Defining Culture

The Fiji Times Online recently published an article about the definition of culture. It was written by Minakshi Maharaj who has taught at many schools including the Fiji National University and the Queensland Institute of Business and Technology. I thought it was very interesting and I would like to pull out and share certain passages of the article. To read the entire piece simply click here.

CULTURE is a word we use very frequently, often with pride and occasionally with disdain. What does culture mean? Is it the ability to perform classical dances and appreciate classical music? Or does it mean the ceremonies and practices we follow on various occasions such as death, marriage or the birth of a child? And most importantly, perhaps, is culture of any use whatsoever?

The exact meaning of culture is not easy to define. The English word culture comes from Latin and it originally meant to till, to cultivate. It is important to remember that although all human groups have “culture”, their words for culture will not have this etymology.

In his brilliant essay titled “Our Culture”, the philosopher C Rajagopalachari explains that culture is an “instrument” of civilization. He said “civilization connotes the curbing of wildness, barbarity and over-indulgence of passions and appetites” (of human beings).

While we may never have considered this as a definition of culture, it is an extremely valid and illuminating definition. Just look around you, progress and prosperity are found where people are humane, controlled, and barbaric people create hell on earth.

So how is this control over human behavior achieved?

“Civilisation”, Rajagopalachari explains, “has two instruments, one is government that acts through laws, and the penal code. This is an external control which communities have imposed upon themselves for the good of all. The other instrument is culture which acts through family training, tradition, religious belief, literature and education. Culture puts down over-indulgence acting as an internal force, as distinguished from penal laws which operate from outside”.

It is the second instrument, culture, which concerns us. In every group, certain codes for human behavior have been developed over thousands of years to ensure the survival of the community and its peaceful co-existence.


A Fijian Bure

Culture includes the codes of behavior which are a part of “family training” — parents instill in children good manners, self-discipline, truthfulness, sincerity, non-violence, kindness and many more virtues. Society too, has a duty to model respect for people and social institutions, helpfulness, honesty, diligence, compassion, respect for the earth, obedience to laws and so on.

Culture establishes value systems and ideals, which not only give goals to aspire for but also a sense of direction. People feel pride and fulfillment in doing what their culture extols. In this way, culture gives meaning to human existence. As Rajagopalachari says, culture is a “subtle instrument. It acts silently. It makes people feel they are not forced to obey, but do it of their own free will and gives them a sense of pride in good behavior”.

For example, both ethnic groups in Fiji used to value helpfulness and sharing.

They gained a sense of fulfillment by helping disadvantaged relatives, friends, and even village people, through financial support, self-denial, and by physical effort. Such behavior won societal acclaim and imparted a sense of self-esteem which further encouraged such desirable behavior.

Globalisation and media are creating an aped uniformity which deprives the world of the beauty of its myriad cultures. This could easily be avoided if we understood, appreciated and retained the best of our cultures.

Culture is not something to look down on or to dismiss lightly. It has been developed over the ages to enable peaceful co-existence for the group’s emotional, material, and even spiritual progress. It is the backbone of societies and has held them together for thousands of years.

In subtle ways, every culture suffers such cultural genocide — smaller groups such as the Aborigines being most vulnerable.

James Ngugi, whose beautiful book, The River Between, is studied in Fiji, says that a tribe without its customs is like “a tree without roots”. It will not survive if it does not retain its rich and meaningful practices and beliefs while absorbing only the necessary and good aspects of other cultures.

Culture must meet the needs of changing times, by accretion to its own strengths, and not by abandoning them.

All us should similarly value our cultural heritage and not denigrate it unthinkingly, which destroys its value in the eyes of the younger generation. Our cultures are the gift of the wisdom of our great ancestors. They give our lives uniqueness, meaning and guidance.

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The Culture of Easter Island

Although the small triangular island is only about 24.6 km (15.3 mi) long by 12.3 km (7.6 mi) at its widest point, Easter Island (known as Rapa Nui to its earliest inhabitants) is one of the most fascinating places on earth. The island boasts a very dramatic history that historians and researchers are still trying to piece together today. Located approximately 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti, it is one of the most isolated inhabited islands in the world. This isolation created a very rich and unique culture, yet still shrouded in mystery. Let’s look at some the talking points that have made Easter Island such a captivating island.


The Long-ears and the Short-ears

Oral traditions of the islanders state that the island was settled twice, the first time by a race known as the “Long-ears” who came from the east, and the second time by the “Short-ears” from the west. It seems the two clans were really the Hanau eepe (“short and stocky”) and theHanau momoko (“tall and slim”); the strange mix-up came from mistranslating eepe – short and stocky – as “ear” (“epe” in Rapa Nui).

The Long-ears who saw themselves as more aristocratic, were extremely domineering, and the “Short Ears” resented them intensely.  The Short-ears were merely laborers, while the Long-ears were the master builders of the larger stone statues which were manufactured in Rano Raraku quarry and found scattered all over the island. For two centuries, the Short-ears willingly toiled to erect monuments that represented the long-eared chiefs of the original population.

After co-existing for approximately 200 years, a civil war erupted when the Short-ears revolted after they were forced to clear the entire Poike peninsula of stones. Therefore, the Long-ears had dug an extensive trench and laid a pyre in it, then withdrew behind these fortifications to the eastern hillsides of Poike. However they were outwitted by the Short-ears who faked a head-on night attack. When the Long-ears, believing the attack was real, lit their pyre, another unit of Short-ears secretly came in around the trench, fell upon the Long-ears and pushed them into what became their own death trap.

The Birdman Cult

Another famous tradition on Easter Island is that of the Birdman, half man and half bird, that was connected to cult events at the sacred site of Orongo. A couple of days ago I posted a legend on how the Birdman tradition originated.

Like most of Polynesia at the time, a paramount chief held the original power. Over time, the chief’s omnipotence declined (possibly as a result of ecological stresses), and the secular power on the island was seized by a warrior class, called ‘matatoa’, whose emblem was the Birdman. The result was a decline in the old religion of ancestor worship and an increase in acts of warfare. At this time, statue making appears to have ceased, and the birdman cult came into being.

The most sacred area at Orongo is called Mata Ngarau, where priests chanted and prayed for success in the annual egg hunt.

Each year, contestants were selected as competitors for the title of Birdman. Each contestant would then sponsor a representative of their choosing who would be challenged to scale the dangerous face of the Rano Kau cliff, then swim shark-infested waters to the small island of Motu Nui. There, the task was simple: find eggs laid by the elusive Sooty Tern.

The first to find an egg for their sponsor was declared the winner. In turn, the sponsor (but not the one who did all of the work) would be crowned as the Birdman, or Tangata-Manu. The title allegedly earned the victor and his clan all of the benefits of a god during the year that he held the lofty title.


Photo from

The Moai

No talk about Easter Island would be complete without mentioning the moai. The moais are large stone carved figures, or monoliths, that dot the coastline of the island and were built approximately 1400 to 1650 A.D. Many know them as the Easter Island heads. This is a misconception from having seen photos of statues in the volcano Rano Raraku partially covered up with soil. Truth is that all of these “heads” have full bodies.

Moai statues were built to honor chieftain or other important people who had passed away. They were placed on rectangular stone platforms called ahu, which are tombs for the people that the statues represented. The moais were intentionally made with different characteristics since they were intended to keep the appearance of the person it represented.

The moai are seen all over the island, and in different shapes, sizes, and stages of completion. They were carved by Short-ears, but after their rebellion against the Long-ears, the statue-carving came to an abrupt end.

By the end of the 19th century, not a single statue was left standing. The most common theory to this is that the statues were overthrown in tribal warfare to humiliate the enemy. An argument for this is the fact that most statues have fallen forward with the face into the earth. Today, many of the statues have been rebuilt and erected to their normal position.

And that concludes our Easter Island week. The Internet is full of information about the island. When you get some free time, simply type “Easter Island” into your web browser, and away you go!

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Makemake and the Birds of Easter Island

The Birdman Ceremony took place every year at one of the most dramatic and beautiful places on Easter Island, known as Orongo. The purpose of the contest was to obtain the first egg of the season from the offshore islet Motu Nui. Contestants descended the sheer cliffs of Orongo and swam to Motu Nui where they awaited the coming of the birds. Having procured an egg, the contestant swam back and presented it to his sponsor, who then was declared birdman for that year, an important status position.

Here is a legend that tells the story of how this unique Birdman Ceremony originated. Makemake was known as the god of fertility and the chief god of the “Tangata manu” or birdman cult. The legend could be found in the book Pacific Island Legends. Enjoy!

Makemake and the Birds of Easter Island

On the island of Mataveri lived many people and their gods. The people fought many wars, killing and eating one another almost without cease. One of the reasons they fought was to get more food. Mataveri was a small island and it had little food. The people ate mostly fish, and it gave them a sour disposition.

“I wish we could taste something new. Something tasty.” Over and over the people wished for change, but nothing happened.

At that time a priestess lived in a cave near the water. In this cave she kept her most precious objects. She watched them day and night. She looked for signs that would tell the future, or reduce suffering, or win the favor of a particular man of woman.

One of her most precious objects was an old skull. This skull had been sitting in this cave for longer than anyone knew. Perhaps, it had been there at the beginning of the island itself! The priestess treasured the skull. She sensed its unusual power. She did not want anyone to take if from her.

At one time, between all of the tribal wars and fighting, there was a great storm. Huge waves rolled higher and higher. The waves were bigger than any person had ever seen. The greatest of these waves rose up over the island. As if called, the wave crashed into the priestess’s cave. The wave lifted the skull and carried it far out into the sea.

The priestess saw her precious skull floating away. She tried to swim and catch it. The skull floated almost as if by magic. Whenever she got close, the skull floated faster.

It floated on and on until it reached a place right in the middle of the ocean. There it washed ashore on the island of Matirohiva. The priestess, using the last of her strength, collapsed on the beach just a few feet from her treasured skull.

When she awoke, she was surprised. A man stood looking at her. Finally, he spoke, “Who are you? Why did you come to this place?”

“I am looking for my skull,” she replied.

The man looked at her curiously. “That is not a skull. That is the god Makemake. I am called Haua, who will be a companion for Makemake.” With that, the man tenderly lifted the skull and carried it to a special place on the island.


“Makemake and the Birds of Easter Island,” illustration courtesy of Tara Bonvillain, copyright 2017.

Once on Matirohiva, Makemake came out of the skull and took form. He and Haua were constant companions. They fished and hunted all over the island. Makemake especially enjoyed having birds to eat, for there had been no birds on the island of Mataveri.

Makemake often shared his food with the old priestess. One day she asked him, “Why don’t they have good food like this to eat back on our old island?”

Makemake did not know the answer to this question. He asked Haua, “Why don’t you and I chase some of the birds back to Mataveri? The people there would like them. They have no birds of their own to eat.”

Makemake and Haua did just that. They rounded up a whole flock of sooty terns. They drove them across the ocean to Mataveri.

Indeed the islanders were pleased. They thanked Makemake and Haua over and over. Then they ate the birds. The islanders did not use common sense. Before long, all of the birds were eaten and gone. They returned to their old diet, hoping Makemake would return soon with more birds for them to eat.

A few years later, Makemake and Haua decided to check on Mataveri and see how the birds were doing. When they arrived, they could not find a single remaining bird. All the birds were gone. Makamake was puzzled. He and Haua rounded up another large flock of terns and drove them back to Mataveri. This time he instructed the islanders to allow them to lay eggs so there would be more birds for them to eat.

Soon the terns built many nests, and laid many eggs. The islanders were not sure what to make of all this. One day they discovered something wonderful. The eggs were good to eat! Now the islanders thanked Makemake and Haua for both the birds and for the eggs. Then they ate them all. Every one. Every bird and every egg. Then they waited for Makemake to bring more.

“Well,” said Makemake. “It has been a few years. What say, Haua. Shall we go back to my old island and see how our birds have done?” Haua agreed. They set off at once. When Makemake and Haua arrived on Mataveri they again found no trace of any birds. Makemake questioned the people sternly, “Didn’t I tell you to allow them to lay eggs?”

“Oh we did,” answered the people. “And we thank you for that because they were very delicious.

“WHAT?” thundered Makemake. “You ATE the eggs?”

That evening Makemake and Haua puzzled over the problem. “First they ate the birds. Then they ate the eggs. These people just don’t think! They don’t understand anything about birds.” Haua agreed.

Then they had an idea.

The very next day Makemake and Haua drove a third flock of sooty terns from Matriohiva. This time they put all the birds on Motunui. Motunui was an empty island just across the water from Mataveri. Here the birds could build their nests and raise their young. The men could capture and eat just a few of the birds at a time. The rest would be safe.

Even to this day there is a great celebration on Easter Island on the day the first egg of the year is discovered. The discoverer ties this egg on his head and swims with it back to Mataveri. He is honored as the “Bird Man” for that year. The rest of the eggs are left in peace.

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New Zealand Returns Ancestral Skulls to Rapa Nui

This week we will be focusing on Easter Island, which is a tiny island that covers 64 square miles in the South Pacific Ocean. It is located about 2,300 miles from Chile’s west coast and 2,500 miles east of Tahiti. The first human inhabitants of Rapa Nui are believed to have arrived by emigrants around 300-400 A.D. The island was christened Paaseiland, or Easter Island, by Dutch explorers in honor of the day of their arrival in 1722. It was annexed by Chile in the late 19th century and now maintains an economy based largely on tourism.

Easter Island boasts no natural harbor, but ships can anchor off Hanga Roa on the west coast; it is the island’s largest village, with a population of roughly 3,300. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage site. It is now home to a mixed population, mostly of Polynesian ancestry.


Where is Easter Island?

A couple of months ago Radio New Zealand ran an article about two ancestral (tipuna) skulls that were officially returned to representatives of the Pacific island of Easter Island.

The skulls have been in the possession of the Canterbury and Otago museums for more than 70 years. A delegation from Rapa Nui, including elders, researchers and Chilean government officials, received the skulls after a pōwhiri at Tuahiwi Marae. There was also a ceremony at Canterbury Museum this morning, where one of the two skulls has been on display for decades.

Museum director Anthony Wright said it was important to return the skulls to their rightful home, and he hoped this was the start of a new relationship between New Zealand and Rapa Nui. He said many international institutions had returned Māori ancestral remains in the past, and it was only right New Zealand responded to similar requests in the same spirit.

Mario Tuki, from the Rapa Nui Repatriation Program, said it was a special and emotional day for his people. “I think this is significant for all of Polynesia,” he said. Mr. Tuki said today was a big step towards an ultimate goal of bringing home all of the Rapa Nui tipuna scattered across the world. “We have a vision for repatriating our tipuna back from all over the world,” he said. “It is going to be enhanced by this kind of act… we are deeply thankful.”

One of the skulls was bought by the New Zealand government about 70 years ago, as part of a collection of 3,184 Māori and Pacific artifacts from British collector William Oldman. The second was bought to Otago Museum in 1935 by Frederick Dustin, the fuel engineer on Richard Byrd’s second expedition to Antarctica in the 1930s.

On returning to Rapa Nui at the end of January, the tipuna received an official welcome, and was placed in a hare tapu at the Rapa Nui Museum prior to reburial.

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Maori Culture Celebrated in Auckland


Speaking of festivals especially ones taking places in Auckland… the Auckland Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival was held on Auckland’s waterfront and harbor over the Auckland Anniversary Weekend, 27 to 29 January 2018.  The ICH Courier Online ran an article telling us more about the event. And as I love festivals, I thought I’d share:

With Auckland being home to more than 180 ethnicities, the region has featured various types of Maori presence including Maori waka (canoes) during the weekend. And in the recent years, this tradition has been celebrated as a festival, a result from collaboration among the Mana Whenua; nineteen iwi (tribal groups) authorities of Tamaki Makaurau; the Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED) on behalf of the Auckland Council.

Throughout the three-day festival, many activities related to traditional and contemporary Maori culture was featured. The activities were designed to boost harmonious understanding of the Maori culture to both children and adults by blending traditional and modern elements.

Herenga waka

Photo by

The program consisted of music, games and craft activities, storytelling, and waka parades and rides. Sunday, 28 January, was the peak of the festival, hosting an array of waka activities such as waka paddling and a waka carving demonstration. On the same day, participants was able to visit village workshops to experience traditional arts and craft like toi (Maori arts), weaving, and carving. At the ANZ Viaduct events center, several art exhibitions took place. There was also a booth of modern digital games in the venue. Next to the Viaduct basin, people experienced waka sailing throughout the festival.

The festival has become a host of celebrated events during the Auckland Anniversary Weekend in just a short period of time. The 2018 Auckland Tamaki Herenga Waka Festival program was enjoyed by the locals and tourists, marking a scene to celebrate Maori history and heritage as well as the contemporary culture of Tamaki Makaurau.

Look for it in 2019!

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Pacific Islands Festivals in March

The month of March typically kicks-off international Pacific Islands festivals. This year there are three outstanding festivals that are happening this month. One will be held in Honolulu, Hawaii and the other two in Auckland, New Zealand, respectively. If you plan to be traveling to these cities during this month, I highly recommend you place these festivals on your itinerary.

Honolulu Festival 

The 24th Annual Honolulu Festival is Hawaii’s premier cultural event, promoting mutual understanding, economic cooperation and ethnic harmony between the people of Hawaii and the Pacific Rim region. It will run from March 9-11. Each year, the Festival attracts thousands of new and returning spectators who are looking for an experience unique to Hawaii. Through educational programs and activities sponsored by the Honolulu Festival Foundation, the Festival has been successful in showcasing the rich and vibrant blend of Asia, Pacific and Hawaiian cultures to the rest of the world. Performers from various countries and regions such as Japan, Australia, Tahiti, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Hawaii and the mainland United States get together and give dance performances and traditional art demonstrations. The Festival culminates with a spectacular parade down Kalakaua Avenue, the main street in Waikiki. This year’s theme is ‘Harmony over the Ocean, Journey to Peace.’

For more information, check out their Website.

ASB Polyfest

The ASB Polyfest is now the largest Polynesian Festival in the world and began at Hillary College, Otara in 1976. From this small beginning, an exciting annual event developed, moving from school to school for many years. In 1996 it moved to its permanent home at the Manukau Velodrome (now the Manukau Sports Bowl) in Auckland where it was possible to establish stage areas for different cultures and manage the public and parking more easily. The festival will run from March 14-17. The ASB Polyfest features traditional music, dance, costume and speech and is now recognized as an important showcase of New Zealand’s diverse cultures and a celebration of youth performance. This year’s theme:

Thread the fibers of humanity

Thread the fibers of spiritual well being

Bind together the essence of cultural identity

Weave together the diverseness of cultural awareness

For more information, check out their Website.

Pasifika Festival

Pasifika Festival is a two day event that showcases the biggest celebration of Pacific Island culture and heritage in the world. The festival boasts having a performance stage and market setting where you can purchase delicious food and handmade crafts, plenty of activities for kids and fun for the grown-ups and much more etc. in the Consumer & Carnivals industry. The festival will run March 24-25 in Auckland. Since it began 26 years ago, Auckland’s award-winning Pasifika Festival has grown to become the largest Pacific Island cultural festival of its kind in the world. Over the years, Pasifika has featured fashion shows, theater performances, a pop opera and sports competitions, with input from numerous Pacific Island leaders, performers and community groups. Its duration has varied between one and two days, sometimes with ancillary events on preceding evenings. The annual festival now attracts around 60,000 visitors over the two days (depending on weather); features about 220 local and international performance groups; and more than 200 food and craft stalls, including artisans who travel from the islands to take part.

For more information, please visit their Website.



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The Open Digital Library on Traditional Games

I came across an interesting article from the ICH Courier Online that I’d like to share:

The 2nd Annual Expert Meeting and Youth Dialogue of the UNESCO Global Pilot Project “Open Digital Library on Traditional Games” was held on 15 and 16 January 2018 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France. The meeting was held in the framework of a global pilot project launched in 2015, Creation of an Open Digital Library on Traditional Games—Innovative Use of ICTs to Safeguard and Promote Indigenous and Local Knowledge for Learning, Development, and Rapprochement of Cultures.

Traditional sports and games convey values of solidarity, fair-play, inclusion, and cultural awareness. Moreover, traditional sports and games reflect cultural diversity and foster mutual understanding and tolerance among communities and nations, contributing to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Building upon UNESCO’s activities in promoting inclusive knowledge societies, creating an international network on traditional sports and games, and safeguarding and promoting intangible cultural heritage, among others, in 2015, UNESCO and Tencent Interactive Entertainment launched the project Creation of an Open Digital Library on Traditional Games—Innovative Use of ICTs to Safeguard and Promote Indigenous and Local Knowledge for Learning, Development, and the Rapprochement of Cultures. The project uses ICTs to safeguard and promote traditional and unique sports and games to preserve this rich and disperse knowledge as living heritage in the public domain and pass it down to future generations.


Traditional game of Te Ano (a version of volleyball) of Tuvalu is played on the airstrip

From 2015 to 2017, six countries in four continents—Bangladesh, Mongolia, Brazil, Greece, Morocco, and Kenya—have joined the project as pilot sites for data collection that allowed UNESCO to design and test this innovative digital library. In line with our project guidelines, data and audiovisual content of fifty-eight selected traditional games and sports were collected and documented. This content has been made accessible in the Open Digital Library on Traditional Games 2.0 constructed by Tencent. In addition, young people started exploring innovative ways to transfer information stored in the ODL into creative content.

The second Annual Expert Meeting and Youth Dialogue presented project results from 2015 to 2017, showcased its achievements, identified existing challenges, shared best practices, and discussed ways forward to expand project coverage to other countries; additionally, discussions were held on  how to maximize project results, including how to generate educational and other resources needed for the platform to serve as a learning space on culture, traditions, languages, etc. The participants also discussed how to further mobilize support from young people globally. An exhibition was organized in parallel, showcasing audiovisual content of traditional games from project pilot countries as well as demonstrating how technologies such as VR and motion sensing can help promote traditional games in new forms.

The expected outcomes of the second Annual Expert Meeting and Youth Dialogue are as follows:

  • further refine the project guideline for global adaptation through consultation with experts based on pilot experience;
  • review and improve the ODL features as well as present and discuss strategy for using more advanced technical solutions in future phases;
  • build a community of dedicated young people to raise awareness globally and become content contributors to the ODL.
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