Article 13 – Indigenous Identity and Culture: Potiki by Patricia Grace, Where We Once Belonged by Sia Figiel, and No Sugar by Jack Davis
Indigenous identity is represented through its culture. Indigenous peoples have different cultures, and it is important to understand that each culture has its own values, customs, and beliefs. No matter what culture each Indigenous group has, Indigenous identity should be recognized and respected without any discrimination:
Even though identity groups were not participants in the official negotiations leading to the 1982 agreement, political struggles involving identity groups and their claims were reflected in the very terms set in the Constitution, for instance, in its provisions to protect against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, disability, and so forth, to recognize multiculturalism, and to guarantee Aboriginal rights. (Avigail 91)
It is especially important today that Indigenous identity is no longer devalued by people who do not appreciate Indigenous cultures, who do not want to understand Indigenous culture. That is why the colonizers discriminate against Indigenous people thinking that our culture is inferior to theirs. They force Indigenous people to assimilate to their culture by Christianity and their western education. Indigenous peoples across the world have lost their identity due to colonization, and repression, and Christianity. As a result, colonization has corrupted the lives of Indigenous people and taken away Indigenous identity, which represents its own way of life, which connects with the land, the land that was once owned by their ancestors. Some of the governments do not recognize Indigenous identity with the lack of empathy for their lives and cultures. So many Indigenous people are reluctant to identify themselves with Indigenous ancestry to avoid discrimination. They also fail to understand their culture and Indigenous traditions. Indigenous identity has been stripped of the lives of innocent Indigenous peoples across the world, mainly due to colonization. Thus, Indigenous people have to comply with the dreadful corrupted lives they live today. Patricia Grace’s Potiki, Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged, and Jack Davis’s No Sugar all demonstrate how Indigenous peoples suffer from loss of their homelands, corruption of governments, and colonization, which has interrupted the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples across the world.
Patricia Grace is a Maori novelist living on the ancestral lands of New Zealand along with the people of Ngati Toa, Ngati Raukawa and Te Ati Awa. Potiki is based on the Mario community fighting against the dollar men, and they do not accept the fact that their land can be bought for development. In “Reading toward the Indigenous Pacific,” Miriam points out, “Potiki tells of a misused people who, having through hard work succeeded in making a living off their land, find that land is coveted. Again, and again they withstand pressure upon them to yield. The Mario reject increasingly large sums of money that the developers, intent on purchasing the ancestral for an ocean resort, offer them” (71). Grace explains how the Dollermen do not care about the value of their homelands in New Zealand. Grace tells a dreadful story of her people, who have been “threatened by ‘Dollermen,’ property speculators who speak of golf courses, high rises, shopping malls, and tourist attractions. There is a lesson for all of us in this community’s response to foreigners’ attempts to destroy their ancestral symbols and values” (Grace 6).
Potiki focuses on the Maori Community fighting for their ancestral land. The New Zealand Government agreed with the developers to take their ancestral lands. The Maori Community are fighting for their land with both the Government and the developers who are purposely taking their homelands. As Grace says about their land, “A spiritual presence, embodied in Toko and the figure he carves for the meetinghouse, pervades this story of a coastal community threatened by western notions of progress and development. As the people struggle to hold on to their remaining land, the spiritual core of their community is strengthened in spite of the destruction of cultural symbols of their identity” (Grace 6). The spiritual presence in their homeland has a value that is far beyond what the developers offer them.
Potiki illustrates how important the land is to the Maori Community in New Zealand, and Hemi, the father of the Maori family in the story, understands how important the ancestral land is to his people of New Zealand. The land means a lot to Hemi and his people of the Maori Community, and Hemi always believes that as long as he would return to the land, that land would support the famiy. He feels good about having the land to work with
And they still had their land, that was something to feel good about. Still had everything, except for the hills. The hills had gone, but that was before his time and there was nothing he could do about that, nothing anyone could do. What had happened there wasn’t right but it was over and done with. Now, at least the family was still here, on the ancestral land. (Grace 60)
Grace’s Potiki reminds the readers of the values of Indigenous life, identity, and belief. They strongly believe that land provides the Indigenous peoples with their livelihoods and spirit to inspire them to live a better life. The realization of greedy moneymakers has only distilled into distributing money organizations, which will not only harm the environment because they destroy the land, but also takes away the spirit and identity Indigenous people have with their land. As money is the big issue in this context, it is important to recognize how Governments could just easily think that money could solve their problems. “There had been requests to the family to sell land at the back, and some pressure on them to open up the road along the beach. But they’d all resisted firmly over a number of years. Just as well” (Grace 60).
Potiki tells stories of how land belonged to the Indigenous peoples, and no form of money can value the nature in land. Grace mentions, “And people were looking to their land again. They knew that they belonged to the land, had known all along that there had to be a foothold otherwise you were dust blowing here there and anywhere – you were lost, gone. It was good there was more focus on it now, and more hope” (Grace 61). Although their land had been wrongly taken in the end, it is recognized that colonization would then take over,
They had always known that the land had been taken that there had been no payments except for rents being cheaper, that letters had been written, that homes and a dedicated house had been pulled down. They knew that the land had been taken for a purpose to them as promised. They knew that they still owned the land. They were ashamed not to support him. (Grace 79)
Colonization has affected the innocent lives of the Maori Community because of their destruction of Indigenous culture and beliefs by taking away their land and imposing them the Western education.
Sia Figiel is an American contemporary Samoan novelist and poet. Figiel tells us a story of a young Samoan girl maturing into a woman in Where We Once Belonged. Through telling the life of this young girl, Figiel describes a much more complex way to understand Samoan people and their culture before and after the colonization. As an Indigenous woman, I see that we share some of their culture as well, “We would sit there and sing songs and dance, facing the government road. Recounting all our relatives again, not able to forgive ourselves if we woke up the next day and we remembered someone who had forgotten the night before” (Figiel 23). The importance of culture is when Indigenous come together, when external groups are going against Indigenous peoples, and by coming together to stand for their ancestral land.
Although Samoan girls seem to have freedom in sexual experience, they are the victim of gender discrimination out of their culture. The rules for girls are stricter than boys according to the Tausi Rules,
Tausi Rules. Girls should never dry themselves with the same towel a boy or a man has used. Girls should try and avoid wearing each other’s panties and bras. Girls should always volunteer to do housework. Girls should avoid eavesdropping at all times. Dress yourself good when you’re going to Apia. (Figiel 36)
These are the rules that Samoan society set up for girls to obey. Nevertheless, these rules never stop Samoan girls from developing their curiosities. Figiel starts the story about sexuality, so it will already be a thrilling event about how Samoan girls are curious. Figiel starts off the story of young Samoan women that are talking about sexuality. Figiel mentions, “When I saw the insides of a woman’s vagina for the first time I was not alone. I was with Lil and Moa. Lili’s name was Ma’alili, but everyone called her Lili. Moa’s name was Moalulu, but everyone called her Moa. Lil was seventeen and Moa was sixteen. They were older than me. They were already menstruating” (Figiel 1).
Samoan girls have their native names, but they prefer to be called in shorter terms. By choosing to be called in shorter terms, they give up their indigenous identity. Therefore, they fail to comply with their own culture by being assimilated into a new culture. Instead of being reflected in a collective culture, the narrator chooses to be individualistic by referring to Lili and Moa to “they” and herself as “I”. In “The I and the We: Individuality, Collectivity and Samoan Artistic Responses to Cultural Change,” Anderson observes,
Samoan culture is decidedly more “sociocentric” than “egocentrics” the prevailing “moral discourse” about proper behavior, the “ontological premise” of how Samoans should be, favors those who seem to be dutifully fulfilling the role assigned or expected of them in a hierarchical society. This entails subverting “inner thoughts or feelings” of the self (loto) to the wishes and expectations of the wider collective, typically an extended family unit, church congregation or village. (Mageo 1998 quoted in Henderson 316-317)
The Samoan girls seem to lose their culture and identity along the way by learning new things even in the post-colonial era. Being assimilated into the mainstream culture, in the end, they will give up their own culture.
Opposite to Sia Figiel’s Where We Once Belonged, the Australian Indigenous characters in Jack Davis’s play, No Sugar, resist being assimilated into the colonial culture. Jack Davis, an Aboriginal playwright, was born in Perth in 1917, and was brought up at Yarloop and the Moore River Native Settlement, which housed Aboriginal people from across Western Australia. He began to learn about his language, culture of his people while living on the Brookton Aboriginal Reserve. In No Sugar, Davis displays the Millimurra family dealing with poverty through the great depression years. The urge for survival as the family is set up to fight against Mr. Neal, a white man who is the Superintendent of the Moore River Native Settlement. His job is supposed to protect and care for the Aboriginal families in the settlement; however, he is more interested in keeping colonial control over the Aboriginal people by suppressing and controlling the Aboriginal people.
As an activist, Jack Davis invests in the social and political values of this play. During the great depression years, the Millimurra family depended on their government’s protection for need in survival. But they were forced to remove their ancestral lands to the settlements for the Aboriginal people. Living in the settlement, they lived in poor conditions and they suffered from scabies. The government was supposed to protect the Indigenous lives by providing the living necessities, but the Government cut down on the Indigenous rations that were listed to help maintain their livelihoods. Living necessities are rationed for the Aboriginal people on the reserve, “The Sergeant places flour, sugar, and two small packages on the bench and marks them off in his ration book” (Davis 16). Even for their rationed supplies, the Millimurra family were surprised to find out that the rationed food was cut off the ration supply. Obviously, the cut off ration of their food was conducted by the Government agent. However, the ration for the white people remained the same. It is important to recognize the discrimination that is happening between two parties. Mr. Neal pretends to be concerned with the Aboriginal family’s hygienic conditions “As I mentioned, I was a little concerned to see so many dirty little noses amongst the accoutrements of civilization you are halfway to civilizing him” (Davis 18). The kind of behavior that is being implemented from the Governments just proves to show how poorly the relationship between the two parties is. The Government does not care about the lives of Indigenous cultures. Mr. Neal’s negligence of the short supplies to Indigenous families is absurd, and Jimmy can’t put up with him. Jimmy stands up for himself as he mentioned.
Everyone is silent. The three men are escorted to the camp by the Sergeant and constable.
Jimmy: [nodding at the sergeant] Just listen to him.
Sam: We are all goin’. He gestures Nyoongah fashion as the CONSTABLE goes through a pile of warrants.
Sergeant: Millimurra and Munday.
Gran: Goin’? Where?
Sergeant: I’ve got warrants here for the arrest and apprehension of all of youse. Milly: What for? We ain’t done nothin’ Sergeant: I never said you did. You’re being transferred, every native is Northam going! (Jack 44)
This is the kind of treatment that Indigenous people are forced up, forcing them from removing their spiritual connection within their homelands. Land is important that represents the Indigenous identities, because without their ancestral lands. They are forced to leave their ancestral grounds and feel the separation between their selves. No, they even have no home, not even to mention practicing their own culture.
In conclusion, Indigenous identity is a way we connect with the ancestral lands: without land, without identity. Land is a form of self-belonging. Land provides them with the space to practice their culture and to pass on their spirit. If they are moved away from their land, they will lose their identity because the land is a powerful source that can impact the lives of Indigenous people; once their land is taken, their souls will die. No matter where Indigenous people live, the Government is the same in the world that they can find all the ways to take away Indigenous peoples’ land. In the texts of Potiki by Patricia Grace, Where We once Belonged by Sia Figiel, and No Sugar by Jack Davis, Indigenous writers share the value of identity, the stories of how their homelands were stolen, and how colonization has been an impact in their lives in post-colonial era. Indigenous writers tell the stories from Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous voice is heard through these texts.
Davis, Jack. No Sugar. Currency Press, 1986.
Eisenberg, Avigail. “Indigenous Cultural Rights and Identity Politics in Canada.” Review of Constitutional Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 2013, pp. 89–110.
Figiel, Sia. Where We Once Belonged. Kaya Press edition, 1999.
Fuchs, Miriam. “Reading toward the Indigenous Pacific: Patricia Grace’s ‘Potiki,’ a Case Study.” Boundary 2, vol. 21, no. 1, Mar. 1994, p. 165.
Grace, Patricia. Potiki. University of Hawaii Press Honolulu, 1986.
Henderson, April K. “The I and the We: Individuality, Collectivity, and Samoan Artistic Responses to Cultural Change.” Contemporary Pacific, vol. 28, no. 2, Sept. 2016, pp. 316–345. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1353/cp.2016.0027.
Author’s Bio: Catherine Ross is the youngest out of her family to attend a post-secondary institution. She is currently in her second year of Bachelor of Arts. She is continuing her third year this September. She is an Indigenous woman from Treaty 5. Catherine was born in Winnipeg, but she grew up in Cross Lake, Manitoba. She enjoys visiting family and friends and especially going home to visit her community where she enjoys fishing in the summer. Catherine’s favorite activity is to be surrounded by her family, and she loves to speak Cree with them. She especially enjoys the laughter with them while learning new Cree words. She enjoys playing basketball and meeting new people.
Instructor’s Remarks: As a young woman from Cree Nation, Catherine Ross shows her great interest in the cultures of Indigenous peoples of the world. After close reading three texts written by Indigenous writers from New Zealand, Samoa, and Australia, she has concluded: no matter where Indigenous people live in the world, land is a form of self-belonging. Land provides them the space to practice their culture and to pass on their spirit. Catherine took both first-year and third-year literature courses within a year, and I am very happy to see her intellectual growth. Congratulations on your successful completion of the course, Indigenous Literature of the World. (Dr. Ying Kong)