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One Day in Tonga: Dispatch 7 from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

By | March 23, 2009
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Dateline: Tonga

Smithsonian curator Adrienne Kaeppler and Tongan official Albert Vaea introduced a Lakalaka program featuring a poetic and musical dance tradition designated a masterpiece of oral and intangible heritage by UNESCO. The dancers did not disappoint—their voices soared, the dancers were graceful and our travelers most appreciative. We presented a Smithsonian publication on the Ocean to Albert and also Smithsonian books and recordings for the King and the Princess.

We were then off to a brief visit to the King’s palace, a modest but graceful Victorian style, and the royal burial grounds—also with Victorian style statues of departed leaders coupled with a Polynesian burial awning. The Tongan kingdom has lasted for centuries, and while never colonized, is nonetheless in the midst of democratization.

As we stood by the palace we spotted a mushroom-like cloud billowing up at the edge of the horizon. There had been an earthquake days before, and this looked like an eruption emerging from the sea, though given its white color, and cumulus shape, at least gave the appearance of something far-off and benign.

The National Cultural Center highlighted the island kingdom’s living heritage. We saw demonstrations of tapa, or bark-cloth, making, dyeing and painting, pandanus leaf weaving and mat making, coconut processing, and of course musical performance. It was visually stimulating, informative, and the youthful dancing hyper-energetic.

Living tradition was also evident in cemeteries we passed. Tongans mount embroidered cotton quilts on frames - almost like a signboard over graves of their departed loved ones. Some decay and are not replaced, but others are tended to over the years by family members. They give these cemeteries a unique look.

Adrienne of course was a great tutor in explaining things—she first did her work in Tonga in 1965, and subsequently earned her PhD from the University of Hawaii for a dissertation on Tongan dance. We saw one of her books at the airport and arranged a book-signing on the spot.

We had a special treat on the way back to the airport. As our busload of well satisfied travelers were cruising down the road, the wind blowing the palms, the scent of flowers in the air, our guide Luiza broke out into a Tongan love song. It was a lovely, lilting song about a boy who found his love like a flower growing on the edge of a cliff—alluring and obtainable though dangerously so. It was also a magical moment for all of us.

This post is seventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

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Dr. Richard Kurin

Dr. Richard Kurin serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture with responsibility for most of its museums including the National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Freer and Sackler Galleries, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, the Anacostia Community Museum, the National Museum of African Art, the National Postal Museum, and others including the soon to be built National Museum of African American History and Culture. He also oversees research and outreach programs, including the Smithsonian’s Traveling Exhibition Service, The Smithsonian Associates, the Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Affiliates—a network of 168 museums across the U.S.

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