Vai's View: Polynesian culture offers barriers, blessings

Published: Friday, Feb. 18 2011 11:00 a.m. MST

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series exploring the cultural barriers and blessings in the Polynesian culture.


It is Tonga's sole contribution to the English language. Taken from the Tongan word "Tapu," meaning "restricted" or "sacred." Technically, we could also claim "tattoo," though it's an amalgamation of a Polynesian word — Tahitians called it "tattau," Samoans' "tatau" and Tongans' "ta ta tau," all meaning "to mark."

I think it's interesting that both words, taboo and tattoo, apply to our bodies. We view the human body as sacred, to be restricted from others and even ourselves, from sexual touching or arousal in ways that are taboo. As Latter-day Saints, we are counseled by modern prophets to avoid marking our bodies with tattoos or body piercings.

British sailors exploring the South Pacific in the 18th century were enamored with the tattoos that adorned chiefs and warriors throughout Polynesia. Thus began a history of sailors and tattooing in foreign ports that exits today. In the last 10 to 20 years, the art has become more mainstreamed in American culture. I see it on shoulders, ankles, wrists and calves in our pews on Sundays, and that's just in Relief Society. I concede that here in the East or any place with new converts, we must be understanding of alternative lifestyles before conversion. But more often than I'd like, I see tattoos on returned missionaries and some women who grew up in the church.

Anybody who watches NFL football can easily identify Polynesian players by their tribal tattoos and the shock of hair covering all those vowels on the back of their jerseys. Tattoos and long, wild, unkempt hair does not a culture make. My sense is such outward tribal appearances seem to fill an identity crisis. Frankly, on Troy Polamalu and Chris Kemoeatu, I somewhat understand it. On a Latter-day Saint returned missionary, I don't. And there's the rub: The dilemma between culture and gospel culture.

I was born in Tonga, lived in Tonga, attended elementary school in Tonga, Tongan is my first language, therefore Tongan culture is an important part of my life. But for all the Tongan blood that courses through my veins, I was raised, nursed, nurtured and identify more closely with gospel culture. Some in my family, who more closely identify with our ethnicity, accuse me of being a "cafeteria Tongan" — meaning, I pick and choose the parts of my culture that suit my lifestyle. Indeed, I do and make no apologies for it. I credit much of my unexpected success to my ability in making those distinctions. Frankly, some cultural traditions are better left in the old country. What I've kept, such as my fluency and literacy in Tongan, has been a blessing in my life, and I hope it will be for others in the future.

I became a student of this topic with more than 40 years of experience, observation and my own unscientific, yet very personal research. Here is a sample of my findings.


For centuries, kava was an integral part of Polynesian life, but today, kava is the bane of our culture. The kava plant is pounded into powder, mixed with water and used as a ceremonial drink. Anciently, chiefs counseled together over a bowl of kava, and the kava plant was used in the marriage ceremony. The Tongan word for "covenant" is "fua kava," which literally means "first fruit of kava." Today, the once-sacred kava ceremony has evolved into kava parties, where men drink kava for hours and sometimes days. Kava is often the culprit in unemployment, financial hardship, broken marriages, infidelity and occasionally, untimely death. Church leaders once tiptoed around kava, careful not to offend cultural mores, but today, they've simply counseled us, "STOP."


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