This is the second of my series of interviews with
scholars at the ‘Atenisi Institute.
Lose Miller-Helu: I study Tonga’s past, but I am also very concerned
with its present. The Tonga of the twenty-first century troubles me. When I left the country for the first time
back in 1968 I had the sense that it was moving forward both economically and
intellectually. Tongans were being sent abroad for education and coming back to
get jobs in an expanding public service, Nuku’alofa was growing, and in the
countryside the copra industry was doing well. Futa Helu and the school he had
established at ‘Atenisi were part of that momentum – they were educating
Tongans in critical thinking and free discussion, stripping away some of the
myths that had attached themselves to the Tongan past, and laying the
foundations for a challenge to the hegemony of the monarchy and the nobles. ‘Remittances’
was an unknown word.
Now things are different. An air of lethargy has
settled over Tonga. The old dream of economic prosperity, which seemed within
reach in the 1960s, is gone, and Tongans seem to have the option of either
going abroad in search of better lives or living modestly on money sent home by
relatives abroad. The country’s outer islands are becoming more and more
remote, as ferry services drop off and young people head to Nuku’alofa, which
has become a sort of staging post for emigration abroad. Whole islands may be
abandoned to weeds and wild pigs in the near future.
Even the countryside outside Nuku’alofa, on the main
island of Tongatapu, is being neglected – drive around the potholed roads and
you will see allotment after allotment overgrown with weeds. Nuku’alofa is now
home to more than a third of the population of the country, and has become a
little nation of its own. You can live here comfortably without ever venturing
into the countryside of Tongatapu, let alone visiting the outer islands. Some
of the better-off Tongans only ever see Nuku’alofa, with its new cafes and
restaurants, and the smooth road running out to the international airport at
The only dynamic sector of the Tongan economy is
religion. New churches are being built everywhere, while schools decay. Tonga
has always been a religious society, but when I returned home a few years ago I
was shocked by how pervasive God had become. It seems impossible to stage any
public event, or hold even the most modest meeting, without running through
some long-winded prayer. Perhaps it is more comforting for Tongans to pray than
to think. Church is a place where they can forget the stagnation of the
economy, and the fact that far more of their young people live abroad than at
home. It’s an escape.
you looking at the past of Tonga and Western Polynesia because you want to get
insights into how the problems of the present might be solved?
As you know, my PhD is about the influence of ‘Uvea
on ancient Tonga. This influence was profound and positive, but it has in some
ways been forgotten. That is a great pity.
made you want to devote years of study to a small and - outside of Western
Polynesia - little-known society like ‘Uvea?
‘Uvea came to my attention when I was doing an
undergraduate degree in linguistics. I had to study proto-Polynesian, which is
a sort of speculative language created by academics interested in the origins
of Polynesian words, and I had to examine a tree-like diagram which showed the
supposed relationships between the various Polynesian languages. I noticed that
Tongan and ‘Uvean had more words in common than any other two Polynesian
languages – 86% of the words Tongans use are also used by ‘Uveans.
Despite this apparent affinity, though, the two
languages had been consigned to separate subgroups – ‘Uvean was classed as a
Samoic Outlier language, while Tongan was lumped together with Niuean as a Tongic
tongue. I was curious, and am still curious, about why ‘Uvean and Tongan are
separated, when their vocabularies are so similar.
I was aware, even as an undergraduate, that
linguistics is a partly political enterprise, in the sense that the work of
linguists has been made possible and at times influenced by political events
outside the academy. The study of Pacific languages has historically been
connected in numerous ways with the colonisation and Christianisation of the
region. The earliest vocabulary lists for many Pacific languages were compiled
by Western mariners, missionaries, and colonial administrators. These people
had to make decisions about matters like orthography, spelling, and
punctuation, because the vast majority of Pacific peoples lacked an indigenous
system of writing. And the decisions they made were sometimes determined by
political interests, or incompetence, or ignorance. In many cases, though, we
seem to be stuck with their decisions.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. At
various times I have seen the separation of Tongan and ‘Uvean justified by the
supposed fact that ‘Uveans, unlike Tongans, do not use glottal stops when they
speak. But when I examine ‘Uvean speech patterns closely I can see that the
glottal stop is a part of their language. ‘Uvean manuscripts do not
traditionally feature glottal stops, but that is simply a matter of
transcription – it has nothing to do with the way ‘Uveans speak.
Part of the trouble with the separation of the
‘Uvean and the Tongan languages is that it creates a certain attitude amongst those
who study the past. We now know, thanks to the achievements of historical
linguistics and the use of linguistics by archaeologists and other scholars of
ancient history, that the diffusion of languages can be linked to the diffusion
of cultures. If two peoples have a very similar language, then it is likely
they have, at some point in the past, had very close economic, social, and
political relations. The similar vocabularies of Tongan and ‘Uvean point to
close contact between the societies in the past. But linguistics has obscured
this relationship by consigning the languages to separate groups. As a result,
there is a paucity of research into the influence of ‘Uvean culture on Tonga.
And I would argue that it’s impossible to understand Tonga’s history and culture
without understanding ‘Uvea.
there seems to have been relatively little contact between Tonga and Niue in
the pre-Cook era. One of my students is doing a major research project on his
village of Kala’au, whose people claim to be partly descended from an ancient
Niuean immigrant. Despite this connection, Tevita has been unable to find much
evidence, either in the academic literature or in local oral tradition, of
ongoing contact between Niue and Tonga –
Relatively few Tongans talk of family connections
with Niue, whereas many have links with ‘Uvea. And of course Tongan oral
history overflows with references to ‘Uvea – there is the famous story, for
example, about the great langi stones which sit on the graves of the Tongan
kings in the ancient capital of Mu’a being brought hundreds of miles across the
ocean from ‘Uvea. On ‘Uvea itself locals point out various stone monuments and
attribute them to Tongan invaders. Some of Tonga’s most famous dances, like the
me’etupaki, or paddle dance, have been linked to ‘Uvea by scholars like my
uncle Futa Helu.
Tonga is famous for having built an empire hundreds
of years ago in this part of the Pacific. Many Tongans are proud of their
imperial history –
was watching telly the other night and saw Jimmy Da Great, a Nuku’alofa rapper,
performing a song called ‘Island Conqueror’, a song which seemed – I couldn’t
make out all the words – to celebrate the ancient empire using the language of
gangsta rap. And there’s a popular clothing label in Auckland called Tongan
But imperial power does not equal cultural power. I
am convinced that ‘Uvea was a major cultural power in the Pacific, even if it
was colonised by its larger Tongan neighbour. Tonga imported more than stones
from ‘Uvea – we took dances, songs, ideas –
there an analogy with ancient Rome, which borrowed extensively from the culture
of Greece even as it conquered much of Europe? The Roman elite may have had the
greatest empire the world had ever known, but they made sure their kids had
Another analogy is America in the twentieth century.
Even though they usurped Britain as the world’s superpower, the Americans – the
rich and powerful Americans especially - still regarded the British as
culturally superior, and aped them…
made ‘Uvea so special?
I think it was a very advanced society. The ‘Uveans
cultivated their lands skilfully, ran their affairs wisely, traded with very
distant peoples, like the Hawaiians, and created beautiful dances like the me’etupaki.
Even their weapons were advanced.
‘Uvea had a relatively decentralised and
meritocratic political system. Although genealogy played an important role in
who became a leader, competence was also required. A chief who had the
bloodline but not the skills to lead would not last long in power. And a chief
who usurped a rival using illegitimate means, like treachery or unjustified violence,
would also often face popular opposition. I believe that the influence of
‘Uvea’s relatively egalitarian and meritocratic society helped keep imperial
Tonga politically stable in the fifteenth century. But this aspect of our
history has been forgotten. Today Tongans - conservative Tongans, anyway -
assume that anyone with the proper bloodline is fit to be king. And they think
that their views are traditional. They have forgotten the test of competence
which once applied. But a society which relies blindly on bloodlines, and which
does not respect merit, is a society headed for disaster.
Taliai, Phyliss Herda, and Niel Gunson have warned about the dangers of
assuming there is only one narrative of Tongan history. ‘Opeti accuses Queen
Salote of constructing a version of Tongan history which justifies the rule of
the present Tu’i Kanokupolu dynasty, Herda thinks Tongan culture has probably
meant very different things at different times, and that Tongan ‘traditional’
history is actually an artefact of modernity, and in his fascinating essay
‘Understanding Polynesian Traditional History’ Gunson claims to have discovered
a radically different version of the Tongan past in unpublished esoteric texts.
Do you feel an affinity with these scholars, with their heretical views of the
Well, ‘Opeti is helping me with my PhD, which as you
know is a study of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea,
a prose narrative of ‘Uvean history written down by a Catholic priest near the
beginning of the twentieth century. I am trying to glean what I can about the
ancient connections between ‘Uvea and Tonga from a close examination of the
language of the Talanoa ki ‘Uvea. I
want to trace the movement of words and phrases and images and stories between
the two societies. I have published a dual Tongan-‘Uvean language edition of
the Talanoa ki Uvea, and have also
made, with the help of New Zealand scholars, an unpublished English-language
translation of the text.
an old-fashioned historical materialist, who thinks that culture and ideas tend
to be related, even if in complex ways, to the economic base of a society, I
have to wonder how a small society like ‘Uvea could be the site of such cultural
efflorescence. How did the ‘Uveans, who presumably produced an economic surplus
much smaller than that of their cousins in Tonga, find the time and resources
to create new dances and invent new tools?
I think ‘Uvea’s smallness and vulnerability to
foreign attackers forced its people to innovate. They didn’t have the luxury of
cultural conservatism. If they wanted to survive they had to embrace trade, adopt
and improve technology from other societies, and eliminate leaders who were
there’s a lesson in that for present-day Tonga, which is as small in terms of
the twenty-first century world as ‘Uvea was in relation to the fifteenth
There certainly is a lesson. The view that Tongan
tradition is identical with blind respect for bloodlines and authority is
haven’t talked about the modern influence of France on ‘Uvea, and the
consequences of this for interpretations of the Tongan past…
Of course the French colonisation of ‘Uvea is part
of the reason for the divide which has opened between our societies...
year the Kiwi scholar Rhys Richards published a book which documented the
ancient artefacts of the Austral Islands. Richards made the point that the
Austral Islands were very closely connected with the societies like Rarotonga
and Atiu in pre-colonial times, but that they became isolated from the islands
to their north and west after falling under French control. And whereas the
Cook Islands have now gotten rid of their New Zealand colonisers, the people of
the Australs still live under the tricolour.
French have little interest in encouraging pan-Pacific feelings amongst their
colonial subjects by creating cheap transport links to places like the Cooks
and Tonga. They want their subjects to speak French, spend Francs or Euros on
French goods, and gravitate, when they need work or education, to Papeete or
Noumea or Paris. It is very expensive for the average New Zealander, let alone
the average Tongan, to visit ‘Uvea, or an Austral Islands society like Rapa
that famous essay ‘Our Sea of Islands’ Epeli Hau’ofa talks about how colonial
powers limited the mobility of the Pacific peoples they (mis)governed, and
celebrates the mobility of islanders in the post-colonial era. But peoples like
the ‘Uveans are still being quarantined by the French. And it disgusted me to
see New Zealand and Australia recently trying to perpetuate this quarantine, by
blocing with France and urging the United Nations not to put French Polynesia
on its list of countries due for decolonisation. I was delighted when the UN
General Assembly voted against the colonialists.
I have not been able to afford to visit ‘Uvea.
Taliai was telling me that he has never visited either Fiji or Samoa, despite
writing a PhD on the ancient links between those societies and Tonga!
I’d love to go to ‘Uvea, of course, but it’s
expensive, and there are bureaucratic hurdles – visitors from Tonga have to register
with special representatives of the island who have a little office in downtown
Australian writer Gerald Murnane has lived almost his whole life in a corner of
the state of Victoria, but he has taught himself to speak and read Hungarian,
and has set part of one of his novels in Hungary. Murnane told an interviewer
that he had no desire to visit Hungary, despite his obvious fascination with
the country. To do so, he explained, would ruin the version of Hungary he has
constructed in his head. Is there a sense in which your inability to travel to
‘Uvea has made the place especially vivid in your imagination?
I’m not sure! I am travelling in time as well as
space, of course, when I do my research, so even if I visited present-day ‘Uvea
I might see all of what I am reading about…
lived for some years in New Zealand, where you worked at various universities
and ran an art gallery that sold tapa cloth –
The gallery in Lower Hutt was something of a
diversion. I opened it in 2000 because I wanted to create an outlet for a few
of the many women who make tapa in Tonga. I wanted to get away from the usual
way of marketing tapa – to get away from selling it at flea markets or to tourists
– and present it as something complex, something artistic. I wanted it to be
Most of the tapa I was selling were made in the
1960s and ‘70s, and had both aesthetic appeal and a lot of content – they told
stories. Traditionally, tapa have been the way women in Tonga tell stories. When
I look at a tapa my mother gave me I can see references to her life – an olive
leaf, which symbolises the influence of missionaries on Tonga, Norfolk pines,
which used to grow along the waterfront in Nuku’alofa, and so on. Unfortunately
much of the depth of reference has disappeared from Tonga tapa today. Tapa are
made to sell to tourists. Quality is out, quantity is in.
you experience racism in New Zealand?
I noticed it in universities. I saw many Pacific
students who were lost at New Zealand universities. The institutions that they
had entered were huge, and were indifferent to their needs. The methods of
teaching and assessment were alien. Staff and their fellow students knew little
about the Pacific Islands, and were unaware that the culture that they
considered natural and universal – a white Western culture – was, to Pacific
Islanders, unnatural and intimidating.
think that the culture you’re describing can feel pretty unnatural and intimidating
to a lot of palangi! Since I got to Tonga I’ve realised how isolating and emotionally
chilly life in Auckland can be…
For me New Zealand universities could be a lonely place…
recently showed The New Oceania, film maker Shirley Horrocks’ portrait of Albert Wendt, to my Creative
Writing students at ‘Atenisi. During one of the interviews shown in the film
Wendt reveals that when he arrived at the University of Auckland’s English
Department in 1990 the only other Pacific Islander on the staff was the secretary…
I’d search in vain for other brown faces in the
Collins, who was President of the Auckland University Students Association in
the late ‘90s, said that a lot of young Pacific Islanders enrolled at
universities, ran up big student debts by taking loans to pay their obscene
tuition fees and living costs, and eventually dropped out without graduating,
because of the sort of experiences you mention. They’d end up with a pile of
debt and no degree. I found that terribly sad.
When I became chairperson of the Association of
Pacific Staff in 1998 I made sure we addressed the alienation of Pacific
students. We lobbied the Tertiary Education Minister of the day, and
investigated the ways that universities looked after their students. We found
that many institutions didn’t even bother to count the number of Pacific Island
and Maori students they had enrolled. Without basic data like this, it was
impossible for them to examine the academic performance of Maori and Pacific
Island students, and to plan ways to improve this performance.
We were able to force some improvements to the way
Pacific Island students were treated. Today data is kept on the number and
performance of those students, and far more Pacific Islanders are employed by
universities. I take some satisfaction from this. And I don’t mean to criticise
the whole of the New Zealand university system – there are some wonderful
people working there, including people who have helped me in my research into
‘Uvean and Tongan history.
did you return to Tonga?
I wanted to work on a documentary film about Futa
Helu and the Helu family, and I couldn’t do this in New Zealand. I did a lot of
filming, both at ‘Atenisi and in places like Foa, Futa’s home island in the
Ha’apai group, where there is an ancient langi stone and legend I wanted to
document. My film will be different to Paul Janman’s Tongan Ark – it’ll be in Tongan, for instance.
is a measure of Futa Helu’s versatility and complexity that two quite different
films can be made about his life!
There were other reasons for me to resettle in
Tonga. I like the climate here. I like the compactness of Nuku’alofa – I
sometimes found the distances of New Zealand oppressive.
found that living in Tonga, with its one and seventy or so islands that
together would not quite fill Lake Taupo, has altered my perception of New
Zealand geography. Suddenly my homeland, which is only the size of the United
Kingdom, seems almost continental. When I was back in New Zealand I took a
drive with my wife from Auckland down to Hamilton. The modest dairy flats of
the central Waikato seemed like some Canadian prairie…
I find it incredible that some people are able to drive
from Auckland to Wellington. Even the distances within New Zealand cities seem
very large to me. The journey from Lower Hutt to central Wellington was
did you respond to the hills and mountains of New Zealand, after living for so
long on an island as flat as Tongatapu?
I’d actually lived abroad before I came to New
Zealand – but I’d lived in Holland, a place almost as flat as Tongatapu! The
mountains of New Zealand are something I now miss.
his great book Uruora: the groves of life, the late Kiwi environmentalist Geoff Park
describes living in Fiji, and taking a somewhat reluctant Tongan co-worker on a
drive away from the coast of Vanua Levu into that island’s mountainous central
district. Park’s friend, who was used to the flat farmland of Tongatapu, was
overpowered by the experience. “Today”, he told Park, “we feed the eyes”. When
I heard that the members of the ‘Atenisi Institute’s performing arts group had,
without quite getting permission, jumped in a van and gone on a wild road trip
during their tour of New Zealand last year, I thought of Park’s story about his
drive through the wilds of Fiji. A lot of the ‘Atenisians had never left flat
little Tongatapu before – for them, the vast distances and impossibly high
mountains of New Zealand must have been as intoxicating as hopi. They were
feeding the eyes!
They may have just gotten lost looking for a
run a couple of very popular courses in the Tongan language here at the
‘Atenisi Institute. Many of your students are prominent members of the palangi
expatriate community. Is the Tongan language in good shape in its ancient
Yes and no. Increasingly in Nuku’alofa you can
observe locals speaking a sort of hybrid language – they’ll switch from Tongan
to English in the middle of a sentence. English is fashionable. Outside of
Nuku’alofa, in the villages of Tongatapu and on the outer islands, the sort of
hybrid I’m talking about would be much less common.
outsiders realise that Tonga has a second language, Niuafo’ouan, which is
spoken in the northernmost and southernmost inhabited islands of the country,
but which seems to be in decline –
The language of Niuafo’ou is of great interest to
me, because the island of Niuafo’ou sits in the extreme north of Tonga, and is
far closer to ‘Uvea than to Tongatapu. The language was brought south after
World War Two, when Niuafo’ou’s volcano exploded and some of its people were resettled
on ‘Eua Island, at the other end of Tonga. But the Niuan people are a small and
marginalised minority in Tonga, and their language is often ridiculed down here
in the south. Sadly, many of the Niuans who live down here are too ashamed to
speak their language.
There has been too little academic work done on
Niuafo’ou. The distinguished Japanese scholar Akilisa Tsukamoto wrote a PhD on
the language of Niuafo’ou for the Australian National University – but his
thesis was written in his native Japanese! I have tried without success to get
someone to translate Tsukamoto’s work.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]