‘A Pacific notion of presence’: FestPAC attendees show solidarity for New Caledonia

New Caledonia’s hale at the Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture is fully adorned with artwork and gifts. (Photo: Cassie Ordonio/ HPR)

When Fijian Mika Sela saw New Caledonia’s glaringly empty hale at the Hawaii Convention Centre, the Fiji delegate took his kava bowl and sat alone. 

The Indigenous Kanaks of the French territory were forced to pull out at the last minute from the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture due to deadly unrest. The violent protests began when France’s parliament took up changes to New Caledonia’s constitution regarding voting rights. 

But New Caledonia’s absence from the festival hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

“You feel sad when you see that because when you come through, you can see all these hale, and they’re all beautifully decorated as they should be,” Sela said. “But there, they (New Caledonia) need our support.”

Sela’s act of solidarity has drawn other Pacific Islanders from Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia to New Caledonia’s hale. 

The once empty hale is now adorned with gifts, artwork and people who drank kava while they sang in harmony. 

“It’s a simple act of being present,” Sela said. “You don’t want visitors to come and say there’s nothing here for New Caledonia because of the hard time they’re facing right now. I think all the Pacific countries have been through these hard times.” 

Indigenous Pacific Islanders have long fought for the revitalisation of their culture and language after foreign powers colonized many regions of the Pacific. Delegates from the 26 Pacific nations emphasised the struggles of New Caledonia. 

In the corner of New Caledonia’s hale, Kaitlin Ngeremokt McManus painted a canvas representing the unity of the Pacific Islands. 

The artwork encompasses four hands connected by roots, symbolising the rootedness and value of Pacific Island culture. The roots form the circle of a compass with a star in the centre. McManus said it’s a navigation chart to honor the legacy of Pacific Islander navigators. 

“Our ancestors were navigators,” she said. “They sailed the ocean that connects us.” 

“We were sad, but we were grateful that we’re here with so many people to unify and so many people who are just like us and are in solidarity with those who are oppressed,” she said. 

There are two days left until FestPAC ends, and Sela said he plans to occupy New Caldedonia’s hale every day until the end of the festival. 

He said the unity of the Pacific Islands for New Caledonia was the event’s highlight. 

On a recent Tuesday, delegates from all three regions of the Pacific Ocean came together to sing. Sela said this is “a Pacific notion of presence.” 

“I realised that it’s now a space of healing. It’s now a space of community and family,” he said. “We didn’t plan to go this way. So it’s really interesting to observe this and how it’s unfolding.” 

Meanwhile, traditional leaders from across the Pacific are uniting to create the Oceania Traditional Leaders Forum, a dedicated space for ongoing dialogue and collaboration among Pacific nations. 

Leaders from Aotearoa, Fiji, the Marshall Islands, Chuuk and Hawaii signed a declaration to amplify their collective voice while extending an invitation to other nations to add their signatures. 

A little over a dozen traditional leaders — aliʻi, sovereign leaders, ministers, and government officials — from across the Pacific gathered at ʻIolani Palace in Honolulu for the signing of the Tuurama Ariki Declaration. “Tuurama” refers to the light or radiant wisdom of one’s ancestors. 

Office of Hawaiian Affairs Board Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey was one of three representatives from Hawaii, including Prince David Kawānanakoa and state Senator Jarrett Keohokālole. 

“Our collective strength and political alliance formed the very breath that will propel us toward meaningful action and positive change,” Lindsey said. 

“The signing of the declaration today within the historic walls of ʻIolani Palace serves as both a testament to our unwavering commitment and a symbolic step toward restoring justice and honoring our past.” 

Other signatories to the declaration include Chief Vunivalu of Bau in Fiji, Chief Lanny Kabua of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and Chief Peter Aten of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia. Kiingitanga Chief of Staff Ngira Simmonds represented the Māori King Tūheitia Pōtatau Te Wherowhero VII at the signing. 

“It’s an exciting and bold step for us, the Māori people and for the Kiingitanga of Aotearoa. Our history of colonisation and suppression is one that continues to hurt and be a pain among our people to this day,” Simmonds said. “In signing this declaration, Kiingi Tūheitia strives for unity with other leaders and ‘mana motuhake,’ which is our word for Indigenous sovereignty.” 

The declaration comes as Indigenous communities across the Pacific Islands wrestle with governments rolling back their rights. 

In New Zealand, authorities are cracking down on the use of the Māori language in the public sector. The government also plans to review the Treaty of Waitangi, an important document laying out many of the rights and protections for the Māori people. 

In New Caledonia, a French territory in the South Pacific, the French government attempted to impose controversial electoral reforms to extend voting rights to French settlers. The move sparked civil unrest and forced the New Caledonia delegation to pull out of FestPAC.