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August 5, 2019 | by  | in Audit | [ssba]

PASI 202: Comparative History in Polynesia

We entered the lecture theatre early on that first day, and there were already a couple of students seated at the back. We sat at the back (I always sit at the back). As more students arrived, the peripheral seats were filled quickly and those centre seats remained vacant for the latecomers. We didn’t fill that lecture theatre so the centre gaps were obvious. Emalani glanced up from her lecture notes, scanned the class, and noted our marginal seating choices. The majority of us were Polynesian. The majority of us chose to be in the marginal spaces. 


Greg Dening is one of the historians we’re introduced to on this course, and he believes that history is perpetually contemporary—while the past is old, history exists and is manifest in the present. History, then, is who we are, what we look like, what we believe, how we see ourselves and our place in the world. It is the choices we make. So here’s my take on his theory: My choice to sit at the back is part of my ethnic, Samoan history in all its gloriously good, bad, and stinky layers. This course, Comparative History in Polynesia, helps us to unravel some of the past; it helps us begin to understand how the past has shaped our present, our history, our choices.


With a focus on Polynesia, we delve into some of the most impactful events of the pre-contact, colonial and post-colonial periods in the Pacific, and compare the changes over time between East and West Polynesia. A comparative study which gives greater insight into the diverse governmental, economic, and cultural outcomes of the Polynesian islands. It all sounds pretty straightforward, except that peeling back the complex layers of history can get quite messy and controversial.


Emalani threw Haunani-Kay Trask’s radical views at us, and we became riled by the oppressive colonial past under which Hawai’i continues to suffer. But then she gave us Nicholas Thomas to read, and challenged us to think outside the oppressor/oppressed narrative which thoroughly villainises the colonial powers, while failing to acknowledge the participation and agency of the Pacific islands in this history. We’re not victims…Colonisation is still the villain though, right?


Emalani is passionate about Pacific Studies and she delivers this course with a thick layer of Pasifika enthusiasm. She encouraged us to explore beyond the scope of our personal Polynesian roots and biases to see things we might otherwise not have been bothered with, perhaps also to see things more clearly. 


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