Story: Tongans

Page 4. Pacific Islands identity

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An evolving ethnicity

Tonga is a dispersed community, and Tongan identities are evolving in response to the new environments. Three main types of Tongans have emerged. The first are those who have been raised in anga faka-Tonga (the Tongan way), and still maintain their language. The second are those who were born in New Zealand and have decreasing knowledge of the language and anga faka-Tonga. Interestingly, many New Zealand-born Tongans understand the language but cannot speak it. They acquire sufficient Tongan to incorporate values of anga faka-Tonga, but are not able to transmit the language to the next generation. However, very few have become wholly assimilated to a non-Tongan way of life. When people are asked to state their ethnicity, the vast majority call themselves Tongan.

The third type of Tongans are those who have identified themselves with all Pacific Islanders. When young Polynesians – including Tongans, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders – do not speak the same language, they tend to turn to a distinctive brand of English, often mixed with smatterings of their mother tongue. This provides the sense of community and solidarity that their own group does not give them. But in other aspects of their lives, they will switch to the traditional way, particularly in their churches and at community gatherings.

In its allocation of resources the government classification of Pacific Islanders also draws people towards this wider identity. Pacific Islanders emphasise their common history, especially the impact of the arrival of Europeans and the missionaries. This is reinforced by Tongan and other Pacific-oriented internet sites.

New forms of expression

Pacific Islanders with a broader ethnic identity in New Zealand call themselves PIs, Polys, or New Zealand-borns. They have developed new music, fashion, customs and ways of speaking. This distinctive identity is sometimes referred to as Pasifika Aotearoa.

Some young PIs are heavily influenced by Afro-American youth culture in their dress, slang, body language and music, especially hip hop and rhythm and blues. Rastafarianism is another significant influence, notable in young PIs’ dreadlocks and adapted reggae sounds. PIs in South Auckland are making cultural contributions through the Ōtara market and the Secondary Schools Cultural Festival.

Despite South Auckland’s reputation for social problems, lyrics by Pasifika Aotearoa music groups such as the OMC (Ōtara Millionaires’ Club) often praise areas of South Auckland with a strongly Pacific identity. The highly successful annual Pasifika Festival at Western Springs is contributing to the spectacle and strengthening of this identity.

For some New Zealand-borns, an understanding of custom serves as a stepping stone to new forms of expression. The operatic tenor Ben Makisi has moved from his knowledge of Tongan musical notation to explore European classical music. Tongan styles of sport, especially in netball and rugby, have influenced the games in New Zealand. All Black Jonah Lomu became a national icon. Tongan-born Filipe Tohi brings Tongan elements to his sculpture and lashing.

The new Pasifika Aotearoa identity has flourished and now includes a proliferating music culture, an eclectic fashion industry, and pan-Pacific churches.

How to cite this page:

Melenaite Taumoefolau, 'Tongans - Pacific Islands identity', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/tongans/page-4 (accessed 21 October 2019)

Story by Melenaite Taumoefolau, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 25 Mar 2015