Tuesday, June 19, 2012

More Than Folktales

Samoan Turtles
Our folktales are important cultural features of our societies. Folktales explain so much about ourselves and who we are. This week I share a portion of my research on the importance of folktales in Oceania.

In Folk Tales and Fables of the Americas and the Pacific, Robert Ingpen and Barbra Hayes retell the Fijian story of the Giant Turtle. The story is told by Fijians to explain how people from Tonga came to live among them. A fisherman from Samoa named Lekabai saved from drowning in the rough sea had managed to climb a rock into the realm of the Sky King. The Sky King helped Lekabai return to earth on a turtle.

Lekabai left with the mighty turtle back to Samoa with the instruction that he is not to open his eyes at anytime. Through the journey to Samoa Lekabai was teased by dolphins and sea birds for being foolish in closing his eyes. This was the instruction from the Sky King. A feast was staged to celebrate Lekabai’s return from the dead. Hungry fishermen speared the turtle when it returned to the reef to feed after it got tired of waiting for Lekabai. On learning this Lekabai told the villagers that they would be punished. The villagers got scared and buried the turtle in a deep hole with a coconut and a mat of woven coconut leaves. In the process the Sky King sent a bird to find out what was happening. The bird touched a young boy called Lavai-pani, who would live in perpetual youth for generations to tell the story to a group of young men from Tonga sent by their king to find the shell of the turtle.  The Samoans laughed at the Tongan men and said, ‘We all know that old legend,’ smiled the Samoans, ‘but it is only a legend. No one knows where the turtle was buried, or if there was a turtle at all!’

The Tongan men returned home, only to be sent back by the King.  It was Lavai-pani who helped them dig up the turtle shell.  They found thirteen turtle shells, but gave only twelve turtle shells to the King. The King sent them back to Samoa to get the thirteenth shell. The young men set sail again, but decided against returning to Samoa, so they set sail until they arrived in Kadavu, one of the Fiji Islands, which was then ruled by King Rewa. He was kind to the weary young men and gave them land on which to live. They built houses and took wives and were happy. These were the first people from Tonga to settle in Fiji.

This folktale reflects the relationships between Tongans, Samoans, and Fijians, as well as those between humans and their supernatural worlds. The volatile relations, the differences between various groups, and their historical indifference or friendship to one another are highlighted. Inter-island travels and cultural items of value like coconut and mats woven with coconut leaves are items featured in this folktale. This is a remarkable folktale that resembles those told from elsewhere in Polynesia, but features turtles, coconuts, coconut strewn mats, whales, dolphins, and sea birds.  In documented evidence, the oral literature of western Polynesia supports the Fiji-Tonga-Samoa-Futuna-Uvea interconnection: “Interaction continued even when people had acquired a sense of Island-centred identity, as oral literature shows occurred” (Scarr 1990, 66).

In the Melanesian region Imanuel Nigira writes a folktale about a turtle and eagle in the Zia language group of Waria River in the Morobe Province of Papua New Guinea. The story involves a young girl tricked and abandoned to die out in the sea. She swam to an island. To survive she ate fruits and nuts on the island. One day she hit her hand with a stone when attempting to crack beach almonds. Blood came out from her. She collected the blood in a shell and covered it with another shell. From the blood two eggs were formed until they hatched, giving birth to an eagle and a turtle. She looked after the eagle and the turtle until they matured. The turtle and the eagle helped her catch fish, bring fire, clay pot, and a house to the island. The eagle brought the first and second items. The third item was carried on the turtle’s back to the island where the woman lived. The shared relationship between the first man or woman and animals in the folktales are the bond that ties them together in a symbiotic relationship. Usually in this type of relationship the animals serve as the link between the human world and the spirit world.

Blood from a cut from the woman in the Waria story gives birth to the eagle and the turtle, legitimating her as the original birthing human spirit. Sakarepe Kamene writes that to the Zia of Waria River “living means being aware of, and having knowledge of, and the ability to manipulate the relationship between other living persons, the dead (the spirit world) and the eco-and aqua-systems of the surroundings thus reassuring the renewal or continuation of life. The significance of the interdependence of part and whole of the cosmos is clearly manifested in the social structure of the Zia community”.

Kamane explains the four totem names used in Zia: “The bego is associated with the hornbill, the yewa the bird of paradise, the sakia with the white cockatoo, the wapo with the eagle. These clans form the recognizable social badges that cement the extended kin affiliations of each village, which in turn gives its distinct communal sense. This thus gives rise to mutual and reciprocal respect between villages and within individual members which enhance and furthermore, maintain internal social cohesion and harmony in the Zia community” (1996, 88). The Zia are also centered on the community (dubu) and work at strengthening the interdependent relationship through various social activities such as fishing, gardening, feasting, dancing, and storytelling.

We must do more to document and capture our folktales in writing and film.

1 comment:

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