Facts About Polynesia
1. Polynesia is a group of islands in the Pacific Ocean. They cover an area of over 800,000 square miles and fit roughly into a triangular shape with New Zealand, Hawai’i, and Easter Island as its points. To give you an idea of the size, Colorado is just over 104,000 square miles – or 1/8 the size. The name Polynesia means “many islands” which is appropriate since it is made up of more than 1,000 of them. Even with that many islands, about 70% of the Polynesian population resides in the US state of Hawai’i.
2. Most of the Polynesian islands are volcanic, meaning they are made of mountains formed when lava erupted from the sea floor and built up over thousands, or even millions of years. The lava cooled when it reached the ocean water and formed solid rock. Each eruption built the island up a little higher. Some of those volcanos are dormant, meaning they no longer erupt, but some are still active and eruptions or lava flows can occur regularly.
3. With its population spread out over so many islands, it won’t come as a surprise that traditionally, Polynesians were masters of their ocean environment. They were excellent shipbuilders, navigators, and fishers. Not only did they use well-known methods of navigation such as the stars and the movement of the sun in the sky, but they were well-versed at reading the wind and the waves. Their ocean voyages extended as far as Chile, which is more than 2,000 miles from Easter Island. The art of navigating the open seas was nearly lost but was revived in 1973 when several Hawai’ians founded the Polynesian Voyaging Society and launched their first vessel several years later. The Hokule’a sailed from Hawai’i to Tahiti and back.
4. The Māori are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. The name means “normal” or “natural” and was used to distinguish ordinary mortal humans from deities and spirits.
5. Hong is the Māori greeting. It involves the two people pressing their foreheads and noses briefly together, closing their eyes, and breathing deeply. It symbolizes sharing the “breath of life” where their souls are meeting.
6. Leis are a series of objects strung together to be worn. The most familiar lei is the flower garland. They were originally worn by ancient Polynesians as part of custom, who introduced them to Hawai’i where they have become a staple of the culture there. A lei is created by someone to give to another person for an emotional reason – often as a sign of affection and traditionalists give a lei by bowing slightly and raising it above the heart, allowing the recipient to take it. If possible, the leis should be returned to the place where they were gathered, or if that can’t be done, they should be restored to the earth by hanging in a tree, burying, or burning.
7. Leis are not the only flowers traditionally worn throughout Polyneisa. It is common in many places for women to place a tiara (the national flower of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands) behind their ears. They wear it on the left if they are in a relationship, and on the right if they are single. You can see this tradition depicted in the paintings of artist Paul Gauguin who spent a portion of his career in Tahiti.
8. Dance is an important part of Polynesian culture. There are many different forms and each is associated with a specific island group and is special to each culture. Some examples include:
HULA: The dance of the Native Hawai’ians, it is credited with helping to preserve their culture.
ORI TAHITI: A Tahitian dance which consists of gyrating hip movements to drumming.
HAKA: Traditional dance of New Zealand, it portrays strong, war-like gestures.
FIRE KNIFE DANCE: Involving the twirling of a war knife and used in ancient times to prepare a warrior’s mind for battle, this is a dance from Samoa.
9.. The music of pre-colonized Polynesia was almost entirely vocal, full of chants and story-songs that interacted intimately with dance. When European missionaries arrived, things changed with the instruments they brought along such as guitars and ukuleles. The Polynesians adopted these instruments along with the harmonies of the church hymns they heard. Today, the island music is a mix of traditional and Western but is still deeply intertwined with the natural rhythms of the island and the drive to dance.
10. There are many famous Polynesians. They include:
Barak Obama: The 44th president was born in and spent most of his young life in Hawai’i.
Jason Momoa: The current Marvel Aquaman and Game of Thrones star was also born in Hawai’i.
Carrie Ann Inaba: This Dancing with the Stars judge was born in Honolulu.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson: Former professional wrestler and star of The Mummy was born in California but his mother is Samoan.
Lorde: The young singer known for her hit “Royals” was born in New Zealand.