Polynesian Culture, with Pauline Fonua
On this week’s episode, Michael and Pele go deep on Pele’s Polynesian culture. Because, obviously, “Polynesian Women are Dope.” They speak with Pauline Fonua, founder of The Vision Board, an organization “Speaking Pacific Existence Out Loud in T-Shirt Form.” They discuss the distinctions between Polynesian and Pasifika culture more broadly, as well as touching on food, tattoos and the importance of carrying on the language of your culture from generation to generation. Michael makes sure we do not forget about Chick-fil-A’s Polynesian sauce.
Follow Pauline Fonua and The Vision Board on Instagram at @TheVisionBoardOfficial.
Find The Vision Board and the Tee of the Month at https://thevisionboardofficial.com/
[00:22] Michael Bennett: The Polynesian culture. I think a lot of times we highlight my culture and African-American culture because our kids are African-American. But there’s so many things about your culture that we don’t highlight enough. And I think it’s good that we take the opportunity to see what your culture has brought to America and what it has brought to our family and to me. And I think the Samoan culture is a very interesting culture. Even though a lot of people only know the Polynesian sauce. Why do you think a lot of people only know about the Polynesian sauce and pineapples and dancing, but for some reason, a lot of people don’t know about the culture.
[01:06] Pele Bennett: You know, I think the Polynesian sauce at Chick Fil A, I don’t think people even know what Polynesian means. So using that word with the sauce doesn’t even, you know, relate to each other. It’s just like, oh, this is a word for their sauce. But the word Polynesian, they probably don’t — I’m sure many people don’t know what that is. So instead of, you know, directing that to or connecting that to people, they’re connecting it to a sauce.
[01:30] Michael Bennett: I don’t even like that sauce. It’s the worst one to me. But as far as Samoan culture, doesn’t that mean happy people? And I think that really describes Samoan people. They are the most happy, nicest people I’ve ever met in my life. The most inviting people. You could be somewhere and don’t even know them, but they will invite you into their house, invite you into the culture, invite you to dinner. But when you look at a culture and you talk about family, I feel like everything is about the family and Polynesian is the family and the connection to the ancestors and family. And I just think that’s just so amazing. And I think that’s always overwhelmed me as an individual, as being a part of your family growing up and part of my adult life, too.
[02:17] Pele Bennett: When you think of Samoan, I do think of community. And I feel like if you’re anywhere in the U.S. or in the world and you see someone in the you like, I think there might be someone, you always want to reach out and say hello. And then the first question you always ask is, what’s your last name? And our last names are tied and bound to us through, you know, generation after generation. And my dad, he was telling me that he went back 14 generations. And so knowing someone’s last name is so important, that connects you to your people and, you know, just to your family tree. And it really is mind blowing to know how far you can go back to know, you know, how far you’ve come. I think of community, I think of family. And I think of just how beautiful it is that when we see each other, you know, that we acknowledge each other. And when we want to learn more about where we come from. And then the question always is like, so are we related? And most of the time you are usually related to somewhere down the line or maybe someone married into the family.
[03:18] Michael Bennett: Sometimes it’s not good to have a last name that anybody knows. Somebody might be like you’re Otis’ son? Otis owes me $20.
[03:27] Pele Bennett: That’s true because of the last name. Like if you’re at a family function or someone’s family function, then your cousin is going to be like, OK, let me tell you that you are related to this person. This person. This person. Just in case you’re trying to be friendly, you know, and make a connection, get a number. Y’all are cousins. You might not want to go that far.
[03:47] Michael Bennett: Even like tattoos — Pele recently got a tattoo on a hand. Can you explain the tattoo? Because I feel like a lot of people get tattoos. Even myself, I have a whole bunch of tattoos. They mean something. But I feel like the tattoos in the Polynesian culture, they’re like guides. People have adopted the Samoan culture and Polynesian tattoos, but they don’t even know the meanings of the tattoos and why people get those tattoos. But what does tribal actually mean?
[04:40] Pele Bennett: I don’t know if I like that word, tribal. It makes me cringe.
[04:47] Michael Bennett: Why? I think tribal is the essence of people actually.
[04:51] Pele Bennett: I think it’s too vague. I think that’s why when you look at someone’s specific tattoo, like if you talk about Polynesian islands, there are so many islands in the Pacific in general. And you can see each type of tattooing, you know, connects to a certain island, to a certain history, to a certain story. So I don’t know, when someone says a word tribal. It just kind of takes away from that part of the history. And I feel like it’s just too vague, too general. That is a specific place. And these are the people in the culture and the history.
[05:27] Michael Bennett: I think when people say “tribal tattoo” they’re trying be cultural because I’m attached to the tribe. Like tribe is before city, tribe is before all the things that we know now in this society, tribe was the most important thing. And the tribal tattoo is an identifier.
[05:46] Pele Bennett: But to what? When you say tribal tattoo, that goes in so many different directions. But when you’re just saying tribal, I think because that word has also been used along with the words like savage, you know, those type of words where I just feel like it just kind of, to me personally, it is kind of like, you know, chips at it. Saying the word tribe, village, you know, those sort of things that all goes within community. But I think also maybe for me personally is that, you know, our Samoan culture, your tattoo is very significant. And it means so many things, it goes on a deeper level. And so growing up, you know, we have family members that have, you know, their so many different cultural connections to our tattooing. And so I would see people that would have — and I’m going to use barb wire because I would always see that growing up. People have a barb wire on their armor, you know, tattooed on their arm, or something that looked maybe like it could be, you know, connected. But they would use the word tribal with these type of tattoos. And I don’t know, I just have, like, this memory of just feeling that there’s no connection there. It’s like this disconnect of like you using this word, which tribe is important? I think it is. Your tribe is important. But when you connect it to something that it just looks like it was like falsely used, or they created their own story with it.
[07:12] Michael Bennett: I see what you’re saying about the tattoos. But also you could think that people really respect the culture. I think people really respect the artistry of the tattoos, too. That’s another way to look at that, because you look at the traditional way of doing the tattoos and the meaning behind it. I think a lot of people are searching for meaning in their life.
[07:32] Pele Bennett: No, I think that’s true. I think it’s important to keep your culture and traditions connected, you know, through your family. And that’s why it’s so important that for me, growing up, you know, we did a lot of stuff that’s still instilled our culture so that we could learn. Because we were growing up first generation in the U.S. Both my parents are from Samoa, born there. My father left later when he was going to college. But you are kind of not living two lives, but you’re living to blend two lives. Right? So you’re learning American ways, just because you live there, you know, adapting to society. But then at home, my parents were very adamant on still teaching us, you know, many of the traditions. We grew up dancing. So a lot of the dance was, you know, taught with us. And I feel like sometimes it was a little difficult to have both of them in because a lot of the traditions people didn’t understand. You know, and then having to explain and constantly almost like defending yourself when someone, you know, just doesn’t know. It gets to a point where you’re just like, I’m not going to, you know, explain myself anymore, because sometimes, you know, in those conversations, it just gets very ignorant. It’s not even that you want to learn, now you’re battling what I’m trying to say. You know, like sometimes I feel like you just want to try to understand and you’re just going to listen. When it becomes an argument, you know, where I have to defend my, you know, ethnicity and my culture, then I’m like, then your intentions are not really to understand or learn about me. You’re just like, you know, trying to attack everything that I’m saying.
[08:57] Michael Bennett: Also, growing up, what were some of the traditions that you talked about earlier that were kind of like important to you that aren’t so much American traditions, or American holidays ,or something that really that you remember a moment? What is something that you remember that were particularly eye-opening or touching to your heart or moments that are forever in your memory?
[09:20] Pele Bennett” You know what? I was trying to like, think of something big, but as simple as the word “respect.” I think I learned how to be respectful because of my culture, and being respectful to other people, not only to your elders, you know, to people that you don’t even know, you know, to even strangers, to your peers, you know, to your family members. I think that that was definitely a part of our culture. And it was instilled within our home with all of my siblings. And with my siblings, there are seven of us total. I would always say, like fought every now and then, you know, like anybody. But at the end of the day, we continued to learn respect for each other. So our fights never lasted long. You know, growing up, we never, you know, don’t talk back to your parents, you know? I just feel like it was instilled in so many little things. You know how you when you meet someone, how you address them, when you’re talking with your uncles or your aunts, you know, how you address them. And then also serving. To be of service. And when I say service, I don’t mean like labor, you know, like all these poor kids. I mean to be of service, to be respectful. So if our family came over like we always had Sunday gathering, and that means everyone’s coming in and you’re eating. And so that was really important to me growing up and still important now that I look back, that I’m so thankful we had these weekend gatherings. Where we would come in and we would have, you know, Samoan food, we’d have American food, like whatever we wanted. It would be a mix of like potluck style foods and continuing to learn what our foods are, because now we’re living in Texas. So we’re still bringing that, you know, culture into our homes and teaching the kids and what we you know, what they grew up eating back in the islands. But then listening to storytelling. We learned languages, little words to say because it was like fighting a battle to continue to learn your culture at the same time trying to, you know, kind of melt in and just kind of like be in American school.
[11:26] Michael Bennett: I remember coming to those dinners, like I said. It was full of food, but it was full of love, too. When you describe the fire knife dance — I walked in my father-in-aw had a knife, a two-sided knife. He had no pants on either. Just his underwear. There were cultural things on his legs.
[11:53] Pele Bennett: And he wasn’t wearing underwear, he was wearing a wrap that you wrap around your body.
[12:23] Michael Bennett: And he started to put fire on the knife, and I was kind of like, man, what the heck? And then he put on his tongue. And that was even more amazing when he lit the fire off his tongue. I thought that was pretty cool. Then he started spinning the knife. And then the knife turned into two swords. Are they knives? I don’t know exactly. But there’s two knives on both sides. He started spinning it. And he was so cool because he threw it in the air. And it was literally like the sun in the dark, or like the sky was super red, it was spinning in the air, it was just fire. Then he caught it. So when I first saw the fire knife dance and he was a part of the culture, I was just in awe of it. First of all, that he had the bravery to spin around two knives with fire around him when there’s a lot of kids and everybody around him, but he still was able to do it. And it just opened my eyes to see another culture. But I just thought it was really cool. And now to this day, my father-In-law does the fire knife judge for the world championship around the world in Hawaii every year. But now I get to see the fire knife dancing and how the evolution of it is just so crazy. You see young kids doing it. It’s just something that they’re keeping alive in the culture that is just unique. And it’s almost powerful when the essence of everybody is just in awe when a knife is up.
[14:08] Pele Bennett: It is a machete under that fire.
[14:10] Michael Bennett: That’s what I’m saying, it’s literally a knife that’s on fire. And he’s spinning it on his fingers, it’s just amazing. And if you ever have a chance to go to Hawaii and see that, the fire knife competition, I think that’s amazing.
[14:27] Pele Bennett: Yeah. If you want to maybe look at it up. If you want to, you can Google it. You can see what dance looks like. Called the fire dance. Having our kids, you know, we’re melting two cultures. I think that is equally important to both of us to make sure that we instill to the girls that they know both sides. And I’ll say even me, I’m still learning. You know, it’s like even though I grew up, you know, knowing pieces of me, it’s like a never-ending story. And I think that’s true for probably a lot of people in general. It’s like you want to be a sponge. And just like continuing to learn, you know, so much of, like, just foods, dance, the culture, traditions, you know, there’s many layers that keep going and going and going. And I think it’s really important for me to learn for myself and also to pass what I’m learning to the girls so that they understand who they are. They know that more of their identity. And then, of course, they can pass that to their children as well.
[15:32] Michael Bennett: I think it’s very cool that you also talk about the importance of keeping it alive through dance and all the different things. And I think your dad says it best, like how the Polynesian is an oral culture. Dancing, singing. So when I see you dance and I see you teaching accused dance, it brings tears to my eyes and my soul, because they’re keeping this culture alive that doesn’t really have like a history on paper. There’s history on paper, but there’s so much more with those dances that all the ancestors did before it. And then there’s something about that. It makes it more special than anything. But even the haka. You can’t hear the haka and not experience your arms tingling because the intensity of it.
[17:14] Pele Bennett: The haka is not Samoan, it’s Maori from New Zealand.
[17:16] Michael Bennett: I’m talking Polynesian culture in general. The power within those dances, they’re so intense. Even in Hawaii, some of the singing of the women, it’s almost like they’re crying. It’s just a very unique way of articulating pain, a history through oral language and dancing.
[17:42] Pele Bennett: Some of the music you’re right, you can hear the pain or the wails of the crying within the music. I can listen to someone from another island and watch their dancing and listen to their music and get emotional. It really touches me deep because it’s just so beautiful how these traditions are kept up and passed along. And then, you know, we keep adding to it. And I am so thankful now because the Samoan community worldwide, hey’ve been doing a good job. It’s really hard to find textbooks, books, you know, stuff online. But they’ve been pulling themselves together and creating stuff, creating resources for our people to look up classes. So me and my sisters and my brother, we just joined a Samoan language class. It just shows you like the fundamentals of our culture and how it’s governed and everything that goes about it. And I feel like every time I think I know it, I don’t. I learn something else or I dive deeper down another path and then it just continues. And I just want to say congrats to all the people doing all this stuff.
[22:14] Michael Bennett: Language is so important, right? Language is a connection to the past. Fascism, people are torn apart and trafficked. One, the first things they do is that they kill language. To keep language alive and to keep dance alive and to keep all this stuff alive, you’re literally keeping your ancestors’ spirits alive.
[22:49] Pele Bennett: And I think it’s important to listen to your elders, they have stories that are not written. I’m not just talking about Samoan culture, just your elders in general. They know the history within the family. I think it’s important to hear their stories and hear their experiences, to hear, you know, what they’ve dealt with, you know, through their lifetime. And I think you learn so much sometimes — we want to go on Google and search. We want to, you know, find ourselves in so many different ways. And it can be as little as your family within your house, your grandparents, an uncle, an aunt. I think they have so much knowledge and that we forget that. So I think it’s important to take time in and sit with your elders and just be a listener, just listen to their stories. And sometimes we’re like, oh, my God, they talk forever. My dad can go on for hours. Sorry, Dad, if you’re listening. But now that I’m getting older and older, like, I appreciate the hours that he talks to me. Sometimes the stories, you know, are repeated.
[23:51] Michael Bennett: Just FYI: I love my father-in-law, but don’t let him do the prayer for dinner.
[24:10] Pele Bennett: He’s not lying. My dad says beautiful prayers. But, yeah, if you’re hungry, don’t ask him to pray. You might want to ask someone else. And sometimes, like, they might have been through something that you can relate to at this moment, you know, and then bringing in those stories, traditions. I don’t know. It just starts unraveling and it’s just amazing.
[24:32] Michael Bennett: And as we welcome our guest, Pauline Fonua, we are connecting between brown and black people across the world. And I think the Polynesian and black people, we’ve always been kind of gelling together in this situation. And to hear their voice and to hear what was going on in their community and how it’s important as an African-American man to also amplify the injustice of other people and the injustice of what’s happening to my wife’s culture and her people is important. And I think Pauline does a great job in what she’s doing in the world. And I think it’s a great time for us to highlight not only our constant struggle in the African-American community, but the constant struggle of other people of color. And I think this is a great opportunity to hear her voice, which is a voice of light and a voice of reasoning. And so I think you guys for a special treat. So get ready to listen.
[25:31] Pele Bennett: So today we’re speaking with Pauline Fonua, founder of the Vision Board, an organization that is speaking existence to Polynesian culture in T-shirt form, and also the creator of the original Polynesian Women are Dope shirt, which I have in several colors. And to sound very nerdy, I just so happen to be wearing it at this moment. And that was not on purpose.
[25:56] Michael Bennett: Yes, it was.
[25:57] Pele Bennett: So thank you so much for joining us.
[26:00] Pauline Fonua: Thank you so much for having me. It’s so good to be here with the two of you.
[26:05] Michael Bennett: What makes Polynesian women dope? And what made you create a brand that says that and is unapologetic about it?
[26:17] Pauline Fonua: Well, I just firmly believe that we do dope things and we have come from dope women. And when I created this t-shirt, I just was tired of — not tired, but I felt like there was more space that could be given in the Polynesian space, because you often hear about our men, as well as them being extremely good at sports, in which women and the Polynesian community are just as fierce in the athletic field as well. However, there are a lot of dope women in all diasporas of things that we do. You see amazing lawyers and doctors and engineers and educators in the education space. And you just don’t hear much about all the dope things that Polynesian women do because there’s no one speaking existence into that, and that’s why this shirt came out, which was to help boost that energy that is already existing, but bring it in just t-shirt form as well. Just trying to stir good energy up in the community.
[27:40] Michael Bennett: What is Polynesian, because I think a lot of people don’t know what Polynesian is.
[28:10] Pauline Fonua: Well, there’s I guess there’s the criteria of being born into the community, like, you know, as if you were in the black community. The criteria is to be born into that community. And so Polynesia is located in the South Pacific. And so it is a subregion of Oceana made up of more than 1,000 islands scattered over the central and southern Pacific Ocean. The indigenous people who inhabit the islands of Polynesia are termed Polynesian. And so it’s called Polynesia because a group of islands that are within a triangle.
[28:48] Pele Bennett: I also wanted to ask if you could share with everyone the specific island or islands that you represent?
[28:57] Pauline Fonua: I am Tongan and I grew up here in the States. And so I am Tongan-American. I was told that you are Polynesian as well. What is your background?
[29:27] Pele Bennett: Both my parents are Samoan. So, yes, I represent Samoa. But it’s interesting because Michael asks me that all the time, because we live in Hawaii half the year for the last four years. And a lot of people when you say you meet someone, you say, oh, I’m Polynesian. It’s just like, OK, a majority will just keep moving. And then sometimes you have the people that will say, well, what where in Polynesia are you from? And so we met someone and he asked me, he said, oh, so, you know, what are you? And I said, I’m Polynesian. And he said, What island? And I said, Samoan. And he goes, so why can’t you say that you’re Samoan? Why do you say Polynesian? And I never had anybody ask me that. And the way he was acting was like, you know, why are you not proud of Samoa as its own entity? Why do you have to include the word Polynesia? And so I was definitely thinking about it later. And then now, of course, you know, other areas we use the word Pacifica, you know, including, I feel, even everyone else in the Pacific Ocean. What are those thoughts for you as you do this work?
[30:39] Pauline Fonua: Well, at first I started off with only covering Polynesia just because I felt like that was the region that was attached to my identity. And the more that the Vision Board had grown, it only made sense to expand into other borders of the Pacific — Micronesia, Melanesia. But I think it does something different when you say where you’re from, depending on how you say it. If I’m among other Tongans, I will say I’m Tongan because it helps to connect with my community that I’m currently with. And then if I am trying to showcase, or be part of a movement that is to bring acceptance among not only myself, but I know it would be powerful for other groups within the community, I do like to involve the whole community, so I will speak as Polynesia or as Pacifica.
[31:56] Pauline Fonua: And I think when we only state Polynesian, we leave out important groups and islands that should also be mentioned that don’t get that space as much as Polynesians do. So I feel like when I mention the word Pacifica, it brings not only — I refer to them as my brothers and sisters from the islands, it brings them along. And whatever topic we’re talking about lets them know that they are just in, you know, this diaspora as I am in hopes that it will shed some light among that community as well.
[32:36] Michael Bennett: Growing up as an African-American man, I see myself represented on TV a lot in baseball, basketball, acting, books. For Polynesian kids, they don’t really get to see themselves as much in those aspects. Who did you look up to? How did you get to where you are as far as wanting to have a voice. Was there anybody who inspired you to be in the position that you are?
[33:05] Pauline Fonua: Yeah. I mean, I really didn’t have anybody to look up to in regards to someone within my community, just because, if you think about it, a lot of the islands in the Pacific are considered third-world countries. So most of the time they don’t have access to Internet or any form of technology because it’s quite expensive to have that type of luxury out there. But because of that, I never knew any singers growing up, but I knew that there had to be singers because our community sang all the tim. And I knew that there had to be amazing dancers within our community because we danced all the time. However, it just wasn’t recognized, especially in mainstream media. Because, again, those islands don’t have those types of technology services that would allow for those talents to be globalized, and which people could recognize the work that’s being done in the islands. But if I had to say anybody that I looked up to would have to be my parents. My dad, although he wasn’t any celebrity of any kind, he definitely was a leader to me because he spoke so eloquently in our indigenous tongue. And I just remember seeing so many people moved by the way he talked and how passionate he was. And I feel like a lot of my passion comes from that. And so as for celebrities, there was definitely not a celebrity that I knew of growing up. But the only people who seemed of celebrity kind of figures to me were my family members.
[35:00] Michael Bennett: Is Polynesian sauce offensive? Because I need to know if this is offensive because if it is, we need to start a movement on Chick fil A.
[35:12] Pauline Fonua: I feel it is offensive because those sauces don’t exist in our communities. It’s nowhere near. And I and I’m not going to lie, Michael, when they say, like, this is a Polynesian hamburger and it’s only because we put a pineapple on it, I am like that is so rude. I really don’t think pineapples are indigenous to Polynesia, to be honest. And so it was probably fruits that were later introduced to the islands, like many other fruits. But yeah, for the most part, a lot of islanders don’t even have resources to have pineapples in the islands, I think. I mean, you kind of get that when you listen to TV shows and cartoons that involve Pacific culture. I was just sitting down watching The Magic Schoolbus with my daughter, and they were saying something that was so offensive to Hawaiian culture, but they were trying to be funny about it. And then a similar scenario occurred on the Disney movie In and Out. And I was just thinking, who writes these things? These are so culturally inappropriate for a kids show. This is how kids learn how to be like not being able to see other cultures exist because they continue to humorize like a luau and thinking that’s representation of Polynesia or the Pacific.
[37:23] Pele Bennett: That’s so true. And actually want to take it back to your work at the Vision Board, because something that drew my attention to your work is that you did include all of Pacifica, you included all of Polynesia. And I think you have so many things that you do online on your social, how do you go and get these resources? Because you talk about so many different islands. Islands that are never represented and aren’t even talked about. And you share information on climate change or you share information on the issues that they’re dealing with. How do you go about finding these resources? How did you start the Vision Board?
[37:55] Pauline Fonua: I started with the Vision Board about a year ago, and it was primarily because, if you’re anything like me and you went to college and you just thought of putting a degree together of things that you were interested in, and then after you graduated, you didn’t have a job for your degree. And so I pretty much graduated in international studies with an emphasis in Pacific Islanders. And there is not a job for that. There’s nothing out there that anybody will hire you to do that. And so I figured, what if I created my own kind of job in which I did everything that I learned about in college I was so passionate about, and I found some way to not only earn a living, but also a way that could help my community. And so everything that we talk about on the Vision Board is everything that I got my degree in. And so I’m finding myself digging through lectures and books and all that stuff that helps me bring out these topics and make it more applicable to not only myself, but to the community. And so it’s really cool that a lot of people have pretty much nerded out with me in the Pacific because I never really imagined that the Vision Board would go as far as it has. I really only thought I’d probably get 500 people at the most that would be involved with the Vision Board, and is consistent with it. And so that hasn’t been the case, though. It has continued to grow and people have continued to feel passionate about the topics we bring up. And so I’ve been extremely touched with the community that is on there.
[39:57] Michael Bennett: When we’re talking like Polynesia, I don’t see people really talking about the effects of Covid in Polynesian society. Why don’t people know about these things?
[40:23] Pauline Fonua: I’m not too sure. I know that in Guam that the U.S. had a huge ship that stopped there to receive aid. And a lot of the indigenous people of Guam were against that because the islands, a lot of them have not been impacted by Covid-19. And so a lot of them have remained Covid free. However, our community is impacted, the people who live in the United States, they have a huge population of Polynesians and Pacific Islanders that are catching the virus and have been hospitalized for that. And so there’s a lot of medical doctors out there in the Pacific community that are trying to advise Polynesians to stay home as much as possible, even though it’s hard because of the cultural aspects of it. We often go check on our mom and we want to go check on our cousins. And that right there is so hard for many because it’s just part of the culture to be involved with our community, and having to tell people to stay home has been quite difficult.
[41:46] Michael Bennett: Pele said this to me, and I never thought about it from this perspective, she said if you consider yourself a minority, consider me. I’m a minority of a minority. I was like, damn she won. You never want to tell your wife that she beat you in an argument. But she actually won this. And I was like, wow. Do you feel like being in America, Polynesian people have to compromise their culture?
[42:22] Pauline Fonua: Yeah, I for sure think it’s a difficult thing to do when the majority of us are first-generations here. And I’m in my 30s. And so you’re having a wave of millennials who are not only millennials, for one thing, but we are also the first generation that has to assimilate into a culture that was not ready for them. And so that a lot of times when you look at immigrants migrating and assimilating into communities, you’ll often find them in low-income areas. And so they will learn, you know, what’s being done in those areas and how to survive. A lot of us who did migrate into, and are the first generations, we’re also the first generations that don’t speak our language. And so if you are a Pacific Islander, a lot of your identity does come from language. And so not being able to speak that language is even difficult, too. They can make you feel like you don’t belong to a community that your ancestors not too long ago existed there. And Pele, I don’t know. Do you speak Samoan?
[43:47] Pele Bennett: No, I don’t speak Samoan. I know enough to get around. But this last year I’ve really dived deeper into it during this downtime and continue to learn. So I do lessons with family members on Zoom. And of course, Samoan Language Week is going on right now. So there’s a ton of resources out there, and that’s also for anyone that just want to dive deeper into the language. My experience, though, so I grew up my father spoke fluent Samoan. My mom is half-Samoan, but she more could understand than speak it. So was it the main language in our household. So growing up, we learned English. But what we did culturally, we kept a lot of traditions in our household and like through our lifestyle. But also we grew up dancing. So I grew up dancing. And that’s how I learned. I learned enough language, you know, to get by, to have a small conversation, to be respectful even. But there are so many different things that I feel that was definitely barriers for me growing up in the U.S. that were so different from how, you know, the social conversations were with your peers at school. It’s kind of how the culture is American culture. And then I feel like at your age at that time, there’s also this other culture, you know, that your friends go through as a teenager, young adult. And I feel like sometimes they would clash a lot with my father, who was very — to the point where because maybe we didn’t learn that specific part of it or, you know, knew half of it. My siblings would say, well, why do we have to do that if we live here? You know, kind of like that. We didn’t say that to him, but it definitely was a question of, you know, you only taught us so much and now you want to keep this in, you know, instill this to us in the house, but it’s not practiced enough for it to really become a part of us. It was very difficult to try just keep both of them going, you know, to be respectful to my parents because we did want to learn. But through our dancing that we did, we learned a lot through our culture. And then we always, you know, cooked the foods. We learned so many things. But I think even though I could do all of that, because I didn’t speak the language fluent or enough, it still made me a little less than if I met someone else and the first thing they said, oh, do you speak Samoan? And I was like, no. I wasn’t going to say, yes and then they drilled me. And you get this side-eye. And I think that it is still now, you know, with a lot of my siblings, cousins, because we’re all on different levels. But they’re supportive. But once you tell some outside of your circle, if you don’t speak it, shame on you and your parents.
[46:40] Pauline Fonua: I know it’s so hard because, you know, I was just with my mom the other day. And she was telling me how much she wished she would have just spoken Tongan to us growing up. And both of my parents speak Tongan very well. And it’s just my mom, when she came to the United States, she was only 21, and having to learn English at the age of 21 was extremely hard for her. And she just felt like that is something that she would never want any of us to have to go through. So when I hear her story about it, I wish I could just be, you know, in her ear, like, who cares if they have to learn English, just speak Tongan to them, they’ll figure it out. But yeah, I love the language. I wish I spoke it better than I do now. I know enough just like you, Pele, to get by. But I do feel like there’s a huge desire among our communities to get back to their native tongue. And it will be very interesting to see what things come of that and what is entrepreneured among our community to help us retain and keep the language.
[50:53] Pele Bennett: I feel that there’s only so many resources, there’s only so many textbooks. How do you think it is that we can come together as a people to support each other? What else can we do to be supportive, to build our relationships through our culture without, you know, tearing each other down?
[51:13] Pauline Fonua: Right. I think the biggest thing that will allow for the Pacific community to grow is to get behind the biggest issue that is impacting our islands, which is climate change. I feel like we need everyone to be involved with that topic. It’s not enough for one individual to be the spokesperson. I think as we Polynesians and Pacifica could come to the ballots, oftentimes we hear recently, you know, the black community asking candidates, “what is your black agenda?” And asking them what are their plans for police brutality, as well as spaces that discriminate against black women for their natural hair and all that stuff. And so there are topics like that that also apply within the Pacific community. I feel we need to get behind an agenda and ask our candidates what is their climate change agenda, because that is the Pacific agenda. If you look at every leader in the islands, they are not asking for more money, they’re asking for countries to lower their carbon emissions down. And what are they doing to do that? And so that for me is a big thing that can unite the Pacific, because it doesn’t require religion, it doesn’t require anybody to be a Democrat or a Republican. It requires us to be accountable of our waste management and all that stuff. That’s pretty much what I believe could and will combine the Pacific as a whole.
[53:14] Michael Bennett: But how do we do that? How do we get people out to vote? How do we do people to have that agenda, how do they become active?
[53:35] Pauline Fonua: Yeah, I think a lot of people who are Pacific Islanders who have a platform, I think it’s important that everybody comes together. And that we’re not all going to agree on everything, but we can all agree that there are more frequent natural disasters that are happening within our communities, in the islands. And it’s not about being reactive, in which we try to gather things when something happens to the islands, because that is way more expensive. It’s about being more proactive and coming up with a plan of how we are prepared for when those storms come. And not to force people to give in time of, you know, when things are horrible and bad. But to give when we are consistent and stable. And to continue to give in food and have possibly a storage or some form of welfare system. And I think a lot of the problems that people who are actually doing the work in the islands are saying is, you know, when you have organizations like the United Nations coming in, they’ll come in and they’ll help. And what they do is great. And they also come in with stipulations that the community has to do. And so sometimes those stipulations are disconnecting to the community because there is a cultural barrier. And so trying to be what the United Nations and other nonprofit organizations are for our islands, but establishing that among our own community would be something so powerful and so strong.
[55:31] Pauline Fonua: And, Michael, what you’re asking is, how do people go about doing that within our Pacific community? People go about doing that by doing whatever you possibly can do and not trying to swallow the whole elephant. Because if we each, with where we stand, we can initiate change within our community, especially for climate change. Before Covid was here, I was going around to like the national Tongan-American society and I was asking them, can we all organize and get together and back candidates up? Like, we need to let our people know that these certain candidates have a Pacific agenda. And so we were all working on it and then Covid hit. And so it’s time to get back on that wagon and continue to work together. And we’re kind of starting to see organizing going on among our community. And that is what the most powerful thing we can do is organize right now. So, yeah, we need more people to run in our community for elected seats. However, we also need to fund these people who are running. We can’t just ask them to run and not have money to back them up.
[56:53] Michael Bennett: You know, it’s so crazy because like a lot of actors who are Polynesian, there’s so many, like, ways to, like, raise money. Imagine if The Rock got online — he has like 100 million followers, if they each give one dollar. I just think it’s like get it together. I’ll nominate Pele, too. People like Troy Polamalu, they have like they have the voice of the athlete. So once Troy says something that means every athlete is ready to, like, organize. I believe what you’re saying is so true.
[57:38] Pele Bennett: I like what both of you are saying because as much as we want to take it to like the big leagues, you know, Jason Momoa, The Rock, the people that everyone knows, I don’t want to be rude, but I feel like they’re a little disconnected also. Because, I mean, like what you’re saying is like, do it where you are. Get off your butt and do the groundwork. You need more people on the ground doing that work. And Michael, I think that’s a great idea of getting those athletes, getting different people that are, you know, in different areas. We don’t have to go to the top. If they do it, that’s great, but there’s so many people that do these amazing things that are on the ground, doing work and already having foundations, organizations, they have their own resources. I think it’s connecting with those people, moving things forward.
[58:24] Michael Bennett: The big people like that, they usually jump on board once the waves start to go. They’re going to jump on because they’re going to be forced by the people. They don’t want to be a part of building the organization, they just want to be a part of it after it’s organized.
[59:03] Pauline Fonua: You’re exactly right. I mean, the best example that you can see this happening is, Mauna Kea, when they were trying to build these large satellites on the Mauna in Hawaii, and it was the people there, the people who lived within that community, that started that protest and held that line. And it wasn’t until later on in the protests did you see Dwayne Johnson or you saw Jason Momoa coming up and supporting the cause. And I feel like celebrities in the Pacific community, they’ve already done a lot of hard work in regards to getting to where they need to get to being a celebrity. And they probably are engorged with a lot of people asking for money to help out something special to the community. And I think when you go to these types of people, you have to show up with receipts. And if our community, we need to be able to show receipts that we can organize together, we can be unified together in a cause. And even if these celebrities come with us, and even if they don’t come with us, at least this cause continues to grow and continues to exist because there are so many people that are woke with the Pacific agenda that I talk about.
[01:01:38] Pauline Fonua: And so I have been with the Vision Board using a lot of the profits and distributing them out to candidates who are Pacific Islanders and are running among in their communities. Because, you know, that is just the kind of work that the Vision Board hopes, when we are doing our work, that it inspires people to run for elected positions. And helps people to change the narrative that so many people ignore that the Pacific is just a small group of islands, and it’s OK if we test our nuclear bombs over there. We hope that we can get seats at the table in which we can participate in these conversations and make decisions.
[01:01:28] Pele Bennett: I want to talk about your shirt. You do so many different things and all of it represents the Polynesian community, can you just share some info on your amazing shirts and what you do with them?
[01:01:39] Pauline Fonua: Yeah. So like you said, my shirts pretty much just have words and sayings on them. They are inspired by a lot of the things that are taboo in the community, in the Pacific community. And so this upcoming month, we’re going to be talking about the Pacific LGBTQIA+ community. And I took an iconic documentary, I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, it’s called Leites In Waiting. It was the first documentary of its kind in the Pacific that talks about a pretty seasoned community in the Tongan culture. And the community is called the Leites, it’s the queer community. And so the person who is the head of the Leites, who founded the organization, her name is Jolene Mataele. I helped her create this T-shirt that says “Leites exist, get over it.” And it’s so very much her personality. And I hope when I create T-shirts that they reflect whatever topic that we’re talking about. And they stay true not only to the Pacific community, but they stay true to the message that is trying to get across. And so that was just one example of a T-shirt, you know, but a lot of times I am walking around, I am reading something, and something will stand out to me. And I have like a notebook of T-shirts sayings and T-shirt ideas. And it just kind of just sticks in my pocket, and when I feel right about the shirt, it comes out. And so that’s pretty much how the shirts are formed.
[01:03:43] Pele Bennett: I love it. Don’t stop making them because I’ll still be buying them.
[01:03:48] Michael Bennett: So we’re all agreed that we’re going to get this thing going for a 2020 campaign.
[01:03:52] Pauline Fonua: Yeah. Who’s running? That’s what I want to know. I’m staying really close to the elections that are going on in Hawaii, because a lot of Pacific Islanders are wanting to see, again, that agenda. And are wanting to see who will continue to keep indigenous lands in the indigenous hands. That’s pretty much what the saying is. And so the fight is that they continue to keep, you know, native Hawaiin lands within the native Hawaiian community. And so they’re having an issue because the government is constantly selling these lands and it’s stopping native Hawaiians from getting to their secret lands that a lot of their ancestors are buried on. And so they’re unable to visit burial sites because these lands are being sold.
[01:04:49] Michael Bennett: A lot of people don’t realize this is a big thing. We talk about Hawaii. They see the people dancing, they see the pineapples, but they don’t realize the story that’s happening, what’s happened to Hawaii. Actually, it has been colonized. Mauna Kea was an issue, but nobody really was paying attention to what was the cause and effect of all that.
[01:05:17] Pele Bennett: Right. But I think it’s because of the way that Hawaii is viewed. It’s viewed as your vacation spot. It’s not viewed as the people, you know, the indigenous people, the native Hawaiians. It’s not as good as, you know, different cultural things that still happen there today that are still passed on. I don’t think Mauna Kea really, you know, clicked with people to what exactly that was and what it meant to the Hawaiian Islands.
[01:05:56] Pauline Fonua: Right. And I think there would have to be a huge paradigm shift within the Hawaii state territory to switch things up so that perspective is no longer the goal. Because a lot of the work that people are involved with rely on people to vacation there. And so it would mean that there would need to be other forms of work, rather than tourism and holding luaus. It would require other forms of jobs to exist within the communities.
[01:06:38] Pele Bennett: Yeah, I think that’s the biggest thing to work on is sustainability within our communities. You’re right. Because if we’re thinking of Polynesian islands and we’re thinking of Hawaii specifically a lot of, you know, jobs are from tourism. Yes, you want tourism. But then if we don’t have it, we’re not sustainable. You know, we don’t have jobs. And that’s a big issue. We’re speaking of Hawaii specifically. We know that, you know, many people have to have several jobs if they live there. You know, it’s so expensive.
[01:07:09] Michael Bennett: I think when you talk about Hawai, you talk about these other Polynesian islands, you talk about visiting Fiji. You talk about visiting New Zealand, Tonga, Hawaii, Samoa, I think as a person who visits those places, we have to be honest with ourselves as to what is happening to most of these people and their land. I think to being honest, it doesn’t allow people to have that same vacation, when they really open their eyes to the indigenous people. It’s really colonization when you really get down to it.
[01:08:40] Pauline Fonua: Yeah, exactly. You’re 100 percent right. We lose a lot of the things that we find luxury in when we start to see at what cost and what communities have to sacrifice for us to have that vacation. And I think the thing that kind of irks at me, and is so cringe-y, is when you see makeup influencers all heading out to Bora Bora on this huge trip. And they are there at an all expense paid trip just to try on, you know, the newest highlighter, the newest shade palette that has come out. And they don’t realize that the person who’s serving their cocktail, and the person who is roasting their meal, is an individual who comes from a village nearby that could possibly not have any type of electricity. Or can possibly be away from their family longer than, you know, the average working hours are eight, but they’re there to, you know, help provide and they take away such a little paycheck when all is said and done by the end of their trip. So, yeah, it’s hard when you have to look at these things that you enjoy. And you also kind of wonder at what cost.
[01:10:15] Pele Bennett: I agree with that. But that’s like a lot of places. You have to be mindful of where you know, the country you’re traveling to, what you’re doing there. You have to be respectful. It’s important to, you know, learn a little bit about where you’re going, even if you’re going to a resort to sit on a beach chair. I think you need to do a little homework.
[01:10:38] Michael Bennett: People love of all these Polynesian places, they love the culture, but they don’t love the people. So we need to figure out how to make those two things correlate. The food is OK. I’m getting used to it.
[01:10:58] Pauline Fonua: Polynesian food is soul food for me. That is my favorite type of food. I wish I could have it like in a drive-thru kind of way just so I can have that luxury.
[01:11:25] Pauline Fonua: The sauce, a true Polynesian sauce, would be coconut milk with some type of pepper or mayo, if you don’t have that access to it. Yeah, I mean, like we can seriously make this happen. Like taro fries. Seriously, that would be the ultimate.
[01:11:50] Michael Bennett: What’s your favorite dish?
[01:11:54] Pauline Fonua: Well, my favorite dish is kumala, which is some sort of sweet potato. It is much larger and sweeter in the islands. I love horse, and I know that sounds crazy.
[01:12:18] Michael Bennett: Listeners, we do not partake in eating horse!
[01:12:21] Pauline Fonua: I’m sorry, my vegan is not in me. Horse it tastes like beef, but better. It’s amazing because they put it in coconut milk and they slow cook it. And I wish I had better access to it. But they don’t allow horse to be served in regular stores. You have to do it under the table. And most times when you eat it like they will not tell you what it is. And you’ll just eat it like it’s normal and it tastes — and you’ll think it’s just some kind of brisket, to be honest, cooked in coconut milk. Most people enjoy it until they find out that it’s horse. Which doesn’t make sense because you eat cow.
[01:13:40] Michael Bennett: I have two things coming from this conversation, although Pauline has been great, she does Polynesian Women are Dope shirts, she does Vision Board. But Chick fil A sauce is the first thing we must abolish. And then the second thing is getting behind voting in Polynesia. If we can shut Chick fil A down, we can do anything.
[01:14:02] Pauline Fonua: Change that name, Chick fil A, don’t call it Polynesian sauce anymore!
[01:14:20] Pauline Fonua: OK. I am The Vision Board. You can find me on Instagram and other major platforms such as YouTube as well as Facebook. And I’m slowly getting on TikTok, but I’m more predominantly on Instagram, so I have a bigger presence there. The main handle is @thevisionboardofficial. And thank you so much. This was so fun talking with you both on your podcast.
[01:15:14] So pro tip of the week, I would say, is to take time with your elders, and just to learn and have an ear. You don’t need to necessarily talk, but just take time to listen to their stories, to their struggle, to their good moments, to their bad moments, and just soak it all in. Because these are stories that are now part of you. And they’ll be a part of the people that come after you. And those are important that you can keep these stories connected through your family. Because these are for generations that have come and that will continue to come after you leave this earth.
[01:15:55] Michael Bennett: I think everybody should do that. We should all find a way to keep our ancestors’ names alive in such a positive way, and the most influential way that we can do it. Singing, dancing, whatever those traditions are, practice those. Don’t be scared to tell your kids to do something different, to get off of Roblox. And trust me, it’s hard to get your kids off Roblox and Minecraft. But it’s important for us to shape their minds into who they are and what they’re supposed to be doing. The purpose of igniting their community and keeping their ancestors’ spirits alive.
[01:16:48] Michael Bennett: Please subscribe to us or like us on anything that you’re listening to. Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, whatever you’re listening to get away from your family, whoever you don’t want to be around. And make sure you rate us or give us a comment. Even though we don’t give a fuck about your comments, give us a comment. Mouthpeace is a production of Lemonada Media, which you can find online on all social platforms @LemonadaMedia. You can follow me on social media, @MosesBread72. I love bread, and biblically, I always thought I was Moses.
[01:17:17] Pele Bennett: And you can follow me on Instagram at @pelepels. Mouthpeace with Michael and Pele Bennet is executive produced by us, the Bennets. Mouthpeace is also executive produced by Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. And of course, the whole team at Lemonada Media. Our producer is Genevieve Garrity and our show is edited by Brian Castillo. Thank you to our ad sales and distribution partners at Westwood One, and to all of our sponsors for making this show possible. Thank you for listening.