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David O. Mckay Lectures

Fonua: Intersecting Cosmogony and Ecology

Fakatapu: Honoring the Sacredness of Hawaiʻi

Tapu mo e vahefonua ko Lāʻiemaloʻo mo Lāʻiewai,
Pea mo hono tangataʻifonua talu mei tuai.
Tapu kia Tangaloa Langi, Tangaloa Mana, Hina mo Mauí,
Ko e ngaahi kui-ʻotua mo tauhi fonua ʻo Tonga mo Havaikí.
Pea ‘oku ou kole ke u hūfanga he Talamalu ʻo e Fonuá ni,
Kae ʻatā pea ngofua ʻa e haʻofangá ni,
Ke u fakahoko ʻa e fatongia lea ʻo e ʻaho ní

I begin by paying homage to the ahupuaʻa, land divisions, of Lāʻiemaloʻo and Lāʻiewai, and to the Kānaka ʻŌiwi, Indigenous Hawaiians, who have cared for this ecology since ancient times and spaces. I offer my utmost respect to Kāne, Kanaloa, Hina, and Maui, the divine stewards of the ecologies of Tonga and Hawaiʻi. I humbly ask for the protection of the Talamalu ʻo e Fonuá, the Safeguarding Stories of the Honua (Land, Mother Earth), so that I may be permitted to deliver my address today.

Talamuʻaki: Introduction

Aloha Kākou and Siʻotoʻofa atu BYU–Hawaii Students, Staff, Faculty, Administrators, PCC employees, and Members of the Koʻolauloa ‘Ohana.

I would first like to express my gratitude to the Faculty Advisory Committee for the invitation to present the 2024 David O. McKay Lecture. I am deeply honored by this invitation.

Today, I extend a personal invitation to you to reflect on the cosmogony of your society and consider how it shapes your relationship with the environment. You might wonder, what exactly is a cosmogony? A cosmogony is the creation story of a people. It serves as an historical and cultural narrative that profoundly shapes a society’s relationality with its ecology. It embodies a society’s beliefs, values, and understandings of the world. Cosmogony is deep history, culture, and science. Through the lens of Indigenous Moana Oceanian perspectives, cosmogony encompasses both the humanities and the sciences. It is a holistic perspective of the world. In this talk, I will be using the term Moana Oceania to refer to the region of Oceania. Moana is one of the Indigenous terms for Oceania, particularly for Eastern Oceania [1].

The people of Moana Oceania possess a rich tapestry of cosmogonical narratives about their ancestors. These tales are conveyed through various mediums, including stories, songs, chants, incantations, poems, proverbs, performances, and visual art motifs. Within these cosmogonies, ancestors often emerge from various ecological scapes of the Indigenous world: the seascape, landscape, skyscape, and subterranean scape [2]. These ancestors are both human and natural beings of the fonua, the land and its people, or, more broadly, the ecology. These ancestors also take diverse forms, not just as humans but also as birds, fishes, reptiles, animals, plants, fresh waters, sea waters, coral reefs, soils, rocks, winds, rains, mountains, and even constellations [2]. All of these are considered kin members who are deeply venerated and cared for. Upon the passing of human ancestors, some are divinized and returned in vaka (vessels), such as avian and marine life, flora, fauna, and other natural elements, to protect and nurture their descendants [2]. For instance, the shark deity known as Taufatahi watches over the people of the island of ʻEueiki, in Tonga, when they traverse the ocean [3]. In a bond of mutual interdependence, the descendants of these deified ancestors protect and honor them in all their forms. This bond forms a truly reciprocal tā-vā, or tempo-spatial, order. Some elements of nature are vaka, embodiments of the ancestors, which means harming nature is tantamount to harming ancestors.

In Tonga, cosmogony is referred to as tala tupuʻa or tala tupuʻanga ʻo e fonua, meaning ancient story of origin. The term tupuʻanga originates from the Indigenous Moana Oceanian concept of tupu (or kupu in Hawaiian), which means emanation and growth. Tupuʻanga, the source of growth, is the Tongan cognate for the Maōri term tupuna and the Hawaiian term kupuna, which means grandparent or ancestor. In Moana Oceania, people are believed to emanate or ascend from their ancestors rather than descend. Tala tupuʻanga forms an integral part of the expansive corpus of Talamalu ʻo e Fonua, the Sacred and Safeguarding Story of the Fonua. This collection of stories protects and shields the fonua, the ecology, from environmental degradation and destruction. Furthermore, they are part of the ʻIlo Tuʻufonua or Indigenous knowledge. ʻIlo Tuʻufonua denotes knowledge that has been firmly established, tuʻu, on the land, fonua, or within the ecology, embodying longstanding and sustainable wisdom.

Fonua: Land, People, History, Culture, and Ecology

The concept of fonua encompasses the intersectionality of reality, weaving together land, people, history, culture, and ecology. Fonua means land, people, placenta, and environment [4, 34, 32]. Fonua is also an Indigenous Austronesian philosophical concept expressing the complex relationship between society and ecology, bestowing equal importance upon people and the environment. Fonua encompasses both culture and nature. There is oneness in culture and nature. Parallel notions are observed across other regions of Moana Oceania, such as honua in Hawaiʻi, fanua in Sāmoa, whenua/fenua in Aotearoa and Tahiti, hanua in the Cook Islands, and vanua in Vanuatu and Fiji. BYUH is located in an ancient Hawaiian puʻu-honua, in a honua/land of sanctuary (C. Bridges, personal communication, November 2, 2023). Linguists have also identified cognates of fonua in languages in the Philippines and Indonesia and even in the homeland of Austronesian culture in Taiwan [5]. *Banua is the Proto-Austronesian term for fonua [5]. In Tongan cosmogony, Fonua is perceived as an ancestor because humans originate, tupu, from Mother Earth. Under the lens of Tongan philosophical understanding, fonua encompasses three ecological domains: (1) the mother’s womb/placenta, (2) Mother Earth, and (3) the womb/placenta of Mother Earth (see Figure 1).

Consequently, humans are born from the first fonua (the mother’s womb), live on the second (Mother Earth), and upon death, return to the third (the womb of Mother Earth) [4]. This movement from one fonua to another is a cyclical arrangement of time and space. We are the Fonua because all life springs from it. People are also referred to as fonua in Tongan.

Fonua, in the context of Tonga, reflects a comprehensive and ecological perspective that positions humans as a vital component within the living system of the fonua itself. It manifests in two notable natural elements of Tongan culture: the kava plant and the taʻovala waist mat. [37]

Kava: The Sacred Plant of the Fonua

Kava and its accompanying ceremonies, referred to as pukepuke fonua, holding tightly to the fonua, denote oneness with land, its inhabitants, traditions, and environment while also maintaining a consciousness of the past, present, and future (Funaki, S. U., personal communication, September 25, 2023) (see Figure 2). During a kava ceremony, kava intended for the gods is poured onto the ground (fonua), symbolizing the fonua's return to itself and showcasing the interconnected relationship among all elements of the fonua.

Another aspect of the link between kava and fonua shows up in the act of fuakava, literally receiving one’s first cup of kava. The principle of fuakava pertains to the solemn vows people make to their chiefs while drinking their first cup in a kava ceremony, promising to uphold their duties to the fonua. The term fuakava is now the Tongan translation for the Christian notion of covenant.

Kava was also used in a special ceremony to ask birds and fishes that had departed from their habitats to return. This was a ritual of reconciliation to restore the symmetrical relationship between humans and other species of the fonua.

Taʻovala: Waist Mats Woven From Leaves From the Fonua
The act of wearing the taʻovala involves wrapping a mat around the body, symbolizing the fonua encircling and nourishing an individual (see Figure 3). This act is not only a representation of the connected relationship between people and the fonua but also a demonstration of profound respect for the land and its people.

The taʻovala, made generally from pandanus leaves sourced from ancestral lands, embodies a microcosm of the fonua and its ecology (see Figure 4). Wearing taʻovala expresses unity and a mutually beneficial relationship with ancestors, family members, and the environment.

The cultural significance of fonua also appears in the practices of tauhi fonua and hūfonua. Tauhi fonua describes the continuous practice of maintaining a harmonious and balanced relationship among people as well as between people and their ecology. Hūfonua, on the other hand, involves entering into deep prayers to the ʻatua, gods, seeking blessings for the land to yield fruits and crops. Various species, including birds, sharks, and whales, were viewed by ancient Tongans as sacred deities of the fonua. For instance, there is an ancient ritual where Tongans, upon encountering a whale during their sea voyages, would present an offering of kava to the whale [6] (see Figure 5). In Tonga, whales are held in high esteem and reverence.

Emergence of Tāvāism

The tā-vā philosophy of reality, which places a high value on ancestral wisdom and knowledge, clearly embodies the appreciation of past insights within its time-space conceptual and practical approach. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, several scholars within the Moana Oceanian community voiced concerns regarding the prevailing use of Western philosophies, theories, and practices to interpret the cognitive, emotional, cultural, and practical aspects of life in Moana Oceania. They argued that this method was not only asymmetrical but also imposed Western notions on Moana Oceanian practices and philosophies [4].

Consequently, the tā-vā philosophy of reality, which is rooted in Indigenous knowledge, was developed to promote Moana Oceanian ancestral thinking and feeling. The formulation of the tā-vā was a collective philosophical movement by Hūfanga-He-Ako-Moe-Lotu Professor Dr. ʻOkusitino Māhina, a Tongan philosopher and historical anthropologist, and other scholars, including myself (see Figure 6).

Dr. Yifen Beus, Dr. ʻInoke Hafoka, and ‘Ulise Funaki, all faculty members at Brigham Young University–Hawaii (BYUH), are part of the tā-vā philosophical movement. BYUH alumnus, Dr. Benjamin Burrough, is also an active participant in the tā-vā movement. Dr. Burrough is currently an associate professor of emerging media at UNLV.

Over time and space, tāvāism has expanded, incorporating scholars, students, artists, and practitioners from various fields such as Anthropology, Architecture, Philosophy, Education Indigenous Studies, Pacific Studies, History, Art and Design, Nursing and Mental Health, Museum and Heritage Studies, Cinema and Literary Studies, Media Studies, Theology, Fashion, and Information Technology (IT).

Our BYU–Hawaii Pacific Studies journal, under Dr. Phillip McArthur's editorship, has been a pioneering platform in publishing articles and special issues focused on tāvāism.

Tenets of Tāvāism

What is the tā-vā philosophy of reality, or tāvāism? It is an Indigenous-based Moana Oceanian philosophy that is deeply grounded in several ontological and epistemological tenets [4]. In my address today, I will focus on those tenets that elucidate the relationality between people and their ecology.

Understanding the Tā-Vā Philosophy of Reality

The tā-vā philosophy involves a profound understanding of reality through the Indigenous viewpoint of time and space. Essentially, this philosophy revolves around the concept that tā, time, and vā, space, are foundational elements that delineate and constitute reality [7-8].

Ontological Perspective: Interplay of Tā and Vā

From an ontological viewpoint, tā and vā operate as a medium where all entities exist within a single level of reality, encompassing nature, mind, heart, and society [7-8]. Tā and vā create a hoa, a duality, creating inseparable complementary dualities like day and night, land and sea, and human and environment. These pairs always coexist in reality, denoting perpetual relationships within nature, mind, heart, and society [7-8]. Consequently, tā, time, acts as a temporal marker for vā, space, while vā serves as a spatial composer for tā [9]. This complementary dualism underscores that humans, as tempo-spatial entities, are intrinsically linked to nature, emerging from it and viewing it as an ancestor or relative. Thus, all entities perpetually engage in relationships, creating harmony or conflict, symmetry or asymmetry, as they intertwine with each other.

Reality through Intersectionality

In this context, intersectionality - the connectedness and separateness within reality - becomes a fundamental aspect of culture and nature. Everything in nature, mind, heart, and society intersect, anchoring reality in intersectionality [7-8]. The concept is artistically, aesthetically, and functionally embodied in Tongan culture through lalava (lashing), lalanga, (weaving), and in kupesi (geometric motifs), such as the Humu fish motif, or the Triggerfish, known in Hawaiʻi as Humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa (see Figures 7 & 8). Many of the kupesi designs are Nature-inspired motifs.

The kupesi not only abstractly portrays intricate designs of birds, plants, and fruits but also indicates a unity of people with their environment, embracing an intimate familiarity with the ecological surroundings [10].

Exploring the Epistemology of The Tā-Vā Philosophy

Epistemologically, the concepts of tā (time) and vā (space) are perceived and organized diversely across societies, informed by both culture and history [7-8]. In essence, cultural and historical elements can be viewed as the societal organizations of time and space.

Moana Oceania’s Unique Cultural Configuration

In Moana Oceania, tā and vā are typically configured in a manner that could be described as plural, collectivistic, holistic, intertwined, and circular/spiral. This is in contrast to particular Western perspectives, which may arrange them in a more singular, techno-teleological driven, individualistic, atomistic, analytic, and linear fashion [9]. In Tongan tā-vā, there is a manifestation of a spiral or circular arrangement, aligning with the cyclical time and spherical space of Mother Earth, the Fonua. Noted Tongan anthropologist, ʻEpeli Hauʻofa, referred to it as “circular time”, which is “...the regularity of seasons marked by the natural phenomena such as cyclical appearance of certain flowers, birds, and marine creatures, shedding of certain leaves, phases of the moon, changes in prevailing winds, and weather patterns…” [11].

Configuration of Past, Present, and Future

A notable feature of the Moana Oceanian organization of tā and vā is their conceptualization of past, present, and future. In this tā-vā (time-space) arrangement, the past, present, and future are tempo-spatially oriented in the front, middle, and back, respectively. In Tongan, kuongamuʻa refers to the past, envisioned as the era in front of us; kuonga lolotonga denotes the present, the era in the middle; and kuongamui signifies the future, the era behind us. The past, having endured the test of tempo-spatiality, is positioned ahead as a guide for the present, while the unknown future is situated behind, shaped by past experiences. [33] Ancestral knowledge and skills are also placed at the forefront to guide both the present and future. This tempo-spatial positioning explains why ancestors, elders, grandparents, parents, and elder siblings assume leadership roles in many Moana Oceanian societies [12]. Ancestors, or tupuʻanga, are revered as guardians and repositories of knowledge and skills, serving as the living libraries of Indigenous historical and scientific knowledge. Some of the ancestors are deified and venerated for their profound knowledge and mastered skills [2].

Harmony and Beauty Through Symmetry

Tā and vā are arranged in a symmetrical or rhythmic manner, fostering harmony and beauty. The symmetrical relationship between individuals and the environment is pivotal in the Moana Oceanian tā-vā configuration, reinforcing the intersectionality of natural and societal rhythms.

The tā-vā philosophy of reality posits that tā (time) and vā (space) are inseparable in reality. Tāvāism argues that to deepen our understanding of natural, mental, emotional, and sociocultural concepts and practices, both tā and vā must be examined cohesively and in relation to one another. As previously mentioned, tā and vā are epistemologically arranged in diverse ways across cultures. Thus, culture embodies a specific sociocultural arrangement of tā and vā, or time and space. In Tonga, as well as in most Moana Oceanian cultures, artists mediate or reconcile conflicting times-spaces by rhythmically tempo-marking space and symmetrically spatio-composing time to engender mālie/faka‘ofo‘ofa or beauty [13].

As mentioned before, this Indigenous and artistic marking of tā in vā and composing of vā in tā, are visually displayed in kupesi, which are intricate and elaborate geometrical designs adorning Moana Oceanian tattoos, carvings, fine mats, decorated bark cloths, sennit lashings, jewelry, garlands, etc. Acoustically, it is expressed through the rhythmic patterns that define Moana Oceanian drum beats, music, dance movements, and poetic compositions. In addition, the tā-vā (time-space) configuration is manifested in social relations, especially within tauhi vā— the Indigenous Tongan art of maintaining harmonious and beautiful sociospatial relations through the performance of fatongia, or cultural duties —and in tauhi fonua, the Indigenous Tongan art of sustaining symmetrical relationships with the ecology.

My early research centered on tauhi vā [14]. I found my research on tauhi vā to be anthropocentric, so over the years, I have shifted towards tauhi fonua, which I perceive as ecologically centered. In Tonga, a distinct group of people are accorded the title of mātuʻa tauhifonua. They are the keepers or guardians of Tongan culture and ecology. In specific ways, they resemble the kaitiaki, or guardians, of Aotearoa and the kiaʻi, or protectors, of Hawaiʻi. Tauhi means to tend, care for, guard, or preserve. Thus, in the Tongan context, mātuʻa tauhifonua refers to the elders assigned to care for, guard, conserve, or preserve the fonua [15, 31].

Tala Tupuʻanga ʻo e Fonuá: Tongan Cosmogony

Researching Tongan cosmogony aligns with the tā-vā philosophy of reality and its organization of time and space, positioning the past as the guide for both the present and future. Tongan cosmogony also articulates the profound intersection between people and their environment, along with the symmetrical relationship between humans and ecology. Now, I would like to recount the Tongan creation story (see Figure 9). This version of the Tongan cosmogony is based on oral and written accounts (Wolfgramm, E. personal communication, July 2000; Maʻafu 1907: 139-161; Māhina 1992: 59-60; Moala 1994: 2-9, 39-41; Taumoefolau 2011:43-44).

In the beginning, the vast ocean, Vahanoa, and the ancestral land, Pulotu, were all that existed. From the deep sea, two ancient ancestors arose: Limu, the Seaweed, and Kele, the Sea Mud. The forces of waves, currents, and wind united them. They drifted in the ocean for eons until they landed on the island of Pulotu (see Figure 10).

On the island of Pulotu, Limu and Kele gave birth to Tou‘ia-‘a-Futuna, a unique metallic and volcanic rock. One day, this volcanic rock began to tremble like earthquakes, rumble like thunder, and eventually cracked open. From its core emerged four pairs of fraternal twins (see Figure 11). The first pair was Piki (Sticky) and Kele (Soil). The second pair consisted of ʻAtungaki and Māʻimoaʻalongona. The third pair was Fonuʻuta (Land-Turtle) and Fonutai, (Sea-Turtle). The last pair introduced Hēʻimoana (Sea Snake) and Lupe (Pigeon).

Piki and Kele, the first twins, had a son named Taufulifonua and a daughter named Havealolofonua. The second set of twins, ‘Atungaki and Mā‘imoa‘alongona, had a daughter named Velelahi. The third set of twins, Fonu‘uta and Fonutai had a daughter named Velesi‘i. Velesiʻi is known in Hawaiʻi as Hina and in Sāmoa as Sina. The last set of twins, Hē‘imoana and Lupe had a son named Tokilangafonua and a daughter named Hinatuʻafuʻanga.

Taufulifonua and Havealolofonua, the children of the first set of twins, gave birth to the goddess Havea Hikule‘o. In some versions, Hikuleʻo is portrayed as male, while in other stories, Hikuleʻo is depicted as female [16-17]. Sikotā, the Kingfisher Bird, is the vaka, vessel/avatar, of Hikuleʻo (see Figure 12).

Taufulifonua and Velelahi had a son, Tangaloa ‘Eiki, and Taufulifonua and Velesi‘i/Hina had a son, Maui Motu‘a. Havea Hikuleʻo, Tangaloa ʻEiki, and Maui Motuʻa are three divine ancestors and the principal deities of Tonga (see Figure 13).

Hina, Tangaloa, and Maui are common ancestors of Tongans, Hawaiians, and many people of Moana Oceania. In the early days, all ancestors lived in Pulotu. Here in Pulotu, they gathered beneath the famous talking tree, named ʻAkaulea, to drink kava. They mixed their kava with water from Vaiola, the Healing Water of Life. Overseeing the kava-drinking rituals and serving as the master of ceremonies was the talking-tree ʻAkaulea. Pulotu, the ancestral homeland, is the place where kava first appeared. The kahokaho yam and taro (kalo in Hawaiian) also originated from Pulotu.

Tokilangafonua and his sister Hinatu‘aifanga, the children of the last set of twins, had siamese twin daughters named Nāfanua and Topukulu. Tokilangafonua migrated to Sāmoa and had two daughters, Tafakula (Red Horizon) and Hē‘imoana‘uli‘uli (a shark ancestor). Tafakula and Hēʻimoanaʻuliʻuli had a child, Lofia, the deity of the volcano on the island of Tofua in Haʻapai, Tonga.

Taufulifonua and Havealolofonua not only birthed new lands but also instilled a sacred duty of stewardship in their offspring, entrusting them with the guardianship of diverse fonua, ecologies. Havea Hikule‘o was anointed as chiefess and caretaker of both Pulotu—the realm of ancestral and spiritual significance—and the Maama, or Earthworld. Tangaloa ‘Eiki was given stewardship over the celestial Langi, or Skyworld. Maui Motu‘a was designated the caretaker of the Lalofonua, the Underworld. Hēʻimoana (Sea Snake) was chosen to safeguard the ocean's intricate ecosystems, while Lupe (Pigeon) was entrusted with the stewardship of inland forests.

Tangaloa ‘Eiki fathered Tangaloa Tamapo‘ulialamafoa, Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo, Tangaloa Tufunga, Tangaloa Mana, Tangaloa Langi, and Tangaloa ʻEitumātupuʻa. Similarly, Maui Motu‘a fathered Maui Loa, Maui Puku, and Maui ‘Atalanga. Maui ‘Atalanga and Hina, in turn, gave birth to Maui Kisikisi, also revered as Maui Fusifonua, the deified ancestor responsible for raising lands from the ocean depths. Tongans consider themselves as ascendants of these divine stewards, thereby inheriting a profound responsibility for ecological guardianship.

Tangaloa ʻEiki sent Tangaloa ʻAtulongolongo as a Tuliʻone/Kiu (Pacific Golden Plover) to search for any land in Maama (Earthworld) since all that could be seen from Langi (Skyworld) was the sea (see Figure 14). However, the only thing he found was a coral reef (see Figure 15).

After hearing Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo’s report, Tangaloa ‘Eiki asked Tangaloa Tufunga (Tangaloa the Architect) to throw down volcanic dust to Maama from his workshop. The volcanic dust combined with the reef and formed the islands of ʻEua and ʻAta, the first two islands in Tonga. Later on, Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo dropped a seed on ‘Ata from his beak, which grew into a creeper that covered the island (see Figure 16).

During his next visit, Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo pecked a rotten branch of the fue plant, causing a larva to emerge. By pecking the larva, it divided into three parts, which became the first Tongan humans: Kohai, Koau, and Momo (see Figure 17).

Maui Motuʻa and his children brought the three humans’ wives from the ancestral homeland of Pulotu. They also sailed to the island of Manuka in Sāmoa and procured an old fish hook from Tonga Fusifonua, Tonga, the-fisher-of-fonua. The Maui clan used the old fishhook to haul up the other Tongan islands, including some of the islands in Fiji, Sāmoa, Tahiti, Hawaiʻi, and Aotearoa. After Maui fished up the island of Tongatapu from the sea, he walked across Tongatapu and transformed the hills into lush and fertile fonua. With each step, grass, flowers, breadfruit trees, and other trees emerged spontaneously (see Figure 18). The fonua around his feet swelled into mounds brimming with yams, sweet potatoes, taros, and a variety of other food crops [30].

Christianization & Coloniality: The Marginalization of Tongan Cosmogony

The Tongan cosmogony remains relatively obscure, its narrative marginalized by the dual forces of Christianization and coloniality in Tonga [17]. Coloniality, the current dominant power structure, often centers specific knowledge while marginalizing others [18,19]. It was not until I was in my thirties that I first heard a complete account of the Tongan creation story. I owe a debt of gratitude to Emil Wolfgramm, a Tongan master storyteller, who shared his oral version of the cosmogonical tale with me 24 years ago.

Despite the marginalization of the Tongan cosmogony, I am deeply grateful to Tongan elders like ʻAmelia Fakahikuʻoʻuhia and Taufapulotu, as well as early Christian missionaries such as Rev. John Thomas, Priest P. Reiter, and Rev. Dr. James Egan Moulton, for their foresight in documenting versions of the Tonga’s creation narrative. During my sabbatical leave last year, I visited archives in Tonga and Aotearoa, seeking different versions of the Tongan cosmogony. From the versions I gathered, I systematically compared eight of them; some are written in Tongan, while others are in English. Employing the Indigenous tā-vā philosophy of reality, I decoded the ecological messages they convey (see Figure 19).

Tauhi Fonua: Ecological Responsibility

The Tongan cosmogony emphasizes the intersection of humans and nature, highlighting ecological responsibilities through the concept and practice of tauhi fonua. The practice of tauhi fonua denotes sustaining the fonua, ecology, through symmetrically timing vā and spatially constituting tā. Essentially, it means fostering a reciprocal and synchronous relationship between humans and ecological entities. Living in harmony with the fonua is pivotal. Many Indigenous people have a long history of living in synchronicity with their fonua. Tauhi fonua fosters a reciprocal relationship between humans and their environment, including the land and the sea, wind, and other natural elements. These elements are considered ancestors, like Vahanoa, the Vast Sea, and are thus treated with reverence and veneration. In my family genealogy, Vahanoa, the Vast Sea, is my 42nd great-grandmother. That was around 1,000 years ago.

Primordial ancestors like Limu (Seaweed) and Kele (Sea Sediment) emerged from the Vast Sea and enacted a central role in the creation of the Tongan mother rock, Touʻia-ʻa-Futuna. This volcanic rock gave birth to fraternal twins, such as soil, turtles, sea snakes, and birds. These are all considered ancestral figures with ecological importance. Natural phenomena like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are significant in these creation stories and are revered as part of the fonua, or ecology.

Names of ancestors often include the term "fonua," signifying land and its people and emphasizing the importance of ecological stewardship. Ancestors like Taufulifonua and Havealolofonua are credited with creating new lands and designating guardians for various environments.

Deified ancestors like Tafakula protect the land and are sought for blessings against natural calamities. Other caretakers include Tangaloa, responsible for the sky, and Maui, guardian of the subterranean environment. These ancestors emphasize the Tongan duty towards various elements of nature, including birds, coral reefs, and even soil.

The Maui clan, known as cultivators and mariners, further underscores the importance of ecological responsibility. They are credited with fishing up islands and tending to their gardens, highlighting the value of respecting and maintaining the fonua. Fishing up islands with an old fishhook is a reference to the use of ancient astronomy knowledge relating to fishhook-shaped Scorpio Constellation to find new fonua, lands (see Figure 20). Overall, the Tongan cosmogony serves as a foundational narrative that informs ecological duties and responsibilities, deeply embedding these concepts and practices in culture and identity.

Enacting Ecological Responsibility & Trans-Indigeneity

Indigenous and scientific knowledge have moved Tongans to fulfill their ecological responsibility. This is happening in Tonga as well as in the diaspora. In the homeland of Tonga, several initiatives led by young Tongans are demonstrating ecological responsibility. Tupou College in Tongatapu is leading the project to conserve the Toloa Rainforest. In addition, the Special Management Area (SMA) in Ovaka, Vavaʻu, is dedicated to protecting the marine environment around Ovaka Island, aiding in the recovery of marine life. Furthermore, the Vavaʻu Environmental Protection Association (VEPA) is actively involved in protecting the Hengehenga birds, or the Tongan Whistler [20]. Lastly, the No Pelesitiki (No Plastic) Campaign aims to reduce and eventually eliminate single-use plastic products in Tonga while promoting locally sustainable alternatives [21].

In the diaspora, the enactment of ecological responsibility, based on the Tongan cosmogony, is taking place within the context of trans-Indigeneity, or the collaboration and solidarity of Indigenous peoples and diasporic Indigenous Tongans. Native American scholar Chadwick Allen first proposed the concept of trans-Indigeneity [22]. Allen views trans-Indigeneity as a strategic juxtapositioning of distinct Indigenous cultures to see what insights, cultural truths, and possibilities might emerge. He argues that trans-Indigenous methodologies can help us to understand better the shared experiences and challenges of Indigenous peoples around the world.

Filipino-Pohnpeian scholar, Vincente Diaz, expanded on the concept of trans-Indigeneity in his work with Micronesians and Indigenous Dakota people in Minnesota. Diaz (2019) views trans-Indigeneity as the analytical and political commitment to deep temporal specificity while reaching across spatial particularity in creative and powerful ways without losing that specificity. This trans-Indigenous configuration of tā-vā counters the denial and erasure of Indigenous cultures by settler colonialism [23, 24] and the asymmetrical power matrix of coloniality [19]. Within the tā-vā philosophy of reality, trans-Indigeneity is the intersection of diverse Indigenous communities while symmetrically mediating the culture of those Indigenous communities to give rise to harmony and beauty, as well as liberation.

I have two examples of trans-Indigeneity of Tongans in the diaspora, specifically, in the intersecting of Indigenous cosmogonies to give rise to sustainable ecology.

Example 1: Caring for Marine Ancestors
On June 27, 2017, I was swimming at Hukilau and found a massive tangled pile of fishnets that had washed ashore. I reported the incident to the authorities, but after three days with no action taken, the nets remained there (Figure 21).

So, I reached out to Native Hawaiian friends for assistance in removing them. Joshua Noga, Nakia Naeʻole, and ʻUlise Funaki, all Native Hawaiians, answered my plea for help. On the morning of July 5, 2017, we gathered at Hukilau and began the arduous task of removing the enormous net. Our efforts were soon bolstered by others, including the 808 CLEANUPS crew, and together we worked for six hours to clear the debris (see Figures 22 & 23).

Ultimately, the State of Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR) intervened, bringing an excavator to aid in the removal of the heavy nets (see Figure 24). I remember Josh, Nakia, and ʻUlise being particularly invested in this effort as a means of honoring their commitment to protect their relatives - the ocean and its inhabitants. This perspective was rooted in both Hawaiian and Tongan cosmogonies, which regard the ocean and marine life as ancestors and relatives.

Example 2: Caring for our Avian Ancestors
In March 2023, Dr. Daniel Hernandez, a fellow Tāvāist, invited me to deliver a talk at the Tracy Aviary Jordan River Nature Center in Soonkhani (the Shoshone name for Salt Lake Valley) focusing on the relationship between Tongans and nature (Hernandez, D. personal communication, March 7, 2023) (see Figure 25)

During my talk, I discussed my ancestor, Hikuleʻo, and her vaka (vessel/avatar), the Sikotā, or the Kingfisher bird. Following my presentation, I discovered that a species of Kingfisher resides along the Pia Okwai (the Shoshone name for the Jordan River) (Hernandez, D. personal communication, March 7, 2023) (see Figure 26)

A week later, Daniel guided me on a canoe journey along Pia Okwai to showcase the Sikotā’s habitat in Utah (see Figure 27). This experience illuminated the ecological responsibility of Tongans in Utah to safeguard the Sikotā, the embodiment of Hikuleʻo. There are now Indigenous diasporic Tongans in Soonkhani (Salt Lake Valley, Utah) who are interested in ways to care for birds at the Pia Okwai (Jordan River).

Latter-day Saints & Ecological Responsibilities

Ecological responsibility is not unique to the people of Moana Oceania. We find similar sentiments in our Christian tradition. For Latter-day Saints, caring for the earth is a sacred responsibility. We are commanded to be good stewards. Doctrine and Covenants 104:13 states: “For it is expedient that I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures.” [25] As an apostle, our prophet, President Russell M. Nelson, instructed us to “care for the earth, be wise stewards over it, and preserve it for future generations” [26]. David O. McKay, the founding prophet of our university and the person whom this lecture is named after, said that the conservation and care of earth’s resources “is in keeping with the example which Jesus gave his disciples” [27]. In addition to the words of our modern prophets, the Hymns of our Church, such as “God is Love”, “For the Beauty of the Earth”, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, and others all express our need to value and care for God’s creation and convey the bountiful blessings that we receive from Nature. In “All Creatures of Our God and King” by St Francis of Assis, the fourth verse beautifully articulates our relationship to Mother Earth:
“Dear Mother Earth, who day by day
Unfoldest blessings on our way,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The flow’rs and fruits that in thee grow,
Let them his glory also show,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Oh, praise Him! Alleluia!” [28]

The verse conveys a profound reverence for Earth, depicting it as a nurturing mother and a source of abundant blessings. It encourages Latter-day Saints to recognize the divine within nature. This Christian view parallels various Indigenous spiritual beliefs and aligns with the principles of ecological responsibility. These principles are deeply rooted in the Tongan cosmogonic ethos, emphasizing a symmetrical and harmonious relationship with the natural world.

Bishop Gérald Caussé, in the October 2022 General Conference, states: “The care of the earth and of our natural environment is a sacred responsibility entrusted to us by God, which should fill us with a deep sense of duty and humility. It is also an integral component of our discipleship.” Bishop Caussé explained that our earthly stewardship can be guided by three principles:

  1. The entire earth, including all life thereon, belongs to God.  
  2. As stewards of God’s creations, we have a duty to honor and care for them.  
  3. We are invited to participate in the work of creation. [29]

Similar to the Gospel, Indigenous Tongan spirituality upholds and advocates for environmental stewardship and responsibility, reflecting a connection between Indigenous Tongan spirituality and ecological accountability.

Tātuku: Conclusion

In conclusion, I warmly invite students, staff, faculty, and community members to embark on a meaningful journey into researching and learning the cosmogonies of your own culture. Within these foundational narratives, you will uncover the unique fatongia, or cultural responsibilities, bestowed upon you to nurture and protect God’s Creation. This is vital in the Anthropocene, the age of the anthropogenesis climate crisis, and environmental degradation. The voyage into your cosmogonies is not merely academic; it is a profoundly personal and spiritual journey that symmetrically intersects and rhythmically interweaves you with the natural world.

My own Tongan cosmogony is an integral part of my family history, where relatives are not only human but also holistically encompass sea plants, sea sediments, fishes, corals, birds, animals, plants, trees, and myriad other natural entities. My ecological responsibility, therefore, is a familial one, inspiring me to safeguard them with love and reverence. Let us all find such connections and, in doing so, become steadfast guardians of our precious Fonua and its diverse and beautiful inhabitants.

Mālō ʻaupito, and Thank you!

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Ceremony of Tonga [Video]. The Pacific Institute, Brigham Young University Hawaii.

Figure 1: Three Fonua Realms
Image Credit: Tavakefaiʻana Sēmisi Fetokai Potauaine, 2021

Figure 2: Kava Plant
Image Credit: Forest & Kim Starr

Figure 3: Taʻovala: Sacred Waist Mat of the Fonua.
Tēvita O. Kaʻili, Telesia Tonga, & Sione ʻUlise Funaki
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, July 2022

Figure 4: Taʻovala: Sacred Waist Mat of the Fonua
Elizabeth J. Rago-Kaʻili
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2017

Figure 5: A Whale in Tonga
Image Credit: Alexa Benavides, 2018

Figure 6: Figure 6: Hūfanga-He-Ako-Moe-Lotu Professor Dr. ʻOkusitino Māhina & Fellow Tāvāists holding Copies of the Pacific Studies, Special Issue on Tā-Vā Theory of Reality
Image Credit: Nuhisifa Williams, 2017

Figure 7: Kupesi: Humu Fish Geometric Design
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2016. Tongan Fale, Polynesian Cultural Center

Figure 8: Humuhumunukunukuapuaʻa Fish
Image Credit: Qyd

Figure 9: Genealogy of Tongan Cosmogony
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2022

Figure 10: Limu & Kele: Seaweed & Sea Mud
Image Credit: Aaron Tuki Drake (Kaʻili & Twinnies 2022)

Figure 11: Four Primordial Fraternal Twins of Tonga
Image Credit: Aaron Tuki Drake (Kaʻili & Twinnies 2022)

Figure 12: Sikotā: Kingfisher Bird
Image Credit: October 9, 2017, Vavaʻu, Tonga,

Figure 13: Hikuleʻo, Tangaloa, & Maui: Three Principal Ancestors of Tongans
Image Credit: Aaron Tuki Drake (Kaʻili & Twinnies 2022)

Figure 14: Kiu: Tangaloa ʻAtulongolongo as a Pacific Golden Plover
Image Credit: Aaron Tuki Drake (Kaʻili & Twinnies 2022)

Figure 15: Corals in Vavaʻu, Tonga
Image Credit: Douglas Fenner

Figure 16: Initial Growth of Fue on the Volcanic Island between Hunga-Tonga and Hunga-Haʻapai
Image Credit: Dan Slayback, NASA/SEA

Figure 17: A Tuliʻone / Kiu, Pacific Golden Plover.
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2018

Figure 18: Maui: The Origin of Plants
Image Credit: Keleni Ngaluafe 2016

Figure 19: Versions of the Tongan Cosmogony
Image Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2023

Figure 20: Mātaʻu ʻa Maui: The Constellation Scorpio as the Fish Hook of Maui
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, Stellarium Plus App, 2022

Figure 21: Massive Discarded Fishnets at Hukilau Beach
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2017

Figure 22: Josh Noga, Nakia Naeʻole, & 808 CLEANUPS Crew Removing the Discarded Nets
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2017

Figure 23: Sione ʻUlise Funaki & 808 CLEANUPS Crew Removing the Discarded Nets
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2017

Figure 24: DLNR Excavator Removing the Discarded Nets
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2017

Figure 25: Attendants at the Tracy Aviary Talk
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2023

Figure 26: Sikotā / Belted Kingfisher at the Jordan River / Megaceryle alcyon
Photo Credit: Beak Stock photos by Vecteezy

Figure 27: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, Daniel Hernandez, and Ezra Hernandez at the Pia Okwai (Jordan River)
Photo Credit: Tēvita O. Kaʻili, 2023