Bruno Saura is professor of Polynesian civilization at the University of French Polynesia. He notably wrote a Ancient History of Rurutu, (“Cahier du patrimoine” nº 9, Ministry of Culture of French Polynesia, 2022) which analyzes the puta tupunathe “books of the ancestors”, witnesses of the past of this island of the Australs.
What is the specificity of Rurutu?
It is the island of French Polynesia which has best preserved its oral tradition. In fact, this small kingdom was only annexed by France quite late, in 1900, whereas the Marquesas Islands were annexed from 1842, and Tahiti in 1880. It was already a Christian island, it is even the first case of self-conversion in the South Pacific: people from Rurutu had drifted by canoe to the Leeward Islands in 1821 and adopted the religion they had discovered there, Protestantism, before converting the population on their return, without a missionary having set foot in Rurutu. The tradition has therefore suffered a first shock, religious, but despite everything, it is the island of Polynesia which has best preserved its traditions.
For what reasons ?
In particular because because of the land, the inhabitants need to know their genealogy. Land is a sensitive issue in Rurutu. When property titles are established, people do not need to know their distant ancestors, while here the island has been somewhat forgotten by France – the first cadastre was not made until 1953 , without the establishment of title deeds. Genealogies and accompanying histories are therefore essential to validate land ownership. They thus continued to function in the traditional way, by oral transmission.
How does it manifest itself today?
First, in writing! The families of Rurutu recorded, from the 19th century in registers, the famous puta tupuna, the books of the ancestors, their genealogies and some of their traditions. And then, the people of Rurutu have an institution, the earth, which means the “journey”, the “overtaking”. At the beginning of the year, they go around the island, stopping at various places of memory, where a speaker tells the story of a cave or a summit, for example. Except that the scholars of the three villages have different ways of telling the past, so three earth are organized successively, in January, and allow the elders to take up the memory of the place each in their own way. In reality, the families are all more or less from the three villages. It’s very small Rurutu, they are 2,400 inhabitants in total, but they need to do it three times because they don’t always agree on how to tell their story. This means that this oral tradition is very much alive, that it is an issue of knowledge and power.
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