Through one humble act, a single person embodied the Tongan ideals upon which our Pacific societies are built; love, humility, respect, and duty. That single instance inspired pride within generations of Tongans while making waves in the memories of a generation of the world. Queen Salote III of Tonga, as part of the procession of guests for Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, rode through the streets of London in the pouring rain without raising her carriage’s cover as a display of her respect for the Queen of England. What may seem like a simple or trivial gesture, Queen Salote III captured what we, as people of moana understand inherently; that her love and legacy depends on her willingness to sacrifice her status and interest in order to fulfill her duty to represent her people with this ultimate manifestation of respect.
I was anchored by this memory as I accepted the invitation from Disney to attend the Hollywood Premiere of their latest film, Moana, slated for the 14th of November, 2016. As the day neared, I reflected on the experiences that have led to this momentous opportunity. Over the past 4 years while working with my friend Elizabeth Lavulo and The WhatItDo.com, I’ve delved into my own exploration of my place in Tongan culture and with my people through the Princess Diaries series. Through this work, I was invited a year earlier by Disney to view the work they had done, before any previews of Moana had been screened. Watching parts of the film at this very early stage was heart-warming because I was witnessing years of tireless work hundreds of people contributed to, in order to display the very inherent, yet delicate balance, of love, humility, respect, and duty. I was awash with pride, the same way the late Queen Salote’s memory fills me with, of the islands and cultures that we come from; those which moana, the ocean, connects us to.
Strong women are foundational in every Pacific family and are respected accordingly. It is this tradition of women holding the core of Pacific culture that makes Moana, the character, feel so familiar. As the great-granddaughter of Queen Salote III, a granddaughter to two of the last true ladies of our Kingdom, and daughter to The Princess Royal of Tonga, I sympathise with Moana. She is the daughter of the village’s chief and a young woman who is passionate about saving her people and being the leader she is expected to be. I see myself in Moana’s trials and struggles to find her own way to relentlessly love her people. The force that propelled her forward was the defiant persistence her grandmother Tala gave her; a kind of unrelenting push that only a grandmother gives. Her mother Sina’s quiet encouragement of her daughter’s tenacity gave Moana permission to make her journey. The strength and belief bestowed upon Moana from the women in her family remind me of the same love from the women in mine; they enabled and encouraged me to continue pursuing my dreams and push to do what I felt was right regardless what others thought.
As a Pacific Islander of this generation, I’ve often felt the void in the mystery that is our history; a history of many tales whispered and untold. It is an unrequited void that we often misunderstand and misinterpret and lead us in many misdirections. Moana’s constant gaze upon the ocean led her to the caves of her ancestors. When Moana discovered that “we used to be voyagers” she immediately felt the pull towards the open sea which was how she saved her people. I feel this is our journey as Pacific Islanders. The ocean was our backyard and we thrived in it. Our ancestors suddenly stopped exploring the oceans and focused more on cultivating crops and no one knows why. We have lost the seafaring and wayfinding knowledge we once possessed and, in most cases, have lost our sense of direction. We have lost our ability to see beyond the horizon to navigate our way forward while remembering where we come from. Most Pacific Islanders have now adopted the western perception of ocean; that it is a divide to cross instead of a bridge connecting all our islands. The farther away we move from our ocean the less we realize the history of our commitment to each other. We have come to see the space between us as a divide rather than a space that keeps us connected; a space to be respected and remembered. Presenting the ocean as a character in this film is a reminder that our relationship with one another is one rich in heritage and history and must be recognized as a constant presence. Without it, we don’t exist. It is also a reminder that we need to take care of the ocean; it connects, nurtures, and holds our history. We must share our history with one another in order to nurture our connection with each other.
After the Moana premiere my social media feed was flooded with messages from young and older Tongans around the world who were proud to be Tongan because I wore traditional wear on the red (or blue) carpet. If my lone figure could inspire such a positive outcome with the international Tongan community then I look forward to the ripples of Pacific Island pride and unity Moana will inspire. Moana represents the voice of the Pacific Island people; it is up to the Pacific Island people to utilise Moana’s presence to connect us to other Pacific Islanders and non-Pacific Islanders alike. When Moana’s grandmother Tala passed away she came back as a stingray who reminded and helped Moana cross over the reef and into the open ocean. The movie Moana will be to Pacific Islanders what Granny Tala was to Moana; a spirit that helps us over that barrier that divides us and into a more open state of mind. Here’s to a generation of wayfinders who will embrace our history in bringing love, humility, respect, and duty to our voyage beyond the reef.
Review By: Hon. Frederica Tuita Filipe