" and what 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 and they are very tied to the ocean. They know how to live within that ocean environment and to survive in it. I think that people who for generations almost without end have evolved in an ocean world evolved a much different way of seeing the world than did people who lived in large land masses like continents."
Pondering the difference between the perceptions of continental people and Pacific islanders, Nainoa's reasoning goes something like this: survival is the engine of world view; Pacific people had to sail to survive: whenever they sailed out from their home islands, they found new ones. Therefore even though the islands they lived on may have been small, Nainoa reasoned, to his ancestors of long ago the sea and the islands it contained must have seemed infinite.
"Maybe 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 is always edifying to journey around in the minds of people from distinct cultures) but it is also a thought that has political implications among scholars who are rethinking the role of Pacific peoples in the future of the planet - Professor Epeli Hau'ofa, for example, a sociologist at the University of the South Pacific. For years, Hau'ofa had accepted the view that Pacific islands, as he puts it, "are 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." Being a Pacific Islander himself, It was a view of the world that did not please him. As a teacher he became more and more disillusioned the more he propagated this hopeless sense of the world 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 if 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 own people. He came to conclusions similar to the ones that Nainoa was pondering a few thousand miles away in Hawaii.
Pacific Islanders 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. Hawaii, Easter Island, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji were likewise partitioned into tiny colonial states. 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 forming in the imagination of Pacific peoples. Thoughts 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."