Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Oceanic Sovereignty

Given their similar cultural backgrounds, there are numerous shared characteristics between the selected non-fiction works of Epeli Hau’ofa and Albert Wendt. Through their writings, both authors express the desire (as well as list the means) for the attainment of Pacific sovereignty. Furthermore, both works illustrate and celebrate the variety of cultural, religious, and artistic works that their people have achieved and contributed. However, the scope of each of their respective works differs.

Hau’ofa’s work is set against the idea of (what he considers the myth of) dependency. Going against the ideas of established and respected anthropologists, Hau’ofa writes that Oceania’s dependency on first-world countries for support will not last forever. This idea, sadly, is unpopular for it seems that the modern world believes Oceania cannot survive without its help. This idea, in turn, is propagated by Oceania’s own natives, continuing a cycle of psychological oppression. As long as these ideas hold sway, Hau’ofa writes, the Oceanic culture will continue to be belittled. The myth of dependency, he argues, is but a thinly veiled continuation of colonialism. “Is this not what neocolonialism is all about?” he writes, “To make people believe that they have no choice but to depend?” (29)

What does Hau’ofa want? He writes that the ultimate goal is “[a] meaningful degree of autonomy” (29). This is not an unrealistic goal by any means, he maintains. At the time of this article’s publication, he writes “[Pacific islanders] are … enlargening their world, establishing new resource bases and expanded networks for circulation … they have already made their presence felt in these homelands and have stamped indelible imprints on the cultural landscapes” (34). So too have Pacific Islanders helped shape the economic landscape of other societies, as immigrants from the region continue to work hard in throughout the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Ultimately, Hau’ofa seeks a society of proud Pacific Islanders shaping their futures independent of (but not antagonistic to) established Western countries. He leaves his audience with the following: “[The] future lies in the hands of our own people, not of those who would prescribe for us, get us forever dependent and indebted because they can see no way out” (37).

Wendt takes the idea of sovereignty in a different direction. If Hau’ofa wanted political and economic sovereignty, Wendt sought, at least in “Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body”, cultural and literary sovereignty. Both ideas are equally important. The focal point of this idea lies in the art of the ‘tatau’ or tattoo, an art he maintains, was suppressed and belittled by colonial powers for decades. He writes, “The missionaries … condemned tattooing as the ‘mark of the savage.’ They succeeded in making their converts ashamed of it and tried to outlaw the practice further … Despite the efforts of more than a century to erase it, tatauing has endured and is very alive” (408).

Tatau’s continued survival is positive and necessary because it is such a powerful, historically linked art form. It is also an art form that carries multiple layers of meaning. He writes, “In a deep psychological, mythological, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood” (409). In other words, the art of tattoo is the literal and external expression of internal beliefs and values, beliefs and values that are inherently linked with the cultural identity of the Oceania.

Tatau, while of literal importance, also serves as an extended metaphor for post-colonial literature, created and inspired by natives of Oceania. He writes, “By giving it a Samoan tatau … I am saying it is … a blend, a new development, which I consider to be Pacific in heart, spirit, and muscle; a blend in which influences from outside (even the English language) have been indigenized, absorbed, in the image of the local and national, and in turn have altered the national and local” (411). The alteration, however, is a positive one that embraces both cultures, without subjugating one to the other. This seems a direct echo of Hau’ofa.

As an embodiment of the Pacific meeting the West, Wendt writes about a heavily tataued Samoan enjoying cultural and material products from the West. Furthermore, he cites examples of Westerners, including an elderly Peace Corps volunteer, being tataued.

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