The Pacific: Gods and People

Mourner's dress (Ethno TAH 78)

The great expanse of the Pacific Ocean is inhabited space. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than 14 million people live in twenty-eight nations spread across the Pacific, and between them speak more than 1300 languages. For many of these people the ocean is not so much a barrier as a known landscape, across which they travel constantly, in boats (and today in planes) exchanging goods and knowledge, and extending and maintaining personal and family networks. Pacific islanders have always been skilled navigators and linguists. As the scholar Epeli Hau'ofa describes his Pacific ancestors:

'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 hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas.'1

Throughout the Pacific people have made and used objects to express their power and rank. The Hawaiians clothed their leaders in sacred feather cloaks which symbolized a connection to specific gods. Chiefs in Palau used fine shell inlaid vessels for the ceremonial presentation of gifts of food to their peers. In Fiji high-ranking men wore precious shell and ivory breastplates. In Vanuatu the achievement of status through ritual allowed people to wear special masks and ornaments. In countries where the indigenous population now lives within a settler society, power relations between the two groups are often represented, and disputed through objects. Thus Australian Aboriginal art very often makes claims for Aboriginal authority over the land itself. For most of these objects this power is made visible through the creativity, beauty and dramatic presence with which their makers invested them.

1 'Our sea of islands', The Contemporary Pacific, 6:1 (1994), pp. 147-61.