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Rotuman Identity

From the Letters to the Editor column of the Fiji Sunday Times (26 November 2000)

Rotuman Hula

Referring to the Festival of Arts preview on Sunday's Dateline Program which featured cultural items performed by the Fiji troupe at Noumea, it is disconcerting to see a cultural dance performed by Rotumans to be a hip-swaying tautoga. I expressed my dismay at the absurdity of the Rotuman dance being mistaken for Hawaiian hula and got a somewhat strange reply to my inquisitiveness: "Du! Ka 'ae ma sei hanue?" Translated, it means: "where have I been, things have changed!" Of course change is inevitable; however, for culture and traditions, it encompasses the very essence of a Rotuman, I believe! For many, they are proud of whom they are and succeeding in life. As an involved young Rotuman, I am proud of who I am. I come from a small island some 465 km north of the Fiji Islands. Despite the mixed Polynesian ancestry, Rotuman culture is different with similarities to sister Polynesia. It is not acceptable that for a Pasifika audience, where a platform is created/solely for the interchange of culture and education, Rotumans representing Rotuma falsely potray a cultural dance for a hula. As an involved young Rotuman, I urge young people to be proud of who they are! For the three 'sina' who performed, it was a good show, but don't kid yourselves that it was Rotuman at all. It is unacceptable, especially when you represent not yourselves but the Rotuman family for the world to see. MONIFA FIU - Suva.

Note: The Dateline program is a Fiji Goverment-sponsored one shown on Fiji Television Channel One every Sunday. The program, shown about two Sundays ago, featured Fiji's cultural presentations by the various ethnic communities in Noumea during the Arts Festival.The Rotuman item, as stated by Monifa, was not a tautoga but a mak Rarotonga performed by our Rotuman representatives.

Extract from a response to Monifa Fiu's letter by David Rigamoto in the Fiji Times (5 December 2000)

It was common knowledge that the Rotuman troupe which went with the Fijian contingent to Noumea was the second fiddle. The first approach was made to a Rotuman elder who was well-steeped in our culture and tradition and had been involved with the Pacific Festival of Arts for over two decades. He declined the offer on the grounds that it was not feasible to do the traditional dance given the parameters of the five people and the first presentation in two weeks.

Furthermore, all the different ethnic groups were given the options of a traditional or contemporary dance presentation. The Rotuman Troupe opted for the contemporary dance given the said constraints.

It was therefore explicitly clear that change and adaptation were necessary to meet the new criteria hence the costumes, lyrics, tunes, hand and body movements were embodiments of the Rotuman contemporary dance forms inclusive of the tautoag hani and fara. This perhaps put the Rotuman contemporary dance in Noumea into its true perspective.

From Henry Enasio (29 August 2004)

The last posting in this Forum concerning Rotuman identity was by David Rigamoto on 5 December 2000.

I have been contemplating the Rotuma identity issue since reading the “Report from the Pacific Arts Festival in Palau” on this website’s News Page of 22 August 2004.

Frankly I'm impressed with the contributions made by Letila Mitchell, Rev. Emotama Pene (who is a well known manotu ma purotu), and the rest of the Rotuman contingent on such a renown world stage. I am impressed, too, with the accompanying photograph of a beautiful Rotuman dancer wearing a woven mat.

Furthermore, I am pleased to see that our community’s mentality has changed for the better with time. With new blood involved, I see beauty, style, and finesse accompanied by innovative ideas that Letila and Rev. Pene have introduced for the good of the contingent and our community's development.

All of this reminded me of a letter I wrote to the editor of The Fiji Sun that was published in July 1987. It was insensitive of me to write a letter full of sarcastic remarks bad mouthing the Rotuman contingent to the South Pacific Arts Festival during that year. I regret having written it.

My complaints were based on the understanding that in a tautoga, the best looking Rotuman lasses and lads who are mar 'e maka (good dancers) should be selected to kan'akia (represent) the village, district, and community. I was also of the opinion then that this should always be the case in our maka; hence our best youths should be out there at centre stage 'e tak ta ma hia' tak ta. I thought that this principle should have been applied by the community in such an important festival. I was also concerned that the Rotuman contingent was represented by our oldies and some very fat mamas while ignoring the fact that experience is irreplaceable and big is supposed to be beautiful in our culture.

I was of the belief then (and still believe) that we should have learned a lesson from other Pacific countries in previous festivals, especially the one held in Suva where the best looking young people were selected to represent their respective countries; they were thoroughly trained and excelled. I also believe that there should be a plan in place to organise and prepare our contingent of youths well ahead of time rather than at the last minute.

Although my 1987 letter was very opinionated, I felt that a gross injustice was being done to our youths who will be tomorrow's leaders and performers. They weren't being given a chance to prepare nor were they receiving any financial incentives; only the well-to-dos and the loloes were able to afford such expensive trips to participate in festivals.

My letter was condescending and derogatory and I regret having written it. It opened up a can of worms that stirred a lot of anger that was relayed back to me by close family members and friends. But I have always hoped that one day things would change for the better, and if reports of our participation in the recent Pacific Arts Festival in Palau are accurate, they have. Thus my pleasure when I read the report in the News Page.

The following discussion was extracted from postings on the (now defunct) Message Board beginning in January 1998.

Sani (8 January 1998)

I watched the documentary "Rotuma Our Identity" by David Gardiner and it was very disappointing. Then again, I guess I should not have been surprised at all. For whom was the documentary intended? It served no purpose to Rotuman peoples anywhere. The documentary is ill informed. I have seen home videos of Rotuma (the people and places) taken by Rotumans who have been to our island to visit family, and they do the Rotuman people more justice. In my opinion the documentary shows nothing about the Rotuman people and our identity. For a documentary that attempts to show what its title claims, it misses by a long, horrid & painful mile. There is no substance in the documentary. A big show about nothing. All talk about a great many issues affecting Rotumans and naught to show about it. I presume that the theme was as the title suggests, but the producers seemed to have forgotten what they set out to achieve. They got carried away with the importance of their documentary, saturating it with as many issues as they could within the given time limit, and confusing the issue of identity along the way. All the Rotumans that I have spoken to who have seen the documentary share the same opinion about the documentary's beginning. We were all anxious and excited to see it--Rotuma on TV and to the world! I for one was ready to give the documentary "a fair go". Well, we were all in for a shock--big time! What a way to introduce OUR island Home--with a song praising Sa'moa!!! (What the fara song actually means I have no idea, only that it is supposed to be a Samoan song. I know nothing about the Samoan language but I won't be surprised if they find offence to the way their language is sung.) We were put off and disgusted and had to endure this outrage for what seemed a real long time. However, I think the beginning was fitting for the documentary. It showed volumes about the people who produced it--David Gardiner, etc. People talking about OUR identity; they know NOTHING about and produced a documentary that is nothing short of embarrassing.

Sione (11 January 1998)

I had been keenly anticipating the documentary by David Gardiner since it first came to my attention pre-Christmas. After watching it, I must agree with my fellow country dudes that it was a pretty shallow representation and one that didn't do justice to the Rotuma that we all know and are so proud of. My father, who is Samoan, cracked up when they introduced "Rotuma: Our Identity" with a Samoan song that wasn't even sung correctly. I think that maybe Gardiner's intentions were good but that he just isn't in tune with what's up on the island re:culture, etc. It seemed to me that he went there with preconceived notions about what Rotuma would be like and proceeded to approach the documentary in this selective manner. Where were the flawless beaches, the incomparable scenery and as a matter of fact the rest of the island. I'm sure there's more to it than the Itumuta fara! (Respect due to Itumuta!) My old people would be spewing!!

Saumaru Foster
Sydney, Australia (26 January 1998)

Whilst it's true that introducing a documentary called "Rotuma: Our Identity" with an incorrectly sung Samoan song might seem crass, it in fact is not. Let's face it, that particular song (and the way it was sung incorrectly) is for all intents and purposes a Rotuman song. It's been a popular song on the island for at least fifty years. So, perhaps it is part of the Rotuman identity to incorrectly sing that particular Samoan song!

Anonymous [Metallica Rotuman] (25 February 1998)

Well, you do have a point there. But to conclude that the popularity of that incorrectly sung Samoan song is part of our Rotuman identity is way off. "Row row row your boat" or "London bridge is falling down" are well known English songs, but I wouldn't think either of these songs is considered a part of the Rotuman identity.

Anonymous [Rotu Man] (28 January 1998)

Perhaps it is part of the Rotuman identity to incorrectly sing that particular Samoan song! I'm a bit confused here, because I thought my Rotuman identity stems a lot deeper than fifty years. I guess the song is quite fitting to a program covering a skin-deep identity of Rotuma.

Sione (28 January 1998)

Granted, in some way perhaps that song is a part of Rotuman culture. Its not like I refuse to boogie when it gets played or sung! But there are so many uniquely Rotuman songs about the island, life and love, that could have been chosen and perhaps would have been more appropriate.

Saumaru Foster
Sydney, Australia (29 January 1998)

You're right, there are other and better songs. But I suppose they were simply recording what was being sung at that particular time. It was indeed, perhaps, an ironic reflection on Rotuman identity circa 1998!

Anonymous [Rotu Man] (29 January 1998)

I wouldn't call reggae a part of Rotuman culture yet, and definitely not a song with lyrics we don't have a clue as to what they mean. It couldn't mean that much to the people and the culture. I love that song and have sung it many times though.

Saumaru Foster
Sydney, Australia (1 February 1998)

I think it's important to note that whether a song is part of the Rotuman identity or not doesn't necessarily depend on whether we understand the words or, indeed, whether it has words at all. Otherwise, what do we say of ancient Rotuman chants? Also, I think it's important to accept that Rotuman identity and culture (like everyone else's) is not set in stone; it has evolved and will continue to evolve--thank goodness!

Sefo Avaiki
Nanaimo, Canada (14 March 1998)

Who am I? Where am I from? When my wife and I moved to Canada in 1981, our two older children were 6 and 2 years old. Upon arrival we made it a rule that there will be no English spoken in the house. Those educated in Rotuma will remember the strict rule of English only in the school compound, especially Malhaha High. Anyway, it wasn't easy after the birth of our third child because of the daily exposure to Canadian culture and language. It was worse when the children grew older, but we were firm in our decision to enforce the house rule. Today, though they speak Rotuman with a Canadian accent, they will not blame us for not teaching them the language. They have been back home and have realised the value of understanding and communicating in the language. Does their ability to speak make them more Rotuman than those that don't? I don't think so, but I think it enhances their ROTUMAN-NESS. We have always explained to them the importance of their identity, that it is inside, and be proud because that is all they will ever be--ROTUMAN. I know that I'm more Rotuman now than I was growing up in Rotuma. Why, you ask? I have now realised the value of what I have always taken for granted, my island Rotuma. I know I'm lucky, I have the best of two worlds.

S. Inoke
Innisfail, Queensland, Australia (20 March 1998)

To the person signing his name as Half Caste: Did you know that a person is Rotuman so long as he is a descendant of a Rotuman irrespective of whether on the paternal or maternal side? So there you are-- there is no such being as a half-caste Rotuman. So please don't degrade yourself and your family by using such a term.

Anonymous [Rotuman Blood] (2 April 1998)

I think S. Inoke made a good point. I guess there are some Rotumans who do not know this fact. A person having Rotuman ancestory, irrespective of it being from the paternal or maternal side, IS a Rotuman. Thus being part-Rotuman is not really an issue. But then everyone has a right to call themselves whatever they feel--that's the freedom to identify yourself whatever way you like.

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