As torch-wielding white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, a symbol of a Polynesian cultural hero is tainted by association.

The recent violent protests in Charlottesville revealed to the world the ugly potential of the extreme right in today’s America. Probably the most viewed internet and media images of these events were those of processions by neo-Nazis and other white supremacists marching in the night under flaming torches, like some re-enactment of Hitler’s own 1930s rallies.   

In the process, the term ‘TIKI’, the brand name of the torches being brandished by the marchers, gained considerable prominence, much of it negative. As ex-University of Virginia football star Chris Long put it, “Evolution will favour the self-assured… not man babies with tiki torches or people playing ‘militia’”. 

Very quickly, too, through social media the Wisconsin company that makes TIKI Brand Products disassociated itself from both the views and the violence of those who bore its torches at Charlottesville. This firm action surprised and impressed many people in America and beyond, especially given the evasions and equivocations of the White House.

The TIKI Brand company’s website also revealed that this specific venture began in the 1950s, when “tiki culture was in full swing” and “Pacific Island-themed restaurants, bars and even living rooms were all the rage”. 

“At the height of tiki popularity”, it says, “the first original TIKI torch was produced, igniting a backyard tradition that still burns brightly over 60 years later”. 

Clearly, America’s 1950s fascination with the Pacific Islands owed much to its massive military involvement in that theatre during World War II, and to its subsequent annexation of most of the islands of Micronesia. The publication of James A. Mitchener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific (1947), followed by its Broadway musical (1949) and Hollywood film (1958) versions, both titled South Pacific, also would have fed this interest. 

But there also is a much deeper and broader history of Western fascination with the Pacific Islands and their peoples. 

As argued by Edward Said in his classic text Orientalism, this concern was part of a wider project: “If Orientalism is endebted principally to the fruitful Eastern discoveries of Anquetil and Jones during the latter third of the [18th] century, these must be seen in the wider context created by Cook and Bougainville, the voyages of Tournefort and Adanson, [and] the Président de Brosses’s Historie des navigations aux terres australes.”

It was the three great Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook, undertaken between 1769 and 1779, that initiated the appropriations of indigenous concepts by Occidentals. The first term to be borrowed by Europeans was ‘tattaw’, which Cook recorded in 1769-1770 regarding the decorative incising and inking of skins by the peoples of Tahiti and New Zealand. Crew members on his ships were enthusiastic recipients of this art form. And soon it was being spelled ‘tattoo’, which is how the word and its craft are still known today.

Another Pacific Island concept recorded by Cook was ‘taboo’. He noted it in Tonga in 1777, in respect to locals’ refusal to sit and eat because “a thing is forbidden”. In all modern Polynesian cultures, ‘tapu’ – which might translate as either or both ‘forbidden’ and ‘sacred’ – continues to be meaningful. Later Sigmund Freud, founder of 20th century psychoanalysis, incorporated ‘taboo’ into his theoretical toolbox and it continues to be debated in the wider world.

Then there is ‘mana’, which seems to have been appropriated from diverse Polynesian cultures between 1835 and 1845. It refers to ‘a life force’, especially in association with high social status or ritual power. In the last century this concept was interrogated by scholars including Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Jacques Derrida, and since then it's been appropriated by commercial parties ranging from new age healers to online gamers. 

In 2016, too, Walt Disney Pictures released its award-winning fantasy-adventure film Moana, about the strong-willed daughter of a Polynesian chief of ancient times. When hardship hits her island, Moana set off to find Maui, a shape-shifting demi-god, and revered catcher-of-the-sun and fisher-of-islands. The film involved extensive consultation with Polynesian communities and experts, and most actors in the film are themselves Polynesian; wrestler Dwayne Johnson (Samoan descent) played the role of culture hero Maui.  

Which brings us back to Tiki. He too was a Polynesian culture hero, especially in Tahiti and Marquesas (French Polynesia), Rarotonga and Mangaia (Cook Islands), and Aotearoa (New Zealand). In the latter context, Maori tradition usually considers Tiki to have been the first human, created by – depending on which tribe is speaking – the war god Tumatauenga, or his close relative and god of nature, Tane. In many versions, Tiki created the first woman from earth, then with her gave rise to the human species.

In both traditional and contemporary Maori cultures, Tiki is conventionally represented as a wooden or stone carving in humanoid form, stylistically similar to carvings of deified ancestors found across Polynesia, usually in association with sacred locations. The most famous of these material forms from Aotearoa – with exemplars to be seen in museum collections around the world – are the pounamu (jade, greenstone) neck pendants, known generically as hei-tiki. Today many chiefs and leaders in the Maori world still publicly wear and display these beautiful, and often ancient, treasures.  

Tiki thus has a significant presence in the present day cultures of Maori and other Polynesians. Many people of Maori and Polynesian descent – including myself – also have ancestors or relatives who carry the name ‘Tiki’. Without a doubt, he and his legacy are greatly revered in the South Pacific region today. 

Previous indigenous Polynesian terms that have been appropriated by the West have tended to be treated with some respect and understanding. 

Last weekend’s events in Charlottesville, however, seems to have upended that pattern. It can only be hoped that in future retellings of the uniquely American tragedy of the violence at Charlottesville, the Polynesian culture hero Tiki will be subtracted from the narrative and so accorded his due tapu and mana.

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