Words by Anatauarii Leal-Tamarii and Guillaume Molle
On July 24, 2021, Polynesian President Edouard Fritch welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron on the tarmac upon arriving at Fa’aa airport in Tahiti. There, he was greeted with a traditional orero chant and wreaths of flowers covering half of his face. Social media, largely unaware of the cultural significance of such lei offerings to visitors, captured this moment which rapidly escalated into the circulation of a fake viral meme. Polynesian people were eagerly waiting for Macron’s 5-day official trip to the Fenua, the first presidential visit since 2016 when François Hollande came to support the candidacy of Taputapuātea to be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Among the hot topics on Macon’s agenda was the call for transparency around decades of nuclear testing and the need to change compensation procedures for the victims. He was also due to speak about the strategic position of France in the Indo-Pacific, increasing challenges of climate change, unemployment and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. While everybody waited for him to address these issues, he also made some unexpected, although welcomed, announcementsin his final speech about financial support to women victims of domestic and sexual violence.
Only 24 hours after his arrival, Macron flew to Hiva Oa in the Marquesas, the northernmost archipelago of French Polynesia. The Marquesas islands, or henua ‘enana (‘the Land of Men’), are mostly known to foreigners as the last sojourns of the famous French painter Paul Gauguin and Belgian singer Jacques Brel. While there, Macron even gathered by their graves in the cemetery of Atuona. As experts have commented, Macron’s choice to visit the Marquesas was both politically riskless and beneficial for his own image, but it indeed turned the spotlight on the ‘enana culture through a superb demonstration of its vivacity.
The mayor of Hiva Oa Joëlle Frebault and the five other haka’iki (mayors1) were briefed by one of us (A. L. T.) about the progress on the nomination of the Marquesas to the UNESCO World Heritage List. This was a project that started about 25 years ago by Marquesan leader Lucien Kimitete and the cultural federation Motu Haka. Following a period of political instability in Tahiti, the project was later reactivated in 2010 with the support of the Polynesian government and new collaborations between the Marquesan communities (CODIM), the Ministry of Culture and an international team of experts brought together to promote and defend the unique cultural and natural attributes of the islands.
Dancing groups from all six inhabited islands gathered for a grandiose ceremony on the first evening, reminiscent of the large festivals (Matavaa o te Fenua Enata) organised every four years since 1986. No less than 1 000 ‘enana came with their vegetal costumes and headdresses. Each delegation presented Macron a gift: a wooden tiki from Nuku Hiva, a stone tiki carved from the characteristic “pierre fleurie” of Ua Pou, a wooden kooka (circular bowl) from Ua Huka, some decorated tapa from Fatu Hiva, a staff made of bone and wood from Tahuata, Hiva Oa offered him a large umete (kava bowl) in which a couple of dancers from each island symbolically placed a bunch of feathers from endemic birds during the hakamanu performance (traditional bird’s dance). Such gifts, emblematic of their regional craftsmanship traditions, are not uncommon for official visits. Similarly, mayor Frebault “gave” him a Marquesan name, haka’iki taha’oa, literally meaning “The chief who walks and goes far”.
The evening ended with the community banquet prepared by Hiva Oa. In a historical first, the six islands proved capable of dancing together during the show and the opening of the earth-ovens reminded us of the significant prestige associated with the presentation of food during the ancient feasts, or koina. The host’s capacity to welcome and feed such a large population was, and still is, a demonstration of economic power and a feature of the ‘enana society.
The most impressive moment occurred on the subsequent day when the President was invited for a visit of the tohua Upeke, an archaeological site restored in 1991 and now among those to be listed by UNESCO.
Until the middle of the 19th century and the abandonment of pagan traditions imposed by catholic missionaries and colonial administrators, the tohua represented the heart of the ‘enana chiefdoms: a large rectangular plaza dedicated to sport and dance competitions, political and religious ceremonies, recitations of genealogies, chants, and feasts, surrounded by numerous platforms (paepae) reserved for each group of visitors based on the tapu rank system. Under the auspices of the haka’iki chiefs, the tohua further materialised the power of the communities within a competitive festivities’ cycle, which has been analysed in-depth by anthropologists and historians Greg Dening and Nicholas Thomas. Such feasts, which could last for days, thus welcomed chiefly delegations from other valleys and islands and gave rise to a series of performances in pursuit of prestige and mana.
For us, archaeologists studying ancient practices at the tohua, Macron’s experience at the Upeke site introduced a compelling image. This image was not an idealist and simplistic transposition of the past onto the present. Instead, it was a powerful demonstration of ‘enana traditions that were reappropriated 50 years ago and here adapted to a contemporary event that was deeply political in essence.
Macron walked around the tohua, which platforms were dedicated to various activities led by the delegations. Teiki Huukena, leader of the Patutiki association, tattooed a woman in the traditional way. This operation further aimed to ensure the French state’s support for the recognition of the ‘enana graphic art, Matatiki, on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. Nearby, families from Fatu Hiva prepared the ‘umu hei, bouquets composed of odorous plants with aphrodisiac properties. Further away, experts from Ua Huka and Ua Pou offered a workshop on stone and wood carving. People from Hiva Oa completed this experience by preparing some traditional remedies on one of the largest paepae of the tohua. A ceremony also took place to symbolically install three chiefs from inside and outside the community: Emmanuel Macron, Edouard Fritch and Joëlle Frebault, each of them receiving a carved chief’s staff.
A century ago, in 1923, anthropologists E.S.C. Handy and R. Linton were sent to the Marquesas by the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum of Honolulu to salvage the last remnants of this Polynesian culture before it completely vanished: “the race was dying” as Handy wrote. Beyond the politics at play over the past two days of Macron’s presidential visit, ‘enana proudly proved them wrong. In the tohua Upeke setting, the organisation of the ceremonies centered the population around a koina. This competitive performance was not just for the prestige of the journalists’ cameras or even a recognition of their culture but to establish its reality and continuing vitality.
In a similar way to the ancient koina, this powerful demonstration also aimed at generating reciprocal generosity from their guests. Whether or not those will fulfill their obligations (in that case, a political support to the UNESCO nomination), the future will tell.
1 The Marquesan leaders recently started to be referred to by the title haka’iki (chief) in replacement of the common Tahitian term tavana which designates the mayors in French Polynesia.
Note from the authors: linguistic variations exist between the northern and southern group of the archipelago. In the context of this article discussing some events taking place on Hiva Oa, we thus chose to follow the orthograph from the southern group: ‘enana (vs. ‘enata), henua (vs. fenua), koina (vs. koika).
Anatauarii Leal-Tamarii is a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology at the University of French Polynesia, and head of the archaeology unit at the Direction de la Culture et du Patrimoine in Tahiti, where he is notably in charge of the UNESCO nomination of the Marquesas Islands.
Guillaume Molle is a Senior Lecturer in Pacific Archaeology in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the ANU, and deputy-director of the CIRAP (International Center for Archaeological Research in Polynesia). Since 2007, he is co-leading an archaeological research program on the island of Ua Huka in the Marquesas.
Edited by Talei Luscia Mangioni.