In defence of Maui
Morgan Godfery has written a long and fascinating review of Moana, Disney's blockbusting excursion into Polynesian history and myth.
Godfery talks about how he, like many other Polynesians, grew up hearing two versions of his people's history.
The first version, which came from whanau, described the heroic and skilful settlement of the Pacific, and the development of complex cultures on often inhospitable islands.
The second version, which was broadcast in classrooms and through televisions and other media, insisted that Polynesians drifted desperately across the Pacific, were wrecked on random islands, and established primitive ways of life that were rendered obsolete by the arrival of Europeans.
Some reviewers of Moana have praised the film for making its heroes Polynesians, and for showing off Polynesian tattooing and vaka. The film's eponymous protagonist is a sixteen year old girl with an appetite and aptitude for adventure; she has been acclaimed as an 'anti-princess' and therefore a feminist hero.
Godfery, though, finds himself unable to join the chorus of praise for Moana. He points out that Moana is an invented character, not a part of Polynesian mythology, and that the supposedly feminist movie debases a real feminist hero of Pacific folklore, the fire goddess Pele, by portraying her as Te Fiti, a wretched 'lava witch'.
And like Jenny Salesa, the Tongan New Zealand MP for Manukau East, Morgan Godfery is upset by the depiction of the demigod and hero Maui in Moana. Stories about Maui's strength, cunning, and imagination have been told for many centuries in almost all of Polynesia's thirty or so cultures, from Rapa Nui to Tonga to Tikopia. When tales are told in marae, or beside a campfire, or around a kava bowl, it is Maui who is credited with pulling islands from the sea, with holding up the world, with stealing fire and sharing it with mortals.
In Moana, though, the legendary Maui is turned into what Godfery calls 'an American jerk'. Maui is obese, obnoxious, ignorant, a comic sidekick to the film's teenage hero.
Last week the kids at my oldest son's kindergarten watched Moana, and loved the film. My son came home from kindy laughing about Maui, and acting out some of his scenes.
I didn't want to detract from the kids' enjoyment of the film, but I thought I could broaden their appreciation of Maui by showing some images of the demigod's exploits in Tonga. This morning I put on my tupenu and ta'ovala and headed down to kindy.
I showed a series of pictures of sites associated with Maui on a laptop. My son, who was wearing his own tupenu, had visited all of the landmarks, and added his own commentary on them.
Even as I talked to my audience of three and four year olds, I realised how much I was simplifying the tangled network of tales that are told about Maui in the Friendly Islands. Some stories, for example, attribute Maui's deeds to a family, rather than the individual I described. Maui fusi-fonua, or Maui the puller of land, brought islands out of the sea; his nephew Maui Kisikisi was the thief of fire. A 1921 article by EEV Collocott introduced English-language readers to some of the Tongan stories about Maui.
essay for the art journal EyeContact I looked at other theories and versions of the Ha'amonga a Maui.
Scientists say that the boulder that stands near the village of Kala'au, in the west of Tongatapu, was ripped from coral rock and thrown inland by an immense tsunami about ten thousand years ago. But old stories speak of a giant chicken that was terrorising the island of 'Eua, which lies twenty or so kilometres from Kala'au across a deep and stormy Tongatapu Channel. Maui ran the chicken down and threw it across the water, away from 'Eua. When the bird landed on Tongatapu it turned to stone.
My oldest son's classmates seemed to enjoy seeing Maui's handiwork, and hearing about his feats. I hope that they now find the 'American jerk' of Moana more complicated, and interesting.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]