:"Land is a very limited definition of place"
Navigating heritage in a Sea of Islands
Dr. Anita Smith
La Trobe University, Australia
In the Sea of Islands that is the Pacific Ocean, ‘place’ is fundamental to the cultural identity of communities, being at once a highly fluid concept and yet fixed by sets of relationships and obligations transmitted through language, genealogy and story. Over the past three decades, Pacific scholars have written extensively about how associations with land and sea define the identity of the people of the Pacific Islands, being expressed through concepts of kastom or ples in Melanesia; vanua in Fiji; the Polynesian concept of fenua or whenua, and in Micronesia, tabinaw in Yap and beluu in Palau. From a Pacific Island perspective, the land, people and the ocean are a single all-encompassing entity that is integral to, and inseparable from the past, present and future. This intangible cultural heritage structures relationships to place, access to resources, social interactions, community decision making and connections to communities elsewhere, sometimes over vast distances. In turn, these highly complex knowledge systems are reflected in the tangible heritage of landscapes and seascapes across the region. a
For the past decade in my advisory role with the UNESCO World Heritage program in the Pacific Islands I have had the opportunity to engage with Pacific Island communities, to learn from them and to experience, if only in a brief and superficial way, their places through their eyes. In this paper I discuss this experience in relation to two sites –Taputapuatea Marae on the island of Raiatea in French Polynesia and the small island of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. In both, the tangible heritage is manifest in monumental stone structures that have long been the subject of archaeological research. In the context of the World Heritage program the focus of research at both sites has shifted to considering the significance of these structures within the genealogies and customs and histories of the local community, thus repositioning the stone structures as places that express traditional knowledge systems. The case studies illuminate the concept of ‘place’ as a set of relationships and give local specificity to this generalised image of Pacific cultural identity. a