Polynesian Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

General Polynesian Culture




Polynesian culture can be described by five major issues: hierarchy, obedience, family, land, and spirituality(1) [1]. Due to geographic isolation and island living, Polynesians developed a culture of community living that enveloped every part of their lives. The sharing of resources, food, child-rearing, and work was essential to the survival of early Polynesians, remnants of which are still seen in Polynesian culture today(2)[2].

Values and Norms

Polynesian society is very family and community oriented. Polynesian parents strive to pass on to their children values such as obedience and respect to parents and elders, conformity to religious and cultural beliefs and the proper behavior that is expected of them(3) [3]. It is normal in Polynesia for personal property to be seen as the property of the social group instead of an individual. They believe the Western notion of ownership is selfish, and see nothing wrong with borrowing whatever item they need from others, without thinking anything of it(4) [4]. Children learn about their culture and value system by careful observation and imitation, expected to learn acceptable behavior by watching other family members. Polynesians are continuously taught respect and deference to elders, which is shown in every aspect of their lives. Elders teach about family history and culture, are consulted for advice and decision making, eat before anyone else, and are generally venerated(5) [5].

Traditions, Beliefs and Attitudes

Service in Polynesian culture is not just a verb, it’s an attitude of thinking and living. Polynesians learn from an early age that each person must learn to serve and take care of each other in order for the individual, family, and extended family or tribe to grow and prosper [6]. Polynesians have an inherent conviction of the principles of generosity and hospitality. Hostility to foreigners or strangers is rarely shown [7]. Polynesians will generally smile even if they don’t feel like it to endure that strangers are happy and made to feel welcome. Smiling sets the attitude for all future interactions[6]. Tradition is a vital part of Polynesian culture. It has always been the responsibility of the priests to keep the verbal traditions, history, and records of their people, and they will not divulge any information except to those that they know and respect. Polynesian traditions are viewed as sacred, and can bring on the wrath of the gods if not followed correctly [8].


Polynesian religion before Western contact consisted of a pantheon of gods as well as local and family spirits who were involved in daily life. Although much traditional religious beliefs have disappeared, ancient Polynesian temple platforms, called marae, are still believed to be holy places. Ancient ceremonies are re-enacted through traditional Polynesian dances for tourists. Christian missionaries arrived in the late 1700s and began converting natives. Some Polynesians practice a blend of Christian and native beliefs, with some modern villages have indigenous practitioners who can help control spirits and ghosts and heal afflicted people [9]. Polynesian religions are based mainly on experiences, not on faith. Experiences with people who have died come in many forms, from babies who have been miscarried or aborted and are now demon spirits, to wandering, homeless spirits who had been neglected during their lives. Relationships with the dead are a huge strength to Polynesian culture as revered family members can be transformed into family gods one can turn to for help [10]. Polynesians believe in the materiality of all things, including ghosts and spirits who have finer, lighter bodies. This materiality of all things helps make communication and interaction possible. There is also a tendency to relate all things to each other, in one framework , such as humans, gods, animals, plants, elements, etc [11].

Sense of Self and Space

It is very difficult for Polynesians to separate culture from self, or family from self. From birth, children are part of a group mentality, being passed from family member to family member, carried everywhere and part of everything. This social relationship makes it difficult for some Polynesians to act independently, often relying on family advice or consensus before making decisions. As individuals move farther away from the family group, they can struggle with isolation, confusion, guilt, and loss of identity [12].

Communication Style and Language

The most common Polynesian languages, in order of the largest number of speakers are: Samoan, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian, and Tongan. Polynesian languages are known for their heavy use of vowels and scarcity of consonants, as well as a high reliance on particles [13]. Polynesian languages are very influenced by the physical world around them. They have a high number of grammatical elements, indicating direction of motion, movement and relation to the speaker, and movement along a seashore-inland axis. There are also an abundance of vocabulary describing the natural world, such as stars, currents, winds, landforms and directions [14]. In French Polynesia, most residents speak both French and Tahitian, with native and local languages still spoken on isolated islands and by older residents [9].

Food and Feeding Habits

A traditional Polynesian diet is a combination of native foods along with foods introduced by Europeans, Japanese, Americans, and Asians. Starchy foods such as taro, cassava, yam, green bananas, and breadfruit, are the staples of a traditional diet, plus fruit, fruit juices, vegetables and nuts. Milk and other dairy products are uncommon, which has led to high rates of calcium deficiencies. Polynesian health has declined as lifestyles have changed from farming and fishing activities to more sedentary habits, and with the introduction and ease of Americanized fast foods and processed foods [15]. Food plays an important role in Polynesian culture. Visitors are almost always offered a meal as a means of hospitality, and refusal of food is taken as an insult to the host. Food represents prosperity, generosity, and community support [16]. Meals are generally three times per day, with breakfast being coffee and cereal or bread. The main meal is eaten at midday, and any leftover food from this meal is eaten in the evening, with fruit in between meals [17].

Time Consciousness

Relationships and Social Organization

Polynesian culture is very family oriented, with households usually consisting of three or more generations. Traditional child rearing was done by turning over a younger child to the other children of the household, where they would interact and play with children of other families. Grandparents often have a special relationship with their grandchildren [18]. Parents tend to be more concerned with discipline and instruction, while grandparents are more indulgent [19]. Sexual relationships before marriage are common and casual in most Polynesian cultures. This is not the case once a permanent relationship is established. Polynesians generally enjoy freedom of choice when choosing a marriage partner [20]. Although the Polynesian hierarchy of ranked titles and chieftainship is gone, genealogical records and family history are still important. Originally, social status was defined by hierarchy and land ownership, but currently it is usually shown by the display of imported goods such as cars and clothing [9].

Education and Learning

In French Polynesia, local schools have trouble meeting the educational needs of native children. There are high rates of drop-outs, and students tend to fall further behind each year. However, there are many organizations that offer higher levels of training for vocations such as hospitality and catering, tourism, office skills, accounting, computing, electrical and automotive trades, construction, health and social welfare, languages and general education [21]. For most Polynesians, teaching children about their cultural identity and value system is extremely important. Fears of unwanted influences from friends at school who may be from different ethnic backgrounds and value systems can inhibit children’s freedoms and use of free time. Some parents are also concerned about the difference of work ethic they see in their children. Older generations usually grew up with little materialistic goods and doing physical work, which they don’t see in their children. Parents are direct with their children about the behavior that is expected of them, and see their interaction not as a dialogue but as instructions that the child should then obey [22].

Work Habits and Practices

Some factors that contribute to economic difficulties among Polynesian islands include isolation from large metropolitan areas, small and widespread populations, and lack of raw materials. Low levels of income and savings, the lack of managerial and technical skills, and traditional social and land organizations also are a factor. The majority of Polynesians depend on subsistence production as means of work, such as agriculture, building houses, plantation development and the construction of handicraft and tools. Tourism has been expanding in many Polynesian islands, boosting work opportunities for many people [23].


Polynesians tend to have a high rate of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and stroke. They also may be genetically predisposed to store fat. Health professionals are trying to emphasize the importance of a more traditional, native diet, instead of turning to an Americanized diet of fast foods and processed foods [24]. Adding to the problem, obesity is regarded by the local people with pride rather than as a sign of ill health [17]. Many Polynesians believe health problems and illness are connected to a wide variety of physical, social, and religious elements, such as interactions with other human beings living or dead, gods, environment, etc. Discord in families can also be a cause of sickness. Various methods of healing are also implored such as material remedies, bodily contact, prayers, family support and encouragement, and ritual [11]. Adding to the difficulties facing healthcare workers is Polynesian social hierarchy. Polynesians generally take their problems first to family members, then to tribal or community elders, then to church ministers, and lastly, if at all, to health professionals [12]. As a whole, Western medicine has struggled to overcome the traditional Polynesian ways of healthcare and treating illness. Health professionals need to be aware and respectful of the cultural and psychological needs of Polynesian patients [11]. Health care workers should employ the help of tribal or community elders to help avoid misunderstandings and have a better chance for success [25]. Health care workers need to remember the social hierarchy and status of elders in Polynesian cultures and show respect. Also, a family or tribal group as a whole is generally more important than an individual, so Polynesians may view a severely ill young person as not as critical as an elder in poor health [25].

See Also




External Links


  1. Makasiale, C. & Culbertson, P. (2000). Mental Health and Polynesian Clients. Retrieved from http://www.ptprof.com/articles/polymh.html
  2. AhChinge, P. (2003). A Scientific Analysis of Polynesian Origins and Culture. Retrieved from http://asiapacificuniverse.com/asia_pacific/messages8/766.html
  3. Schoeffel, P. & Meleisa, M. (1996). Auckland Pacific Island Polynesian Attitudes to Child Training and Discipline in New Zealand: Some Policy Implications for Social Welfare and Education. Retrieved from http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj06/06-pacific-children.html
  4. (2013). In culturematters.org Retrieved from http://culturematters.org.nz/node/113
  5. (2013). In amsamoa.net Retrieved from http://amsamoa.net/culture
  6. Ora, K., Lava, T., Lava, F., Orana, K., Lelei, M.E. & Vanaka, B. (1996 - 2013) Maori and Pacific Island Customs and Beliefs. Retrieved from http://www.amitabhahospice.org/public/helpful_info/maori.php
  7. Campbell Ian C.. On Polynesian Hospitality. In: Journal de la Société des océanistes. N°70-71, Tome 37, (1981). pp. 27-37. Retrieved from http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/jso_0300-953x_1981_num_37_70_3047
  8. (2012) In www.victoria.ac.nz HAWAIKI: THE ORIGINAL HOME OF THE MAORI; WITH A SKETCH OF POLYNESIAN HISTORY Retrieved from http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-SmiHawa-t1-body-d1.html
  9. (2013). In Everyculture.com French Polynesia Retrieved from http://www.everyculture.com/Cr-Ga/French-Polynesia.html#b
  10. (2013). In deathreference.com Polynesian Religions Retrieved from http://www.deathreference.com/Nu-Pu/Polynesian-Religions.html#b
  11. (1986) Charlot, J. RELIGION AND MEDICINE IN POLYNESIA Retrieved from http://www.johncharlot.me/Hawaiian-Polynesian-NativeAmerican/Polynesian%20Medicine.htm
  12. Makasiale, C. & Culbertson, P. Mental Health and Polynesian Clients. Originally published in The GM Resource & Referral Directory (2000), pgs 258-259. Retrieved from http://www.ptprof.com/articles/polymh.html
  13. Polynesian languages. (2013). In Britannica.com Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/468864/Polynesian-languages
  14. Traditional Polynesia. (2013). In Britannica.com Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/468832/Polynesian-culture/276574/Traditional-Polynesia
  15. Misra, R. & James, D. C. S. Pacific Islander Americans, Diet of. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.faqs.org/nutrition/Ome-Pop/Pacific-Islander-Americans-Diet-of.html#b
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  19. Schoeffel, P. & Meleisa, M. (1996). Auckland Pacific Island Polynesian Attitudes to Child Training and Discipline in New Zealand: Some Policy Implications for Social Welfare and Education. Retrieved from http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj06/06-pacific-children.html
  20. (2013). In Everyculture.com Polynesians Retrieved from http://www.everyculture.com/wc/Mauritania-to-Nigeria/Polynesians.html#b
  21. 21. (2013) In icde.org Retrieved from http://www.icde.org/projects/regulatory_frameworks_for_distance_education/country_profiles/french_polynesia/
  22. Schoeffel, P. & Meleisa, M. (1996). Auckland Pacific Island Polynesian Attitudes to Child Training and Discipline in New Zealand: Some Policy Implications for Social Welfare and Education. Retrieved from http://www.msd.govt.nz/about-msd-and-our-work/publications-resources/journals-and-magazines/social-policy-journal/spj06/06-pacific-children.html
  23. Fairbairn, I.J. The Journal of the Polynesian Society. Vol. 80 1971 > Vol. 80, No. 1 > Pacific Island economies, by I. (2012). p 74 - 118 Retrieved from http://www.jps.auckland.ac.nz/document/Volume_80_1971/Volume_80%2C_No._1/Pacific_Island_economies%2C_by_I._J._Fairbairn%2C_p_74_-_118/p1?page=0&action=searchresult&target=
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