Ritual and politics in the heart of Polynesia: Raiatea

Marae Taputapuatea: Polynesian ritual place on Raiatea

“And here is my bedroom and my wardrobe.” With a sweeping motion Bill, our guide, opens the sliding door and gives free sight of his 250 shirts. We are on a historical tour around Raiatea. Bill had stopped at his lovely house to show us around, although we had rather expected to have a look at the archeological artifacts he has collected over the last 30 years than at his socks and trousers. An anthropologist who has lived in Polynesia for a long time, Bill must have given fascinating insights into Polynesian culture and society in his “Almost Paradise Tours.” But he has turned 85 two weeks ago and his memory sometimes fails him now, which made it difficult for us to extract information from his pleasant chit-chat.

Polynesian ritual platforms

According to legend, Raiatea is the centre of the Polynesian triangle between New Zealand, Hawaii and Easter Island. All the founders of the other Polynesian empires came from here. With Bill we visit several maraes, Polynesian ceremonial platforms, in the south of Raiatea. “Today people still come here to pray for important issues. Look at those barn doors.” Bill points to the unu, wooden boards with engraved geometrical designs, which are standing on the paved platform. “They used to belong to local chieftains. Now, their descendants have brought them here a few months ago to pray for a solution to the political stalemate,” Bill maintains. To us, they look like freshly wood-stained fretwork by a group of high-school students. Secretly we wonder to what extent Bill incorporates legend into reality.

Politics of Polynesia

“What are the fools doing?!” Rosina, the owner of the family pension on Bora Bora, spends the evening eating pickled sea-urchin. In between she is commenting in turns on the red wine she has been drinking to celebrate her recent or upcoming birthday, and on the heated debate in Parliament just showing on TV. “Gaston vs. Gaston,” proclaims the caption. French Polynesia’s multiple ex-president Gaston Flosse is just being ousted by his rival Gaston Tong Sang in a no-confidence motion. Tong Sang had won a majority of votes in the last election.

But Flosse, a long-time manipulator in French Polynesian politics and staunchly against independence, variously accused of corruption and intimidation of prosecutors, had managed to get himself elected president again. His unlikely supporter was Oscar Temaru, the third on the merry-go-round of presidents in the past couple of years. Temaru is vehemently pro-independence and an archrival of Flosse. The prayers for political improvement seemed necessary indeed.

More Polynesian ritual culture on Moorea

“Many people around here are fed up with corruption.” Captain Rupati sighs as we stare at the blue sea and watch a small palm-fringed island pass by. And with Gaston Flosse, we gather. “Many of the big, expensive hotels have been standing empty for years.” Most of the profits from tourism do not stay in French Polynesia, he complains. The big hotel chains make sure that all the business they generate is on their own premises – bars, restaurants, tour operators, tattoo shops. Of course, the colony should have benefited greatly from French financial transfers. Especially that would mean those related to French nuclear tests on two atolls in the Tuamoto island group. But now, most islanders wonder where all that money has ended up.

A week later we stand on the paved stones of the large Marae Ahu O Mahine on Moorea. The inhabitants had abandoned the area in the 19th century, we learn. But the marae had only been rediscovered and restored in the 1960s (by a colleague of Bill). Again, we wonder how much of what we see is unbroken tradition, and how much imagination went into the restoration. As the original name of the marae was lost, it is now named after Moorea’s most famous warrior, chief Mahine. When Captain Cook visited Tahiti in 1774, Mahine was in the process of fighting bloody wars with his colleague on the next island…

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