My Origin Story

This text was my contribution to a panel discussion that was convened as part of the programme for the exhibition, Between Wind and Water, which daughter Ema Tavola had curated as part of the Summer Residency at Enjoy Public Art Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand from 10-24 January 2015.

Panelists Milena Palka (Marine Species Advocate, WWF New Zealand), artist Luisa Tora with Kaliopate Tavola. Photo by Andrew Matautia, courtesy of Enjoy Public Art Gallery.

A Short Paper by Kaliopate Tavola

In conjunction with “Naqalotu: Na qalo tu”, new work by Luisa Tora

My ‘origin story’ is essentially the early history – unrecorded but passed down through generations, of a group of indigenous Fijian people unified under Ravuravu’s leadership and comprising the Yavusa Natusara, which today populates Dravuni and Buliya Islands, in the district of Ono, province of Kadavu. The story relates how Ravuravu’s people first settled on Dravuni and Buliya after having first settled on Natusara itself on the bigger island of Ono. Ravuravu’s journey had started in the foothills of the Medrausucu Range of mountains in present-day Naitasiri, on Fiji’s biggest island of Viti Levu. The journey included settlements of villages in present-day provinces of Tailevu, Lomaiviti, Lau and Kadavu. The historical figure of Ravuravu, as a warrior, in Fijian cultural folklore is unprecedented; and his historical larger-than-life presence is immortalized by having his graveyard on Dravuni near the fist site of the village where Ravuravu’s canoes had landed.

This ‘origin story’ is further immortalized in that it provides the fundamentals of my own identity that explain who I am, where I have come from, and how and why I behave, think and project myself in the way I do today.

As an indigenous Fijian, I have a Vu – common ancestor; and Ravuravu has that pride of place. His chosen vessel for when he makes his visitations is a dadakulaci – sea snake. I also have a Kalou Vu – deified ancestor who had his own bure-kalou – temple, during his lifetime. Tuni, one of Ravuravu’s ancestors has that appellation. His wife is Rokowati, affectionately referred to as Bulou. She is my guardian angel, so to speak.

Ravuravu first settled on Natusara on Ono Island after leaving the Lau group of islands. As a first settlement on another group of islands, Natusara has become my yavutu – first settlement which has become the basis of the icavuti – honorific for a clan. My icavuti is thus Natusara, Turaga and Ramalo na Tunidaunibokola – acknowledging the vanua – the land and the paramount Chief of the clan.

The clan is firmly rooted and connected to the land – its fauna and flora, sea and space. To demonstrate such connection, the clan has its own totems – emblems and identifiers to differentiate it from other clans. Natusara’s totems are the vesi tree – Intsia bijuga; the secala – kingfisher bird; and the vonu – turtle (fish). To eternize Ravuravu’s warring victories, the clan has a ibole or cibi ni valu –  war cry: Nuku yara ni siga. This translates to: “going to battle and returning successfully in time to beach the canoes while it is still daylight.”

The Natusara clan, similar to other clans in Fiji, is structured and hierarchical. Every family has a place and a role in the clan’s scheme of things. Knowing who you are, for instance, determines practical answers to questions of sitting precedence in village gatherings or which door one can enter when approaching a bure – house. 

I belong, for instance, to tokatoka Saumualevu – smaller grouping of families, to mataqali Navusalevu – larger grouping of families and thence to the yavusa – clan of Natusara.  Tokatoka Samualevu provides the headship for the Mataqali Navusalevu; whereas Mataqali Navusalevu provides the sauturaga – second-tier chief for Dravuni Village. These leadership positions within the clan have built-in roles: those related to conduct of ceremonies, and representation to communities outside the clan. When it comes to ceremonies, there are age-old protocols that need to be observed – protocols relating to the essential contents of what need to be said, who says what and the order in which they have to be said. Individual traits of the presenters however would bring in the style, verve and dynamism into the presentations.

In my clan, the mataqali is the land-owning unit. As a member of Mataqali Navusalevu, I know exactly the land of which I am a collective owner. This is so since all land has been allotted, surveyed and registered. Even though a member of a collective, I still belong to a family within the collective. My family is immutably connected to a yavu – house foundation known as Natavasara. Such has been passed down through generations. As a member of the Natavasara family, I know exactly my own kanakana – garden plots. These plots can be situated on our own mataqali land, or on land belonging to the other mataqali. A family can also be entitled to a qele kovuti – allotted land that has legal status in recognition of a special request.  The clan system thus recognizes my own individual traits and needs as a family and also as a member of the collective.

This connectedness to the land engenders a sense of belonging and acts as a beacon that irresistibly beckons me to return wherever I may be in the world regardless of how long I have been absent. Whenever I do return, I invariably feel welcomed and re-connected with my ancestors. Admittedly, any village setting is not immune to the forces of globalization. However, there is still very much a divide between urban centers and villages; and the relative absence of the bright lights, commercialization, consumerism and high politics are essentially the essences of recharging of my battery whenever I return to the village.

My ‘origin story’ is a blueprint, a reference point and a compass in my life. In my traditional setting or when my traditional role is invoked, the clarity of my role as prescribed in my origin story is not only beckoning me to action and eliciting my sense of duty, but it also acts as a reaffirmation of an old-age protocol that is still of use in today’s globalized existence. The certainty of role, the reassurance of having to do the right thing, under different and difficult situations, are lessons that I apply in my work setting whatever the circumstances may be.

In the globalized world we live in today and especially its hierarchical structures we are exposed to, it can be daunting just trying to cope and having one’s head above water. In various demanding situations I have had to grapple with, I keep asking myself the question of what I would do if I were in my traditional setting. But in earlier days when I was still an apprentice in all things traditional, the question then was: ‘what would my father do in this situation?’ That in itself is an acknowledgement of history and how history and ‘origin story’ are passed down from one generation to the next.  It is also an acknowledgement of the wisdom of our ancestors.

My ‘origin story’ and all it embraces is instructive when it comes to doing what is needed, appropriate and proper. It is my compass for my role both in my traditional setting and outside of that setting. It allows me therefore to transit from one setting to another with ease and flexibility. My life today, even though globalized to a large extent and having to spend a substantial amount of time in what can only be referred to as modernity, I can be called at any time to attend to my traditional duties. The ease of transition and the comfort and satisfaction of knowing that I am doing what is expected of me and that my actions and utterances meet the high demands of those who seek my services are a great credit to my ‘origin story’.

My ‘origin story’ is not a myth. It is early history of my people. It is not recorded history for two reasons. First was that early history of my people was essentially passed down in stories from one generation to another. Secondly, the early schooled historians chose not to have it recorded for origin stories and myths were not the stuff of history as they saw it. Recent efforts giving prominence to ‘origin stories’ essentially as early history in blog sites, some publications and in art exhibitions should be highly commended. To conclude, I am reminded by three quotations as follows:

If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.   Michael Crichton

Study the past if you would define the future.  Confucius

The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.  Winston S. Churchill