Do people in most of Oceania live in tiny confined spaces? The answer is yes if one believes what certain social scientists are saying. But the idea of smallness is relative; it depends on what is included and excluded in any calculation of size. When those who hail from continents, or islands adjacent to continents-and the vast majority of human beings live in these regions-when they see a Polynesian or Micronesian island they naturally pronounce it small or tiny. Their calculation is based entirely on the extent of the land surfaces they see.
But if we look at the myths, legends, and oral traditions, and the cosmologies of the peoples of Oceania, it becomes evident that they did not conceive of their world in such microscopic proportions. Their universe comprised not only land surfaces, but the surrounding ocean as far as they could traverse and exploit it, the underworld with its fire-controlling and earth-shaking denizens, and the heavens above with their hierarchies of powerful gods and named stars and constellations that people could count on to guide their ways across the seas. Their world was anything but tiny. They thought big and recounted their deeds in epic proportions. One legendary Oceanic athlete was so powerful that during a competition he threw his javelin with such force that it pierced the horizon and disappeared until that night when it was seen streaking across the sky like a meteor. Every now and then it reappears to remind people of the mighty deed. And as far as I’m concerned it is still out there, near Jupiter or somewhere. That was the first rocket ever sent into space. Islanders today still relish exaggerating things out of all proportion. Smallness is a state of mind.
There is a world of difference between viewing the Pacific as “islands in a far sea” and as “a sea of islands.” The first emphasizes dry surfaces in a vast ocean far from the centers of power. Focusing in this way stresses the smallness and remoteness of the islands. The second is a more holistic perspective in which things are seen in the totality of their relationships. I return to this point later. Continental men, namely Europeans, on entering the Pacific after crossing huge expanses of ocean, introduced the view of “islands in a far sea.” From this perspective the islands are tiny, isolated dots in a vast ocean. Later on, continental men — Europeans and Americans — drew imaginary lines across the sea, making the colonial boundaries that confined ocean peoples to tiny spaces for the first time. These boundaries today define the island states and territories of the Pacific. I have just used the term ocean peoples because our ancestors, who had lived in the Pacific for over two thousand years, viewed their world as “a sea of islands” rather than as “islands in the sea.” This may be seen in a common categorization of people, as exemplified in Tonga by the inhabitants of the main, capital, island, who used to refer to their compatriots from the rest of the archipelago not so much as “people from outer islands” as social scientists would say, but as kakai mei tahi or just tahi ‘people from the sea’. This characterization reveals the underlying assumption that the sea is home to such people.
The difference between the two perspectives is reflected in the two terms used for our region: Pacific Islands and Oceania. The first term, Pacific Islands, is the prevailing one used everywhere; it denotes small areas of land sitting atop submerged reefs or seamounts. Hardly any anglophone economist, consultancy expert, government planner, or development banker in the region, uses the term Oceania, perhaps because it sounds grand and somewhat romantic, and may denote something so vast that it would compel them to a drastic review of their perspectives and policies. The French and other Europeans use the term Oceania to an extent that English speakers, apart from the much-maligned anthropologists and a few other sea-struck scholars, have not. It may not be coincidental that Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, anglophone all, have far greater interests in the Pacific and how it is perceived than have the distant European nations.
[This is my 1000th post on Tumblr! 1000 posts! I feel like I should have a new nerd merit badge sewn onto my nerd sash.]
As I read more widely on public space, it becomes clear how important it is to understand changing conceptions of private space and especially the potential meanings of home. Shelley Mallett’s 2004 article “Understanding home: a critical review of the literature” in The Sociological Review was especially helpful.
A more radical critique of the understanding of home as an enclosed, private space – a haven from the outside world is provided by some of the cross-cultural research. For example, Jackson (1995) implies that nomadic peoples, ‘for whom dwelling is not synonymous with being housed and settled’ do not focus on ideas of home as a private place clearly differentiated from the outside world. He states that for the Warlpiri of the Tanami Desert in Central Australia … ‘home is where one hails from … , but it also suggests the places one has camped, sojourned and lived during the course of one’s own lifetime’ (122). Similarly, for the people of Nuakata Island, Papua New Guinea, home is variously translated as matrilineal village(s), or the island itself, and is not a private physical dwelling that is clearly differentiated from an outside world (Mallett, 2003). Rather it equates to the lands and places where one’s matrilineal forbears stayed or dwelled. While these spaces are not private, enclosed dwellings, they are possessed spaces or territories with defined, though not always visible, boundaries that must be observed and respected by those who do not belong there.
There is a passage in Piers Vitebsky’s Reindeer People that also illustrates this different conception of home.
Though place names were important, the Eveny vocabulary for relative positions focused not on the places themselves but on one’s own movement through them. The word dyu means ‘home’, one’s present camp site. A site is a destination for only a moment before it becomes home and the starting point for the next migrations. Amdip, dyu, erimken: previous site, present site, next site. Today’s erimken becomes tomorrow’s dyu, and the previous dyu slips back to the status of amdip, yesterday’s site. Granny was around seventy years old. Allowing for a few years at school, I calculated that she must have changed the location of her dyu some 1,500 times. (p 117-118)
My first nasty anonymous comment! And from someone who apparently didn’t read the actual post as I wrote in explanation of the image under discussion:
"Three images taken from a FAVELissues post on (Occupy Cabral hosts a movie night in front of the governor’s apartment; Viral image of a teacher confronting police paired with the iconic Tiananmen Square photo; Free Hugs Day by the black block contingent in Rio)