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Experiencing the Real Tahiti

Story by
Nancy Joseph
September 2014Perspectives Newsletter

If Dylan Moore’s friends had told him months earlier that he’d be dancing in a skirt of ti leaves, cheered on by hundreds of Tahitians, he probably wouldn’t have believed them. But Moore, a UW biochemistry major, not only danced with fellow UW students at a festival on the Tahitian island of Huahine but also introduced the UW dance group—in Tahitian. (See a video of the introduction and dance at the end of this article.) That was just one of many memorable moments for Moore during a month-long study abroad program in Tahiti, offered by the Department of Anthropology.

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Dylan Moore, right, along with Asalemo Crawford and other UW dancers, performs for the mayor and other dignitaries during a Bastille Day parade on the island of Huahine in French Polynesia. Photo by Miriam Kahn. Media credit: Miriam Kahn

Known for its pristine beaches and luxury accommodations, Tahiti is often touted as a tropical paradise. But the reality of life in Tahiti––one of few remaining colonies in today’s otherwise post-colonial world—is far more complicated. This immersive study abroad program explored the impact of colonialism in Tahiti, more accurately known as French Polynesia. (Tahiti is just one of 118 islands that make up French Polynesia).

“Most people don’t realize that Tahiti is still a colony,” says Miriam Kahn, professor of anthropology and director of the study abroad program, who has conducted research in French Polynesia for more than two decades. “The government operates in the French language, residents are French citizens, students are required to learn French history, and those who go on to higher education are encouraged to go to France. It’s good for UW students to learn about the history of colonialism there and to see what it’s like today for Tahitians to live as colonial subjects.”

Through their preparation for the dances, students also learn so much more—about cultural traditions, how local materials are used to make costumes, family dynamics, and island politics.

Kahn has led the Tahiti program three times. This summer Jodene Davis, director of strategic initiatives in the office of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, was her assistant, with 16 students participating.  The program began in the capital city of Pape’ete on the island of Tahiti, where the students met with Tahitian politicians and activists. They also learned about a particularly disturbing period of Tahitian’s colonial history—France’s nuclear weapons testing on French Polynesia’s outer island of Moruroa. They met with the president of the 4,000-member association of former test site workers and attended a rally protesting the government’s plan to remove a memorial for the deceased test workers. “The testing went on for thirty years beginning in 1966,” says Kahn. “The testing activity was shrouded in secrecy. Even Tahitians working at the nuclear test site were never told what they were engaged in.”

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UW student Bader Alfarhan, left, and Teana Gooding, a member of his extended host family, work on dance costumes. Photo by Miriam Kahn. Media credit: Miriam Kahn

After five days in the capital, the program continued in Huahine, one of French Polynesia’s outer islands. There the students lived with Tahitian families with professions ranging from chief of police to retired schoolteacher to black pearl farmer. Although the students gathered occasionally to discuss assigned readings and share observations, their primary focus was life with their host family. 

“As an anthropologist, I feel you learn by observing and participating, always with a critical eye on what people are doing, why they’re doing it, and what’s important to them,” explains Kahn. “The family and daily life in Huahine became the classroom. Students were able to see the impact of colonialism everywhere—in the language, environmental policies, education system, health and medical care, religion, and tourism.”

Prior to the trip, the students had weekly lessons in Tahitian language, but most were still nervous at the start of the homestay. Those nerves quickly faded as they bonded with their hosts. “My host family was incredible,” says Solana Rollolazo, a medical anthropology and global health major who shared a bedroom with a UW classmate and the host family’s four children. “I was humbled by our living situation because their house had been ruined by a cyclone years ago and they've never earned enough money to fix it. I realized how little you really need to get by. I also learned how selfless and generous Tahitians are. Although my family had little, they gave all they had without expecting anything in return.”  

Students (from left) Teina Radford, Rachael Tamngin, Desiree Gross, and 
Dylan Moore get ready to dance during Huahine’s Bastille Day parade. Photo by 
Miriam Kahn.
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Students (from left) Teina Radford, Rachael Tamngin, Desiree Gross, and Dylan Moore get ready to dance during Huahine’s Bastille Day parade. Photo by Miriam Kahn. Media credit: Miriam Kahn

While the students were introduced to the activities of daily life in Huahine, they also worked with their hosts on language skills and traditional Tahitian dance. Those skills came in handy during Heiva, a month-long festival held each July. The festival includes a dance competition, with groups from each village competing.  The UW students were invited to perform during the festival and spent much of the time before the festival practicing their dances.

“Dancing has been a key part of the study abroad program because it plays such an important role in Tahitian culture,” says Kahn. “Through their preparation for the dances, students also learn so much more—about cultural traditions, how local materials are used to make costumes, family dynamics, and island politics.”

They also learn to conquer fear. While a handful of students were experienced dancers—Rollolazo has studied Tahitian dance in Seattle for more than a decade—most were not, and a few were terrified at the prospect of performing for an audience of several hundred Tahitians. (Participation was not mandatory.) They needn’t have worried. “The audience loved them, loved that they were making an effort to learn the language and the dances,” says Kahn. 

Moore had the added pressure of introducing the student dance performance in Tahitian. “I was more worried about my dancing abilities than my speaking,” he says, “although I can't deny that my heart was beating faster when I had to go up on my own." After learning that the UW presenter on a previous trip inadvertently misspoke, welcoming the mayor as tavana i'ore (chief of the rats) instead of tavana oire (chief of the town), Moore worked with his host father to get the pronunciation just right. “The introduction went smoothly,” he says, “and it was extremely gratifying when Tahitian friends and neighbors came up and told me that they actually had understood me, always with a mix of surprise and appreciation.”

Watching the students challenge themselves both onstage and off was gratifying for Kahn. She believes that the challenges presented by cultural immersion can inspire a lifelong curiosity about the world and can give students a stronger sense of themselves and their abilities.

“Academically, I hope the students learned how colonialism impacts every aspect of Tahitians’ lives,” she says.  “But on a more personal level, I hope this is a life-changing experience for them. As an anthropologist, you have to get out of your comfort zone. You have to expand the contours of yourself a little bit. I want students to see that though it may be scary, they grow as individuals by doing that. And hopefully, if they can understand a little more about this slice of the world, they will want to explore more and will have the confidence to do so.”