Moana: Why it’s important to Oceanic Identity

Disney’s Moana

In 1993 Epeli Hau’Ofa wrote a staggering piece of work called “Our Sea of Islands.” He spoke of how smallness had become a state of mind for Pacific Islanders defined by ‘continental’ perspective. The perspective was land based and thus Pacific Islanders had so little land they were deemed small and unable to fend for themselves. Hau’Ofa realized that Pacific Islanders should not be defined by their land after all these were a people of voyagers, of travelers through the largest ocean on Earth and they were connected by that very ocean, Oceanians if you will. Oceanians had always been about the connections throughout the ocean, not the islands on which they made their homes.

At it’s heart Moana tells a similar story about identity. A people confined by their land, forgetting their ancestors and struggling to survive because of it. The main character, Moana hears the ocean calling to her and knows that answering the call is vital to her identity. Moana travels beyond the safety of the reef and, of course, saves her island but in doing so reminds her people of the importance of their history to their culture. They return to voyaging and successfully regain their identity.

In this story I felt my own story being told. My father moved to New Zealand when he was 16 from Niue for a job and his family moved later as there was nothing for them on the island. I was born in New Zealand and have never been to Niue, I don’t speak the language, I can’t tell you any ancestral stories or show you our traditional dances. From birth I was immersed a ‘continental’ perspective where I was reminded my island is small, that my culture is only a small part of NZ and that my people were small. I felt that smallness and was confused and lost. It wasn’t until reading ‘Our Sea of Islands’ that I realized I had forgotten who I was, my history and culture. I was born of a voyager, a descendant of people who saw the ocean as a connection to the world and could harness it.

Moana to me was more than what it felt to see a girl who looked like me on the screen (#representationmatters) and more than what it felt to hear familiar drumming beats and harmonies. What resonated with me the most about Moana was how well it connected to my people as a narrative. There are times, as a people, Pacific Islanders/Oceanians forget who we are, where we came from and what we can learn from our history. Our ancestors were voyagers, wayfinders and they sailed the ocean. Our people are STILL voyagers, wayfinders and, though our vaka are different, our journeys for better futures, greater opportunities or simply adventure continue. Our people are vast, they scatter the globe, they travel and they are Oceanians in ways our people have always been, an ever changing combination of new and old. We should continue to move to new islands but we must remember our history to help shape the ways we develop being an Oceanian/Pacific Islander into something different and unique.

In this present time as we are surrounded by a that ‘continental’ frame of mind in our schools, in our countries and in ourselves, remind yourself and our people, that we have NEVER been small. Our greatness and our power have always been in our connections across the oceans and our fearlessness to voyage towards the horizon.

P.S. Thank you Oceanic Story Trust

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