How does a colonized island survive in the 21st century? Nuku Hiva is a small, primitive island with three thousand inhabitants where 2000 live in the town of Taiohae, our port of call. Shockingly this is the second largest Marquesas Island in French Polynesia. The first being Tahiti. This island group is one of the remotest in the world. The Marquesas are fighting hard for their own identity facing seemingly great resistance.
In 1813 an American, David Porter, claimed the Marquesas for the USA. Congress never ratified the claim so France was able to claim the area in 1870. At that time the population of the Marquesas Islands was around 78,000 inhabitants. Due to the French colonization the population was reduced to 20,000 people because of small pox, measles and other diseases of which the Marquesans had no immunities. At the turn of the century that number dwindled to only 2000 inhabitants. The population is finally on the rise.
In Nuku Hiva there is a great reliance on Tahiti. Surprisingly there are no children here from 14 years of age to 20 due to the only high schools being in Tahiti. All the children leave home at 14 and study there. In the past French and Tahitian were the only official languages of the Islands and schools. They are officially considered a deconcentrated subdivision of the French Central State.
Now to today! In 2007 the Marquesas Islands tried to separate from the French Polynesians due to their feelings of too much dependence on Tahiti but not enough resourcing from the French and Tahitian governments (most likely the way Puerto Ricans feel). This did not happen so instead, to preserve Nuku Hiva they have changed their society. The Marquesans language was not allowed to be spoken in school. Now it is the primary language. They have active cultural organizations promoting the preservation of their dances, music and arts. They are investing in festivals so the Marquesans can learn to appreciate and develop these arts as well. These festivals are free to the islanders and much enjoyed.
Some of the Marquesans’ most revered and spoken about community members are their past catholic priests. The population is 80% Catholic but historically they would recite and sing their services in Latin which meant nothing to them. Later one priest translated the verses to Marquesan which was much appreciated. It took another priest to arrive to realize the benefits of translating the Bible into Marquesan. Gratitude for this effort is reiterated time and again. Once again enabling this population to retain their cultural identity.
So at this critical turning point for this island, they still need resources to perpetuate these changes. How do they finance this? Their thoughts are tourism which is coming with a mixed blessing. This year Nuku Hiva will have 26 cruise ships visit their small, remote island. The challenges this presents are changing their quaint society. Imagine-there are very few hotels here! Also there are not many restaurants and the islanders do not want their island to physically change with development and infrastructure. The only way currently to see Taipivai Valley where Melville lived for 3 short weeks is by a parade of 4 wheel drive extended cab trucks. There were 4 waves of 15 of these for our cruise ship alone which caused traffic jams on the narrow two lane roads to this beautiful valley. There were no boats that could take you to the valley or any other optional tours. Progress and the balance of this beautiful island will be a challenge for the Marquesans.
I also as a traveler found the island challenging. Wanting to know more and more about the island, it’s statues and memorials my questions landed on ears of individuals that did not understand a word of English. Trying to speak French with our driver- which has gotten me through numerous trips to France-also fell on deaf ears since the Marquesan language is a mix of Spanish, French and Polynesian. Frustrated after our 3 hour drive in a lush jungle with beauty around us- that which could not be elaborated upon- I went to the tourist center with my questions. She did not respond to my questions at all. She said she did not care what this statue would represent and that there was no taxi to take us to a monument that interested me. Needless to say if they want to finance their islands’ changes with tourism they may need to get better at tourism.
Later when reminiscing on the ship, thinking of this gorgeous island, I speculated that possibly the majority of these 2000 folks in Taiohae don’t want the “tourism” and it’s impact. After hearing the music, seeing the dancing and experiencing their sense of relaxed community I would agree. Don’t change. This may be one of the few places I’ve been to that are trying to preserve their heritage but resisting the Americanization of their culture just for the money. Hopefully their journey will lead to an enlightened balance.