By Pippa Brown: Pacific Media Centre
A pioneering new Pacific studies programme at Tonga’s ‘Atenisi University is set to change the way Tongan and Pacific history has been written, while embracing the institute’s classical philosophy.
“Traditionally history passed through generations orally and writing is a comparatively new thing,” says Pacific studies researcher Dr ‘Opeti Taliai.
The past was originally documented by missionaries who came to the Pacific in the 19th century and was therefore written from a colonial and outsider perspective, he says.
‘Atenisi Institute is encouraging Pacific Island students to rewrite their own history from an insider indigenous perspective.
“The emphasis on the new programme will be to encourage Pacific Island scholars and people that come from a background of oral history to start writing their own history,” says Dr Taliai, one of six international scholars inducted as fellows of the institute in a ceremony last month.
The four-day celebration honoured the life and achievements of founder and philosopher Professor Futa Helu.
Although the course structure is based on the history of the Pacific region, an emphasis is placed on research and the problems associated with it in the Pacific and the paradox of the insider and outsider viewpoint.
He says using the insider perspective with an outsider training will pull together both sides and give a clearer point of view.
“It ensures ‘Atenisi’s Pacific Studies will be able to publish a clearer interpretation and provide balance in the discourse and unity,” says Dr Taliai.
Misunderstanding can come from the misinterpretation of language.
“Tongan language is heliaki and this is quite common throughout the Pacific,” he says. “It is saying one thing and meaning another.”
“In comparison, English is a literal translation,” says Dr Taliai.
“Tongan language is poetic and English language scientific” and it is important to acknowledge the differences in the two languages, he says.
“English people go straight to the point and Tongan people go around and around before coming to the point because Tongan society is hierarchical and stratified.”
The key element in such a society is respect of people and their superiors.
“In Tongan society, we don’t go straight to the point as in Western society,” he says.
Special places and sacred historical places are used symbolically for particular chiefs and high-ranking officials and these symbolic places take the place of the high-ranking person in the conversation.
“We start with different places associated with those superiors,” he says.
It is common to use geographic locations and flora significant to chiefs and other high-ranking officials.
“Places they have come from and certain flowers can be very significant and these are distinguished in a metaphorical way,” says Dr Taliai.
To understand this it is necessary to know what and where these places are that people are using and talking about.
“This underlying meaning is only known to the indigenous people,” says Dr Taliai.
“We are starting to see more books written by indigenous people and we want to see more of that.”
There will be equal emphasis on teaching and research, says Dr Taliai.
The Pacific studies programme wants to recruit people who will teach and research at the same time and postgraduates who are already doing research in the Pacific.
“We hope to achieve from this programme more understanding of one another, not only in the Pacific but in the world.”
What makes the ‘Atenisi University Pacific studies programme different from the University of South Pacific in Fiji and other universities in Auckland is the method of analysis used in looking at data, oral traditions and literature, he says.
Dr Taliai says his life changed when he started attending ‘Atenisi Institute.
“I started to question,” he says.
“Education and religion co-exist like a coin,” says Dr Taliai. He says they cannot be separated and sees education as being scientific and objective while religion is mainly subjective.
Dr Taliai recently completed a PhD in social anthropology. His thesis, “The legitimation of economic and political power in Tonga: A critique of Kauhala’uta and Kauhalalalo Social Moieties”, discusses how the struggle for the control of power works in Tonga.
Tonga is a stratified society and has kings, nobles, and commoners; who make up the majority of the population he says. “The power in Tonga is in the hands of a very small group,” says Dr Taliai.
“In the Tongan riots people questioned the way the country was run and the position of the monarchy and started to demand the decentralisation of power,” he says.
His investigations throughout his PhD researched the relationships and interconnectedness between Tonga and other Pacific Islands into parts of South East Asia. He wants the Pacific studies programme to be filled from people all over the Pacific.
“You can’t separate the rest of the Pacific from Tongan history,” he says.
My dream in the future will be to bring in experts and students from the Pacific and we will work together to write a comprehensive history of the Pacific from both the insider and outsider perspective, says Dr Taliai.
“The ideal student will have a combination of western methodology of analysis and local knowledge.”
Dr Taliai describes ‘Atenisi Institute as a small but independent institution. He relates it to the institute’s Latin motto, Pauca sed matura which translates literally as few, but ripe.
“It is always small but the outcome of the product is mature,” he says.
“We will do it more effectively at ‘Atenisi because there is also the philosophy in place to develop it further,” he says.
The institute’s name ‘Atenisi is Tongan for the Greek capital, Athens. It was founded by professor emeritus Dr Futa Helu who embraced the scientific and democratic ideals of the ancient Greeks into ‘Atenisi Institute’s philosophy of education.
It places criticism at the very heart of education and has as part of its core curriculum traditional subjects such as philosophy, logic, art and literature. It is unique compared to other educational institutions in the Pacific region, which are described as utilitarian in nature.
‘Atenisi Institute is portrayed as a “people’s university” and many of its students come from isolated and poor communities.
Picture: Dr 'Opeti Taliai (right) next to Professor Futa Helu at the fellowship induction at 'Atenisi Institute last month. Also pictured are Dr David Robie and Dr Ian Campbell. Photo: Pacific Media Centre.
Pippa Brown is an AUT Graduate Diploma in Journalism student on internship with the Pacific Media Centre.
'Atenisi University inducts six fellows