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Issue 136

tagatavāsā
by Léuli Māzyār Luna‘i Eshrāghi

          tagatanu‘u
      People/s of the land/s
           People/s of the country
                People/s of the village/s
                   People/s of the culture/s
                      People/s of the ocean/s
                           tagatavāsā

Ua fuifui fa‘atasi ae sa vao ‘ese‘ese is an enduring Sāmoan expression that signifies that we have gathered together from different parts of the forest. ‘OSā. Our clans. ‘O ‘āiga. Our families. ‘O tupuga. Our ancestors. ‘O tapuafanua. Our guardian spirits. ‘Osuli – descendants. ‘O atua ma āitu. Our kin animals and birds and plants. ‘O mauga. Our mountains. ‘Ovaitafe. Our rivers. ‘O ma‘umaga. Our food gardens. ‘O matafaga. Our beaches. ‘O fale sā. Our temples. Our lands and waters shared amongst clans for the use of all, disputes and all. All this in the ancestral time of the lupe pigeon’s heyday before plantation and missionary colonial rule in the 1800s destroyed lupe pigeon numbers and our own with hunting, abduction into forced labour and blackbirding into overseas slavery, and introduced diseases decimated our numbers, all across the ocean. Before we moved offshore in vast numbers. Before our coral and fish boiled in high-temperature waters. Before nuclear testing and overfishing poisoned our primary ancestor, Vāsālaolao, sacred-far-reaching-undulating-relational-space, who cares for us yet. Before the body-, sex-, spirit-shaming of the missionaries and Eurocentric knowledge systems imported into our language, culture and outlook were unleashed to destroy us one by us, long after the original violators from Europe had passed on to the spirit world.

Before we resisted and fought back. Before we remade ourselves in our ancestors’ image for our own Indigenous diasporic and archipelagic resurgence. I know this every time I stand in our ancestral belonging, and recently when I spent a few days on a sanctuary island, Namu‘a, to the southeast of our main island, ‘Upolu. There, debris installations wash up every day from far across the sea; there, pe‘a flying foxes, laumei turtles, pa‘a crabs and manu birds rule the land, air and sea! There, humans only spend a little time at a time, and this decentring of human-centrism is salvatory to me and my kin there. The smell of the sea on the breeze, the humidity and rain gliding off leaves in the forest, nearing creatures of the sky, remind that this is not only our home, that Earth-centred ways of knowing are active yet.

What is a city but a collection of villages? What is an aesthetic experience but a passage of moments? All lands and waters are known and inhabited by living beings, sometimes including us humans. All cities are built on still-sacred lands and waters. In unceded Kulin Nation territory, where I mainly live and work, the Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung clans of inner Narrm/Melbourne and their relations, the Wadawurrung, Taungwurrung and Dja Dja Wurrung clans further west and north, are in sovereign resurgence right now. Their oratory, performing and visual languages are expressed with power. The settler colonial city of Melbourne/Port Phillip was built over their territory but has not subsumed them, rather a rebalancing is afoot where their cultures, and those of other First Nations and global Indigenous cultures, are being centred in accordance with protocol and respect. The city is also Country, to amplify the concept of First Peoples in “Australia.” As Elders teach us uninvited guests in every Welcome to Country ceremony, Country will nurture you if you respect it, and if you do not harm the children of Bunjil. All of the mineral resources used to create the built environment also come from the very lands and waters we are indebted to for our lives. So, Country is really all around us.

Ninety rotations of Lā Sun and many more of goddess Māsina Moon. Indigenous matriarchy heals and binds. Ia manuia lou aso fānau, peleina Tinā matua, Nātia Fa‘ase‘e Tautua. In my ‘āiga, we call grandma, great-grandma, mum, aunty, cousin, “mum” across generations. My grandma has looked after many generations of children, nieces and nephews, from our extensive family and those needing love and a home, for decades. Every day, amongst all the affairs she is managing in our 40-member household (not including all of us in the diaspora), she has a cup of tea or fresh lemonade, some fruit, sets up her weaving space in the living room, primes the fala pandanus lengths, fashions scary/amazing dolls with cube heads and siapo barkcloth attire, rectangular handbags with fala squares and triangles for the trocus shells and siapo lining the inside. She shows my younger cousins how to spin the fala into a tight length to be used as a strap on the bags, my aunts and older cousins watching on and weaving their own magic. Tinā matua has created ‘afa coconut sennit and fala dresses for couture competitions in our archipelago, her creations, the models and her glowing in the local paper and in our memory. The sounds of our village, the soundtrack to Tinā matua’s daily practice: chickens scuttling along, a Tarago van slowing down behind an old rusty and faithful pickup along the village road weaving around our ancestral Mount Vaea, children screaming with glee/hurt around the open-air and closed-air houses of all our relations, the melodies of church choir practice, the water flowing (when it does) in Loimata o Apaula Creek from our ancestors to us, and the excitement of young people able to forsake duties and homework for some volleyball under the big trees before dinner.

Last December, we celebrated Tinā matua’s 90th birthday in the hall of the Papauta Girls’ School, which she attended as a young girl, just on the main road side of our village. I remember the officiating of my orator uncle, Leuli, the local pastor, the organizational prowess of my mother, Sone, and aunts Sally, Elisapeta and Sualua, the tribute songs performed by cousins living in Aotearoa and Sāmoa, the classics in our language playing on the speakers so the third age could dance a little before the bones crackle again. I remember the intense aromas of seafood, landfood, served in delicious arrangements by my chef uncle, Siaosi, and the protocol of serving the eldest to the youngest, the best pieces of meat, lobster, limu seaweed, taro, ta‘amū yam going out first. The village gossip about who prepared such sumptuous take-away packs of food, so fresh and generous. (This is eternally the measure of a successful event in the islands: was the food good, generous and were you able to get extra take-away packs for those who didn’t make it to the event? You really just want another pack, but let’s say, it’s for the ancestors, of course.) I don’t live in my village, more than half of my ‘āiga don’t, but my brothers and I did grow up there for a few years when we were much younger. Mum moved back three years ago, and this anchoring always brings a rebalancing to what’s going on in my life in Narrm. My grandma has been an artist her whole life, independent of the gallery system, supporting our expansive family relationships across lands, waters, airs, in a sovereignty that is care from the land, in a matriarchy that is love from the ancestors, in a binding of diasporic children that is making with the fruit of your labour what is denied from us in the capitalist system of our colonizers, who left but never leave our minds, spirits, bodies. The keys to our liberation are also found in the wisdom of the diaspora for all our people (more Sāmoans, like many Indigenous archipelagic peoples, do not live on our lands and waters). Tinā matua reiterates her messages to me and my cousins in Sāmoan and in English. Don’t forget me. Don’t take too long to come home, I don’t want to be buried already when you do. And the excited cackle when I respond in Sāmoan: ‘Ou te alofa ia te ‘oe, Tinā. E lēgalo ‘oe, e lē galo lo tātou atunu‘u.

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