To think of clear jewel waters and lush rainforest, is to think of Tahiti. Trademarked for its coral reef, unparalleled beaches and native beauty, this island has been a dream destination for many people. Its closest neighbours being Australia, Hawaii and Chile, Tahiti is the largest in the windward group of French Polynesia. Located within the Society Islands chain, the island of Tahiti houses the largest population and the cultural and political focal point of all French Polynesian islands.
Before it was proclaimed by a French colony in 1880, Tahiti was governed through an ancient society. Chiefdoms were common within the Fijian-Polynesian islands. Clans were led by chiefs recognised by their belt of red feathers, which led and convened with councils. Sacred raised-stone platforms called Maraes were places of worship and ceremony. Some still remain to this day and are considered valuable to the conservation of Polynesian history.
However with the French missionaries of the 18th century came with a better way of life. After visiting whalers and sailors brought about disease and infection that reduced the Tahitian population to a quarter of its number, the French and its empire were embraced. Now that the Tahitian people have been legalised as French citizens, the Tahiti culture has blended both traditional Tahitian and French Polynesian.
This can be seen clearly through the festival of Heiva. A celebration of Polynesian culture and the remembrance of Bastille Day and the charging of the Bastille in France. All residents of Tahiti gather for the month of July to honour Tahitian; dance, music, sport and culture. Competition and celebration is high with spirited outrigger canoe races between the islands and residents, only heightened with the arrival of different groups from neighbouring French Polynesian islands to Tahiti.
The ‘ote’a is a traditional Polynesian dance most commonly seen throughout the Heiva festival. Beautiful flower garlands, grass skirts and colourful traditional headwear are adorned by dancers lined in rows. To a fast paced drum beat the dancers re-enact occupations in life through the ‘ote’a dance. Previously banned by 19th century Christians who saw it as a form of hip shaking debauchery, it wasn’t until the 1970s that the Heiva festival was created when French Polynesia gained further independence from the French government.
Whether professional or informal, the performances throughout the Heiva festival are animated and graceful. Performed by many at any age, the dance represents the telling of a story, about history and tradition through the mediums Tahitian locals were taught, music and dance. Canoeing, stone fishing and palm tree climbing are just some of the sports that are also demonstrated throughout July. This month long festival is a time to rejoice and remember traditions passed through generations. It fills the island with a sense of joviality and welcoming atmosphere.
With the capital Papeete and its coastline clustered with residents, the interior of Tahiti is largely uninhabited comprised of rainforest and volcanic mountains. Tahiti and its inhabitants place importance in their birthright and culture and integrating them into their daily life. Traditional Tahitian tattoos are still being used today as a sign of pride and honour and black pearl diving is more than a display of honouring heritage, it supplies a steady export to neighbouring countries.
The infamous black sanded shores, translucent waters and deep humid rainforests are the backdrop to a nation whose heritage is imbedded within their customs. Community and honour breathe life into the island of Tahiti, rooted in those that reside there. To discover Tahiti, is to discover the welcoming, gracious nation that call Tahiti home.
What has Tahiti and its people challenged you to discover?