Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Polynesian Cultural Center

A temple built in the Fijian style.

Fijian dancers.

This man from Samoa made fire in under 30 seconds by rubbing two sticks.

Climbing a coconut tree.

Tourists got a view of the center from boats.

A Maori warrior/dancer.

The Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) is owned and operated by Brigham Young University - Hawaii as one of the island's premier tourist attractions. Visitors pay huge amounts of money, sometimes in excess of $100 per person, for a chance to have an "authentic" cultural experience from the Pacific Islands. Proceeds from the center go to support scholarships and work-study options for students attending the university.

Our visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center was perhaps the most memorable highlight of our trip to Hawaii.

But even though we greatly enjoyed our experience, the Polynesian Cultural Center creates a certain degree of cultural confusion and outright contradiction between the forces of commercialism and indigenous spiritual systems. Furthermore, a very subtle undercurrent of tension exists between Polynesian and LDS values of personal expression.

In regard to commercialism, the center operates as a very slick, highly polished, tourist driven money-maker. In addition to paying high entrance fees, visitors constantly face opportunities to spend even more at a variety of on-site gift shops, restaurants, and vendor booths. When we attended the luau and the night show, young men and women in tradtional Polynesian clothing walked up and down the isles selling shaved ice for $5 or pina coladas (carved into the pineapple) for $10.

On one hand, I really didn't mind supporting educational causes, but on the other, the presence of money seemed to clash with traditional Native values. The line between tourism and the sacred was never very clear to me. Sometimes the events seemed "all for show," but other times I definitely felt the presence of something truly divine. It was just plain confusing.

At one point during our visit, Rhonda and I witnessed a representation of Maori culture from New Zealand. When the women sang a song to honor the ancestors, I literally felt a shiver of electricity flash over my skin. Something about their singing resonated with my spirit and reminded me of songs from the winter dances of my culture. Then the men performed a dance that warriors once used to intimidate their enemies. They flashed their arms in threatening poses and extended their tongues defiantly. I really felt everything they did, all the way to my bones. The spirit of their people was truly present.

But then the performance ended abruptly, and the announcer said something about the luau starting in 15 minutes and we had better hurry to get our seats. I'm sure it's meant to be helpful, but his announcement felt like a slap in the face that woke me from my entrancement.

This was not the only tension I felt during our visit.

The Polynesians working at the center dress in traditional clothing, while exposing significant amounts of skin. The men walk around shirtless wearing only lava lavas around their waists and sandals on their feet. Women wear grass skirts and tops that expose their shoulders. Of course, nothing about their dress is even remotely out of order according to their traditional cultures they represent, but it doesn't fit the LDS way of thinking. Most of the workers belong to the LDS Church, and quite frankly, the church would never tolerate that kind of exposure under any other setting. There's nothing "bad" about this apparent contradiction; it's just strange to see. In other settings, the LDS Church promotes itself as an unchanging moral anchor, especially in issues of personal worthiness and dress standards, but they apparently found an exception at the cultural center.

All contradictions aside, we really did have a wonderful experience. But ironically, we didn't really experience Polynesian culture; we simply got a glimpse of the pageantry from an outsider's view. The whole thing made me want to return, not to see more of the show, but to participate in the culture through ceremonies and relationships with real people. Maybe some day the Creator will give me the opportunity to visit the islands and also share a piece of my indigenous culture with them.


T.R. said...

You better hurry -- as someone that works in Hawaii 4 to 5 weeks a year for the last 25 years -- those still practicing the traditional culture have been relegated to smaller and smaller margins of society. Their hope is mighty though. There is a great shaman you should meet if you ever get to the Big Island.

Anonymous said...

they had dancers over in idaho and they were so awesome
glad you got to see them
yes I can simply say that there is some connection

Anonymous said...

hey barry
that was me
forgot to sign my name
I woke up lil bit ago
and heading back to bed
but just had to see the pics


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