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The History And Traditions Of Tahiti

Jun 26, 2008
With a rich history that extends back at least 3000 years, Tahiti has been a prized possession of conquerors, particularly Europeans, over the centuries. Despite the advances of uninvited visitors, however, Tahitians cultural heritage remains strong and helps define this tropical gem.

Although historians surmise that Tahiti was first discovered and inhabited as far back as 1000 B.C., it was not until the early 16th century that European explorers happened upon it.

Great Britain and France tangled over the country in the 18th century. In the mid 19th century, King Pomare V, whose family presided over a Tahitian political dynasty, relinquished control of the islands to France, which reconstituted Tahiti as an overseas territory dubbed French Polynesia in 1957. Today, Tahiti is considered a French Overseas Country with self governing powers.

Modern day Tahitians trace their rich cultural heritage back to their Maohi ancestors, the Hui Arii. In addition to Tahitian folklore of colorful myths and legends, ancient Tahiti had a highly developed hierarchy of social and religious chiefs, well defined customs, a complicated code of court etiquette, sophisticated dances and drama, and high standards of craftsmanship.

Many of these cultural traditions are alive and well today. Tahitian dance and music are testaments to the strength and resiliency of local culture. Accompanied by traditional instruments such as drums and conch shells, Tahitian dance, called tamure, has been linked to many different aspects of life here since ancient times.

In fact, Tahitians have used this art form over the centuries to welcome a visitor, pray, challenge an enemy, and even seduce a mate. Modern Tahitian music is popular around the world, blending Polynesian rhythm with Western melodies.

The skills of ancestral Tahitian artisans are considered sacred and passed along from generation to generation by mamas guardians of tradition and matriarchs of Tahitian society and craftsmen themselves. Foremost among this traditional artistry is tapa, dyed cloth made from the bark of young trees. Local craftsmen are also skilled at creating wooden tiki sculptures, carvings, and bowls; hand dyed pareu; and quilts.

Large, open air sanctuaries known as marae were once the center of power in ancient Polynesia. These stone religious sites, similar to temples, hosted important events, such as worshipping, peace treaties, war celebrations, and the commencement of voyages to distant lands. Although many Tahitians now attend church, maraes can still be found throughout the area.

Heiva i Tahiti is the greatest Polynesian cultural event in the world, a celebration of ancient traditions and competitions from late June to late July that has been the most important event in Tahiti for more than a century.

Tahitians from many different islands gather in Papeete, the Tahitian capital, to display their crafts and compete in traditional sporting and musical events. If you are lucky enough to be in Tahiti during the event, locals will likely encourage you to join the celebration.

The word tattoo originated in Tahiti, taken from the original word, tatau. The legend of Tohu, the god of tattoo, describes painting all the oceans fish in colors and patterns. In Polynesian culture, detailed, intricate tattoos have long been considered signs of beauty and were once an important symbol of the rite of passage into adolescence.

Polynesians once journeyed through the vast Pacific Ocean aboard massive double-hulled outrigger canoes called tipairua, using stars as navigational guides to create new civilizations. Today, tipairuas continue to play an important role in everyday Tahitian life and are honored in colorful races and festivals.

Finally, what would a society steeped in cultural traditions be without its own unique variety of food? Tahiti is renowned for its fresh fish and exotic fruits and vegetables prepared with Polynesian influence and a touch of French flair.

A few popular Tahitian dishes are poisson cru, raw fish marinated with lime juice and soaked in coconut milk; chevreffes, or freshwater shrimp; and poe, sweet pudding made of taro root flavored with banana, vanilla, papaya, or pumpkin and topped with coconut milk the ultimate Tahitian dessert.

A fun, festive way to sample Tahitian cuisine is by attending a tamaaraa, a celebration featuring native fish, pork, and chicken dishes, as well as traditional Polynesian singing and dancing.
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