Vehia Wheeler introduces the Ma’ohi Nui project, a collaboration with the Island Lives, Ocean States project aiming to uplift voices, knowledge and perspectives on the ocean among indigenous populations in Mā‘ohi Nui (French Polynesia). Vehia is co-founder of Sustainable Oceania Solutions and was elected Obama Foundation Asia-Pacific Leader for Tahiti in 2020. The OceanStates project is proud to have her and her team on board, carrying on important ocean research in the region.
People of Tahiti and her surrounding islands (Ma’ohi Nui) have an undeniable relationship with their ocean and surrounding environment, and it is wrapped up in our everyday lives. We interact with the ocean as an area for fishing and food sustenance, as well as through activities such as surfing, sailing or voyaging on va’a (canoes).
As indigenous communities to our Moana*, our deep knowledge of the ocean has come from hundreds of years of interacting with and observing our environment. Our knowledge about the ocean and environment is ancestral knowledge, passed down from generation to generation through our tupuna (ancestors).
But how often do outsiders, and even Ma’ohi populations, hear and know about our deep, ancestral and everyday relationships with the ocean from our own perspectives? One of the objectives of the Ma’ohi Nui project with Island Lives, Ocean States is to share these important stories and uplift our indigenous, ancestral knowledge of our ocean home.
My team and I will be on a 6 month journey to create this Ma’ohi Nui storytelling project in collaboration with indigenous people of the area. Our team members are native to Ma’ohi Nui, and we each have varying life-long relationships with the ocean and land, whether it be through fishing, surfing, or sailing. Our position as local people to the area, with personal experiences to the moana, gives us a special insight into the lived realities of the place.
One team member in particular, Matahi Tutavae has personal experience with traditional sea navigation on the local Polynesian voyaging canoes, Fa’afaite. He’s been trained as a traditional navigator, using ancestral knowledge of the stars, winds and ocean patterns to navigate the Fa’afaite canoe from Tahiti to surrounding countries, such as Rarotonga or Aotearoa/New Zealand.
Another team member, Sabrina Tepotofarerani, is an ‘ihireo Tahiti, a trained specialist in Tahitian language. As a native speaker of Tahitian who has also been trained in Polynesian linguistics at our local University, she brings this knowledge and cultural understandings to our team, which is useful as most of our interviews will be conducted in Reo Tahiti (Tahitian language).
Our team’s Ma’ohi cultural values prioritizes work and research done in respect, reciprocity and regeneration with local communities. Our approach can be locally framed within the Horo’a mai, horo’a atu value of Tahitian culture, which is the idea that everything that is given will be received, everything that is received will then be given. Our team aims to uplift the stories of our people and in collaboration give back immediately through food or gift exchange. This will also entail long-term exchange, such as sharing the end project locally with these communities.
Uplifting our own voices and stories is a dream come true and to work with my own people and convey our stories within the region and to an international scale with Island Lives, Ocean States, is a blessing and an important project to participate in!
Vehia Wheeler is a child of Moana Nui a Hiva. Born and raised in Waiau, O‘ahu, she traces her roots to Tahiti island and Mangareva island in the South Pacific. She works as a cultural and environmental consultant, and lives on Mo‘orea island in Mā‘ohi Nui (French Polynesia). She is an advocate for the perpetuation of her Indigenous culture in the islands of Tahiti.
For updates on the Ma’ohi Nui project, follow Sustainable Oceania Solutions on Twitter!
* Moana is a vernacular word for ocean or deep sea in a number of Pacific languages.