Manio Radford: Founder/Director of Te Fare O Tamatoa

Manio's Story: Polynesian Culture

The cultural beliefs of the Hawaiians, Tahitians, Samoans, Tongans and Maori peoples of New Zealand are related under the banner of Polynesian culture. Although each culture has evolved a little differently, due to vast ocean distance between, they share similar beliefs in music and dance. The life force that inspired these peoples to overcome great challenges is called mana. Each person is considered a potential carrier and agent of mana. Mana comes in many forms and flavors: warriors, fishermen, taro farmers, great moms, navigators, entertainers, you name it. Even words can contain mana. Religious chants and prayers are thought to be imbued with mana. In the songs and stories of the Polynesians, the kings and high priests were expected to have great mana, but often that was not the case. Commoners were often expected not to have mana, but sometimes they did. Those that did, had the power to make great things happen. When commoners had great mana, it was believed they were the product of a god/goddess and a human. That is the Tahitian belief.

Tahitian song, chant, and dance began as a way for people, who had no written language, to pass on the lessons they learned throughout their lives. Rhythms and poetry were used to help ingrain these lessons. The importance of mana was manifested by songs and stories of historic occasions: the nature and genealogy of royal families, voyages, wars, impressive athletics, passion, great sacrifices, and achievements. It was important for the Polynesian people to remember these stories and lessons. Stories of demi-gods and goddesses were crafted to represent the many examples of mana. In my village, Paea, Tahiti, there is a famous marae for royal funerals and burials. There were also marae for archery, canoe builders, and oracles (seers of the future). The marae of the royal family of Tamatoa on Raiatea island is also famous for being the point of prayerful departure for the big double canoes, which sailed to New Zealand. One is on exhibit in the museum in Aukland. I can recall the chanting of the royal families traded between my Aunt Miri Rei and the Maori Princess Rangi when I visited Rotorua Village, New Zealand with my aunt in 1956. 

Around the time of Captain James Cook's visit to the Society Islands in 1776, the Tahitians had developed a form of royal entertainment of the local chiefs by touring inter-island royal entertainers called Arioi. At the time, some people regarded them with disfavor because they saw that the Arioi had begun to take themselves too seriously. The people complained to Captain Cook and Doctor Banks that the Arioi were taking upon themselves the bad mana of certain kings and priests who claimed to own any land where their shadows fell, or any wives or food. Not all mana is good mana.

I continue to research my family and island history to find the right dances and songs, to translate and choreograph them as I was trained by my aunt, Princess Miri. Princess Miri was one of the first Tahitian dancers to bring the traditional dance to the US. She starred on Broadway in New York as a Ziegfield Follies performer and with Bing Crosby in early movies about the South Pacific. She trained her sisters and my Christian youth group. The earliest written records of the songs and chants of the Tahitians can be mixed with the ancient dance as they were traditionally.

The songs and dances I do are based on not only my own mana, but on the mana of the Tamatoa family. From my studies, stories are coming to me with their hand movements. They are stories of the healing land, the gifts of the sea, the farms of the valleys and hills, the strengthening of youth into creative love, of overcoming disobedience and death to reach the next generations. That's what we want to do: save the mana from the past for the next generations; create trust, faith, contemplation, concentration.

When the Christian missionaries arrived in Polynesia, they did not understand God the way Tahitians or Hawaiians did. Their God was not even the peace loving Jesus Christ they preached about, but a strict and vengeful God, a God who took sides in wars and permitted them to call any one that did not agree with them a blasphemer and heretic. Whatever was new and strange to them, they called heathen, savages or worse. The Spaniards used natives for target practice. The American and British missionaries dressed them in heavy clothes to hide their bodies and they burned and destroyed their religious and historic artifacts. The culture and the history of Tahiti and all Polynesia has been preserved as best it can by the songs, chants, and dances that tell the stories of Polynesia. I care about all Polynesia, but my message is about Tahiti, my birth home, who now has very few people who can remember and tell its story. I was trained to remember, respect, and to be thankful for those who led Tahiti through the centuries. I do not teach the modern dance of Tahiti, except as it is evolving from the foundations of centuries of mana invested in it by those past leaders. 

To dance from the heart is 'the way'. To dance from the heart is to show love and respect for all who have made the seas and the palm trees and the clouds and our hands and hips so beautiful and practical and poetic. The most important thing about Polynesian dance is the beat. The beat comes from nature. Some people, myself included, can tell where each song and dance is from because of the beat. The beat reflects the sounds of the sea, of the winds, of the clouds, of the passions. For me, the protocol of preparation is to hear in my heart the beat of the nature of the place. That will be hard to teach someone far away from Tahiti. But because it is already captured in the music we bring to you, perhaps the best preparation is to truly hear the music and to visualize the waves pounding the reefs and the palm fronds slapping in the wind and the mana flowing from the heroes and heroines of everyday lives into our own.

Now I believe in one God, and in my own ancestors, but not in demi-gods and goddess. I respect and love what I have learned from the mana passed to me, and I hope I can share that with you.