Skip to content Skip to footer

Pacific Islander Festival Uplifts Anti-Colonial Solidarity Amid Climate Crisis

Pacific Islanders convened this month to celebrate traditions and resist colonialism, nuclearism and climate change.

Hawaiian hula dancers join 24 other island delegations at the opening ceremony of the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture. The eight-hour marathon of music and dance took place at the Stan Sheriff Center at the University of Hawaii at Manoa on June 6, 2024.

Despite having numerous corporate and military sponsors, this year’s Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture (FestPAC) – a giant quadrennial festival showcasing Indigenous arts and culture – was a site often claimed by participants as a politically alive space for anti-colonial critique and discussion of the climate crisis.

The festival, which took place primarily at Honolulu’s Hawaii Convention Center on the Island of Oahu from June 6-16 and drew together 2,200 delegates from 25 island nations across Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, listed the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, U.S. Army Pacific, U.S. Marine Forces Pacific, and various airlines, resorts and shopping sites among its sponsors, but attendees brought a very different political energy to their participation in the festival.

As poet Johanna Salinas of the U.S. territory of Guam put it during a literary arts event at the festival: “The single largest gathering of Pacific Islanders in the world is not just a fair.”

Indeed, at the same literary event, author Victoria Leon Guerrero proclaimed: “I dedicate this reading to the people in Kanaky and Palestine. We are not free until all peoples are free.” Kanaky is the Indigenous name of New Caledonia, which didn’t send a delegation to FestPAC due to unrest on the Melanesian island.

Leon Guerrero told Truthout, “Guamanians are the longest colonized people in the Pacific. The people of Guam are still colonized by the U.S., just as the people in Kanaky are colonized by the French. With Kanaky’s absence at the festival, we must stand in solidarity with the Kanak people.” (FestPAC is currently scheduled to take place at Kanaky/New Caledonia in 2028.)

Oceania is a large region of the world (along with the Caribbean) that is still dominated by outright colonialism and settler states, occupied by foreign militaries. Guam Museum curator Michael Bevacqua expressed exasperation with Guam’s archaic colonial subjugation and pointed out, “One third of Guam is owned by the military, which impacts the environment and sustainability.” The Pentagon controls 25 percent of Oahu, including Pearl Harbor.

Along with their militaristic domination of many island nations, Washington and Paris have used the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia as nuclear testing sites, which rendered some isles uninhabitable and left local communities with devastating health impacts. Pacific Islanders are often displaced minorities in their own ancestral homelands. Mililani Trask, an elected trustee of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a state agency mandated to oversee Indigenous matters, told Truthout: “Seventeen percent of the Big Island’s residents are Hawaiians, but 70 percent of our homeless are Natives.”

“The people of Guam are still colonized by the U.S., just as the people in Kanaky are colonized by the French.”

Despite the commercialism driving the fiscal sponsorship for the festival, many of its participants used their time together to grapple with questions of climate crisis, dispossession and cultural preservation, often in meeting rooms and ballrooms at the Convention Center that were part of the festival’s scheduled events that expressed the concerns of rank-and-file islanders.

In the exhibit hall at Tuvalu’s “village,” 62-year-old delegate Lapua Lasifo expressed the anxiety of living with the climate catastrophe’s day-to-day effects:

When I was 16, we knew the wind and rain would come November, December, January. Now there are strong winds all year. The sun is very hot now, very severe. The sea comes inside peoples’ homes. The beaches are damaged. There is soil erosion. Before there were big sandy beaches; now they’re rocky. When I was young, I collected seashells at the beach; now my grandchildren can’t do that. We did nothing to cause global warming, but suffer from it. I’m really sad and disappointed. Our nation is slowly becoming extinct. People were happy. Now they’re worried the culture will become extinct. Where will I live? Where will we go?

At a Pacific Climate Eco-Narrative session, Jefferson Thomas, a Palau Community College dean, lamented: “Because of global warming there’s lots of changes in our islands. We pass on our culture through songs and poems. But young people today have never heard of some plants in the songs.”

Indigenous people at the festival repeatedly pledged resistance in the face of climate destruction. In a short film screened during the “Rising Seas and Refugees” panel, a self-described Pacific Climate Warrior declared, “We are not drowning – we are fighting!”

“We did nothing to cause global warming, but suffer from it. Our nation is slowly becoming extinct. People were happy. Now they’re worried the culture will become extinct.”

Denouncing sea level rise, panelist Jobod Silk from the Marshalls, a low-lying coral atoll nation, stated: “The people who contribute the least amount to climate change bear the brunt. We choose to stay – even if we swim in our homes. We don’t want to be climate refugees!” Silk added that the Marshalls has created a National Adaptation Plan to respond to climate change’s impacts.

Transmigration due to sea level rise is also an internal problem for places such as the Solomon Islands, an independent Melanesian archipelago that includes atolls and mountainous islands. Solomons’ panelist Kabini Sanga said, “Resettlement due to climate change is a mind-boggling concept. Indigenous landowners need negotiations” with atoll dwellers seeking to escape flat isles where they have to “stand in water that’s knee high, and salt water affects agriculture and washing.”

From left to right, the “Rising Tides & Refugees” panel: Native Hawaiian moderator Lina Girl; Kabini Afia, of the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Culture and Tourism; Jobod Silk, Republic of the Marshall Islands, NationalClimate Representative with the non-profit Jo-Jikum; Tawake Eriata, Kiribati, assistant cultural officer at the Culture and Museum Centre in the division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tarawa, Kiribati; Tuvalu’s Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Local Government and Agriculture Penivao Moealofa.
From left to right, the “Rising Tides & Refugees” panel: Native Hawaiian moderator Lina Girl; Kabini Afia of the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Culture and Tourism; Jobod Silk, of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, national climate representative with the nonprofit Jo-Jikum; Tawake Eriata, of Kiribati, assistant cultural officer at the Culture and Museum Centre in the division of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Tarawa, Kiribati; Tuvalu’s Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Local Government and Agriculture Penivao Moealofa.

Speaking at FestPAC’s “Rising Seas and Refugees” panel, Tuvalu’s Assistant Secretary, Ministry of Local Government and Agriculture Penivao Moealofa called “sea tide an existential threat” and stated his Polynesian atoll nation is the “first line” in the climate crisis. Moealofa called for “international cooperation and COP [Conference of the Parties, created after the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed]. Speak out and make sure industrialized countries, including the U.S., follow the Paris Agreement” to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

Other FestPAC participants spoke about taking their cases and causes to the international arena, including at the Transpacific Indigenous Women’s Network conferences, where Pacific Islander feminists denounced “the double oppression of women under the capitalist and colonial paradigm as both females and Natives.” During the network’s meetings, activist/attorney Mililani Trask asserted: “We will not get justice in the U.S. system,” adding, “We’re not going anywhere with America,” which Hawaiian nationalists believe conspired in an 1893 coup that overthrew the independent Hawaiian Kingdom, leading to U.S. annexation and statehood. “Why waste time?” insisted the longtime Hawaiian sovereignty advocate. “Let’s step out of the U.S. system and go to the International Court of Justice. It would shock them.”

The Pacific Islands have diverse levels of development, ranging from Honolulu’s densely packed high-priced high rises to communities based around more traditional, subsistence lifestyles in smaller islands, such as Kiribati, Tokelau and Tuvalu. Economic development is an essential issue, and tourism is seen as a major force, but it can be a double-edged sword.

At the “Tradition-Tourism-Technology” panel, Jarvis Teauroa, deputy director of French Polynesia’s Department of Culture and Heritage, described what happened when Taputapuātea, a pre-Christian temple in Raiatea, one of Tahiti’s outer isles, was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017. “This brought much benefits, including greater cultural recognition in Polynesia,” Teauroa said. “We were surprised at the rapid increase in tourism,” which necessitated additional “parking spaces, restrooms,” at the elaborate marae, or place of pre-contact worship, added Teauroa. “In no way did we try to sideline local people.”

“We pass on our culture through songs and poems. But young people today have never heard of some plants in the songs.”

Panelist Rhoda Roberts, a Bundjalung woman from northern New South Wales, discussed the consequences of tourism for Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. She complained that “non-Indigenous people take tourists to the desert, to sweat lodge, and there have been deaths” due to outsiders who bungle traditional customs. She added, “Non-Natives set up weaving camps with knowledge learned from our aunties and charge thousands.”

Roberts, Australia’s first Aboriginal woman to present a prime-time current affairs TV program, also stated, “Resorts built at coastal areas and an influx of outsiders caused Native families to relocate hundreds of miles away.” That was stopped by the “Native title for kinship system. We are the first peoples of the land and we can have discussions. It’s wonderful to see our young people as rangers. The visitor industry is not about gaining wealth, it’s about distributing wealth to the community, making it healthier, well-being.”

Fellow panelist, Palau Visitors Authority State and Community Programs Manager Katarina Kate Mad, discussed Palau’s Pristine Paradise Environmental Fee, which adds “a $100 fee to airline tickets” to offset tourists’ “footprint on the land,” and mitigate the impacts caused by the hospitality industry at the Micronesian nation renowned for its Rock Islands and scuba. Mad went on to describe the compulsory “Palau Pledge,” drafted by children: “Upon entry, visitors need to sign a passport pledge to act in an ecologically and culturally responsible way on the island, for the sake of Palau’s children and future generations of Palauans.”

Moira Enetama, head of the delegation of Niue, a 100-square-mile Western Pacific isle, population 1,700, called Niuean “an endangered language,” and turned to television programming to preserve the Polynesian tongue. “I’m not saying forget social media, but focus on TV and radio” to save the language, Enetama said.

Nainoa Thompson, who played an essential role in reviving ancient Pacific navigation by following stars, currents and winds on voyages in a traditional double-hulled sailing canoe (Hokule’a) from Hawaii to Tahiti and beyond, praised the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture in his keynote address for uniting Oceania’s peoples, asking: “How can the voice of the Pacific help the world to be a better place?” Stressing the need to “protect the seas” amid climate change, Polynesia’s foremost navigator asked: “What if the biggest [region] in the world came together” to chart a course for conserving the oceans? The audience responded with affirming cheers, reflecting the broad sense of solidarity among Pacific Islanders and the need to cooperate on an imperiled planet.

Countdown is on: We have 8 days to raise $46,000

Truthout has launched a necessary fundraising campaign to support our work. Can you support us right now?

Each day, our team is reporting deeply on complex political issues: revealing wrongdoing in our so-called justice system, tracking global attacks on human rights, unmasking the money behind right-wing movements, and more. Your tax-deductible donation at this time is critical, allowing us to do this core journalistic work.

As we face increasing political scrutiny and censorship for our reporting, Truthout relies heavily on individual donations at this time. Please give today if you can.