Polynesian Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

Fijian Culture




Fiji was first settled over 3000 years ago by the Lapita people. There are a blend of many different cultures such as Melanesian, Polynesian, Indian, European and Chinese. In the 19th century Fiji became a trade center for the South Pacific and then later became a colony of Britain. Indians also came over to the island of Fiji as indentured laborers and worked on sugar plantations. After many years of having the indentured servants the system was abolished and Fiji gained their independence from Britain in 1970. Many of the Indians stayed on the island and became farmers and businessmen. Fijians are still are very strong with their traditions and they haven’t changed much over the past 100 years. The people still live in a village which is led by a chief. They all work together in the community to grow food and build houses (1). In the Fiji family, food, art, and dance are an important part of their culture. Weaving is very big in Fiji and they weave all different things such as baskets, bags, hats, mats for the floor, and many more. The material they used to weave is Pandanus and Coconut and it takes days to make sure the material is perfect to weave. Their clothes are also important to their culture; men were loin cloths and women wear grass skirts. The Fijian people are very kind and love visitors in their village (2). Showing respect is also important to the people of Fiji. Some ways to show respect in their village is to take your shoes off prior to entering any house. It is disrespectful to touch anyone on the head. It is also important when visiting the village to bring the gift of “kava,” which is a drink that has been in Fiji for decades (3).

Values and Norms

The Fijian values and norms come from their strong cultural background. The family unit, village, and land are all very important to them (4). Every village is led by a chief. When the chief dies a male member of the family inherits the position to be chief. The chief holds a lot of power over the village and the people and presides over important rituals. Fijian people do not own their own land, it is given to them by a chief to farm. The houses in Fiji sit side by side each other with no fences or walls separating the two yards (5)The women in the village are in charge of doing the house work such as cooking, cleaning, weaving, and collecting fire wood while the men fish (5). "The women have little or no role when it comes to decision making in the village" (6). Decision making if left up to the men after they have earned their respect from the other men in the village. Respect is very important to the Fijian people and it important to earn that respect from other. A sign of being disrespectful is speaking loud or yelling. "The largest social unit in Fiji is known as a yavusa, from which the members are thought of as the direct descendents" (4). Each elder of the family will then form what is called mataqail. which is broken up into different levels depending on what job they do (4). The first level is called the Turuga or chief. Next to the chief is the Sauturaga who supports him and has the final say in who will become the next chief. Mata ni vanu is the next and is in charge of all the ceremonies. Then there is the priest class called bête and the warrior class called Bati. The last group of people are called Dau and Matai and they are specialized skills and crafts people (4). Fijian people love having visitors and will treat anyone that visits there as one of their own. It is part of their culture to bring a gift of Yaqona roots which is customary gratuity. Yaqona roots also known as "kava" is a relaxing drink they use in ceremonies to welcome their guest to the village (5).

Traditions, Beliefs and Attitudes

In the Fijian culture ceremonies are very important to them whether it is for births, marriages, or even deaths they always have some type of ceremony. There are many different items that they include in the ceremony such as yaqona, tabua, and mats. All of these items are crucial in the ceremonies. Yaqona is a type of pepper plant that is ground into powder and mixed with water to create their ceremony drink. Tabua is a whale’s tooth and is known as a valued gift during the ceremony. The mats that are part of the ceremony are made out of a certain type of plant and are exchanged during the ceremony. Not only are these items important during the ceremonies but also different songs and dances they perform. These songs and dances have been passed down from many generations. The dances are called meke which tell stories about Fijian life (8). Social structure in Fiji is also very important. Family is taught to be the most important thing. “There is great intricacy of social interaction among families and close tribes, between brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and the like” (7). The people in the village interact with each other based on their relationship in the family. Respect is very important to Fijians and it is based in three main concepts such as age, sex, and social distance. The older the person is no matter what sex they are; they will receive the highest respect.


Before the European influence in Fiji ancient religion was based on ancestor worship and belief in the afterlife. There were many rituals associated with the ancient religion, one of which was cannibalism. Based on evidence found from archaeologists, cannibalism occurred from 500 BC to the late 19th century (13). Eating a human was a sort of war trophy. It was done as the ultimate revenge to the person’s family and tribe. Bodies could be consumed on the battlefield or taken to the village for a celebration (13). Traditional religion involved worshiping a series of gods. These gods varied from tribe to tribe on the different islands. Each individual village had a priest and a temple where specific gods would be honored.

This was practiced until the 19th century and then the dominate religion changed to Christianity. Christianity was introduced by the Tongans who were more willing to accept European cultures. The majority of the Christians are Methodists with a few practicing Hindu and Islam. There are various types of Hindu present. The Hindu religion was brought in from indentured laborers from India who were delivered by the British. “Approximately 51% of the population are Christians, 40% Hindus and 8% Muslims”(9) Still to this day Christians are the most prevalent. There are many Christian churches, mosques, and Hindi temples located on the island (10). The Fijian people value religion like they value family. It is very important to them therefore making attendance at church very high. The priest of the church is highly respected and has great amount of power over the people.

Sense of Self and Space

Sense of self and space is important for understanding the culture of Fiji. They are taught from a young age that family and friends are the most important thing in life (14). Fijians have informal personal relationships and will not pass each other without saying a word of greeting. “They show their respect to the chiefs of their villages by not wearing scanty dresses, hats, sunglasses, garlands or shoulder bags” (15). They also show their respect by speaking in a quiet peaceful tone. It is disrespectful to point at one’s feet at any given time (16). It is expected that people remove their shoes and hesitate before entering a house. When inside the house they are to seat themselves near the door until invited to come in. Sitting crossed-legged in the house is important because it shows modesty and respect. During mealtime everyone sits crossed-legged on the mat while the older men sit at the head, then younger men, then children, and then women (16). The head is considered the most sacred part of the body and is considered disrespectful to rise above a person’s head (16). Fijians love when visitors come to their country because they love to share with them about their heritage, music, sea life, demonstrate medicinal use of trees and plants, and teach you how to windsurf and how to fish (14). Giving and receiving gifts is a sign of respect and very important when visiting a village. Guests are also given kava to drink to promote solidarity between kin, friends, and acquaintances (15).

Communication Style and Language

Fiji has three official languages which are English, Fijian, and Hindi. English and Fijian are the most commonly spoken languages. English is the main language used in communicating, education, commerce, and in courts (17). The pronunciation of Fijian is similar to the English pronunciation; they just have slight changes in the phonetic (17). The alphabet is also similar to the English alphabet except for they do not have a letter x and the letters h and z are only used once in a while (17). The Fijian language is easy to understand and also very easy to learn. Communication styles vary from being shy to say anything to very direct in expressing their feelings. In Fiji it is appropriate to start the conversation by asking “where are you going” instead of “how are you.” Starting the conversation this way is considered a polite and appropriate way (18). Women in Fiji are very reserved and allow the men to do most of the talking. Fijians like to joke around in conversations with other people from their village to try and lighten the mood about minor topics in their conversation (18). When Fijians are talking to tourists they will often answer yes to all questions even when they don’t understand the questions. They do this because they are very polite and do it as a sign of respect to the tourists.

Food and Feeding Habits

Fiji has an abundance of high quality fresh natural food because the land is so fertile and the sea is so rich. Many of the markets are filled with taros, bananas, sweet potatoes, rice, breadfruit, coconut, cassava, fish, and leafy greens. They cook their meals on an open-fire or underground pit. These cooking methods have been passed down from many generations. Since a big portion of Fiji is Indo-Fijian they have a strong influence on the food because of the colorful curries and spices (33).

There are many popular dishes in Fiji including kokodo (koko-da), lovo karo (lo-vo karo), and palusami (pal-u-sami). Kokodo is a raw fish salad that is made up of Mahi-mahi fish, onions, lemon/lime juice, salt, chilies, and a coconut dressing. Lovo karo is a mixture of meat, fish, and vegetables that is cooked in an underground pit (33). This dish is popular in celebrations and events such as weddings and festivals (34). Palusami consist of corn beef, fish, or pork that is steamed with coconut milk and taro leaves.

Fijians are very friendly and frequently ask guests over to their home for a meal. It is polite of the guest to start dishing up their food first. “. It is the local custom to wait patiently until the house guest makes their first move towards the food, otherwise everyone will simply wait around with grumbling stomachs. No one will remind you as it is deemed impolite” (33).

Time Consciousness

The concept of time in Fiji is completely different than it is in the United States. They are slow paced, take their time, and have the mentality that things will get accomplished when they need to. In the states it is constantly busy and the mentality is opposite because people are so use to having everything they need right then and now. Fijians always have time to talk to each other and aren’t in a rush to get things done. They are not worried about meeting deadlines and have the attitude of “If you don’t get it today you’ll get it another day. If you can’t do it today, you’ll be able to do it another day. The best way to get along is to take it easy, and not to get worried about what happens later” (19). They are not worried about what happens in the future but just living for the day (19). “A person who worries about the future is said to be lomaocaoca” (19). Not only is too much worrying about the future bad for one’s health, it is also morally unacceptable in Fiji.

In Fiji, Sunday is an important day because it is all about going to church and spending time with family and friends. It is not meant for getting things done or working on that day. Their lives are simple because they are focused on service to others rather than success for themselves. “They work to have enough, and share with others when they have more than enough” (20). They take the time to live without being rushed and to build long lasting relationships. “A motto in Fiji for when visitors come to the island is “Once you arrive at the airport, then forget about deadlines, rushing, constantly checking your watch because you are now on Fiji time” (20). Their time concept can be hard for people that are not from Fiji to visit the island and get use to their slow paced lives.

Relationships and Social Organization

In the traditional Fijian society it was common for men to have multiple wives. “The more wives the men had, the higher his social status”(22). Therefore chiefs had many wives and because of the multiple wives it helped create political alliances among all the different villages (22). Many houses in Fiji consist of the family plus their extended family such as aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. It is also customary for newlyweds to live in the house of the groom’s father. The structure of the family is very hierarchical therefore there is one senior male that leads the home. The senior man or leader of the home has the same authority as chiefs that lead the different villages and then power is granted according to age and gender (22). A woman’s social position within the family all relies on her husband. Children are taught to respect their elders and to always take orders from the men in the family. “Respect and strict obedience are expected of children; discipline and punishment is the job of the father” (22).

Each Fijian is born into a certain role in the family which plays a certain role in the social structure. The village is led by a chief and within that village there are several family units. “People in villages share the obligations and rewards of community life and are still led by a hereditary chief” (9). The Fijian society is based on the principles that are derived from the village life. “There is great intricacy of social interaction among families and close tribes, between brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and the like” (23). The Fijian people are hard workers and work together in their community to prepare food, build homes, and maintain the overall wellness of their village. This type of community brings a sense of belonging and identity to the people (9).

Education and Learning

In Fiji the educational system is broken up into 4 different sections primary, secondary, vocational secondary, and tertiary. “The Republic of Fiji has approximately 700 primary schools and 150 secondary schools, some of which are run by the government and some by private groups, such as religious organizations “(25). The educational structure varies between rural areas and towns and children are not required by law to attend school.

Primary, which is also known as elementary school, is managed by the government or different religions. Many of the different religions include Catholic, Methodist, Sabha and Muslim. Children start elementary school at the age of 6. Secondary school, which is also known as high school, can last for a total of five years. “Students either leave after 3 years with a Fiji school leaving certificate, or remain on to complete their final 2 years and qualify for tertiary education” (24). Vocational secondary is high as well that includes courses such as carpentry, metalwork, woodwork, home economics and agricultural science (24). There are only a few schools that offer vocational courses. Tertiary is the higher education such as colleges and universities. They offer 2 year and 4 year degrees in specialty fields such as engineering, hotel catering and business studies. There are also other colleges that specialize in agriculture, medicine and technology (24).

“The mission statement of the Ministry of Education is that government schools in Fiji will provide a holistic, inclusive, responsive and empowering education system that enables all children to realize their full potential, appreciate fully their inheritance, take pride in their national and cultural identity and contribute fully to sustainable national development” (25). All government schools are free of cost with and do not require an examination to attend the school. Private schools are the exact opposite costing around 4400 a year and students are required to pass an exam before being accepted (25).

Work Habits and Practices

The agricultural industry is very important for Fiji’s economy. Majority of these farms are located in rural areas of Fiji. The people that live in these rural areas work together so they can be efficient, help one another, and financially support their village (28). Fiji is very fortunate because of their rich resource base and tropical climate. Fiji has an advantage in producing a wide variety of tropical fruits and vegetables such as papaya, tomatoes, pineapple, coconut, mango, chilies, banana, cassava, taro, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, ginger, and cocoa (26). The people in Fiji sell these fruits and vegetables in food markets. Other occupations for people that live in rural areas are fisherman and small-scale cash croppers. A long with agriculture they also produce tobacco and sugar. “Sugar production, begun in 1862, dominates and now engages over half the workforce” (27). “These cane farms produce the sugar on leased land because the largely government-owned Fiji Sugar Corporation has a monopoly on sugar milling and marketing” (27).

In the cities the occupations vary from manufacturing, distribution, commercial farming, and service industries (27). Many women work in the laundry industries that are located in big cities. Tourism is also very popular in the big cities. “In 1994, over three hundred thousand tourists and seventeen thousand cruise ship passengers visited the islands” (27). Many of the hotels for tourists are located in secluded beaches and people from the island are employed at these hotels.

There are also many little shops that are set up to attract tourists. These shops are open Monday-Saturday, but Saturday usually consists of a half day. The average Fijian will work a six day week (29). “Sixty-two percent of all Fijian people aged 15 years and over were working in either full-time or part-time employment at the time of the 1996 Census” (30). Most of the people were working at least 30 or more hours a week with a majority of the people working part time were women.


. . As a Registered Nurse (RN), it would be important to recognize:

  1. In Fiji approximately 60% of the people live in poverty bringing home an average of 60-80 dollars a week (31). People live in rural areas will have to travel hours to be treated at a hospital (32). Healthcare for Fijians depends highly on the public health system for both acute and long term care. These facilities are in poor condition and do not have enough staff or medical supplies. The lack of staff makes it so there is longer waiting times, making it difficult to be seen. Many doctors and nurses are from the bordering countries such as New Zealand and Australia and because of the influx of these medical professionals is can cause stress on the health care system. There is only one private hospital that provides high quality treatment but only a select few can pay for this. This hospital is similar to Western countries hospitals because they provide their patients with short waiting times, up to date technology, and modern facilities (32).
  2. “Diabetes, hypertension, and premature deaths from heart disease are in epidemic proportions in Fiji, since most people go through life untested and unmanaged. Services for heart catherization and interventional cardiology are not available in Fiji” (31). These diseases are very treatable but they do not have the means and equipment to diagnose these problems. Fijian women also have a high rate of cervical and breast cancer because they are not educated and are not able to have early screenings such as pap smears and breast exams. Another disease that is spreading rapidly in Fiji is HIV/AIDS. “The Fiji Minister for Health called the situation "alarming, and in a state of pandemic” (31). One of the main causes for this spread is because high school students are using prostitution to pay tuition and school supplies (31).

External Links


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