Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, by Christina Thompson*****

Christina Thompson is the author of Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, which I read and loved. I was thrilled when I saw that she was about to publish another book, and even more so when I found a review copy; thanks go to Edelweiss and Harper Collins. This book is for sale now.

For centuries, Western scholars have tried to tease apart the many unknown aspects of Polynesian history. The islands are spread across an area of the Pacific Ocean (and beyond) so large that all of the Earth’s landmasses could fit into it, and there would still be room for an extra one the size of Australia. And yet there’s undeniable evidence that they navigated from one to another in canoes, without compasses or written maps of any kind. How the heck did they do it?

Thompson discusses the early European efforts, from the ‘discovery’ of various islands—and she points out that Europeans jealously guarded information, and so British explorers didn’t benefit from what the Spanish found, for example, and vice versa—to present day. She talks about the differing points of view, languages, and cultural divides that prevented the white folk from understanding what islanders were trying to tell them, and from believing that they knew as much as they did. As far as I can tell, Thompson is the first Caucasian writer to approach this subject with respect for the islander peoples about whom she is writing; her husband and sons are of Maori descent, and so for her, this connection merges the academic and the personal.

The thing that makes Thompson so readable is her wry take on the errors made by those that came before—mostly the Westerners that approached the area with paternalism tinged with more than a little racism in many cases. I’ll be reading along and thinking yes yes, this is interesting…and then I’ll come across a remark and reread it—did she just say what I think she just said? And then I am laughing out loud. Find me a geographer, an anthropologist, a sociologist that can do that. In particular, her unpacking of the whole Kon-Tiki debacle is unmissable.

If I could change anything, it would be to have been able to read this before I went into teaching instead of after retirement. I taught a lot of Islander kids, and the wisdom is that when we teach American history, we incorporate the history of each ethnic group represented in the classroom. I knew how to include my African-American students, and I knew what to tell kids of Chinese and Japanese backgrounds. I had material for my Latino kids. But with my Islander students, all I could do is say that I had truly tried to find information for them, but what little I found was so deadly dull and written at such a high literacy level that it wouldn’t work for them. And what would really kick ass is if this writer, at some lull between high-powered academic projects, could write something for children or young adults of Maori descent. Right now, English-speaking Pacific Island kids have one Disney movie. That’s it.  

This book is highly recommended to every reader with post-high-school literacy ability and stamina. It’s a cultural treasure, and though I rarely do this with galleys, I will go back and read this again, because there’s no way to take it all in the first time, even when making notes.

What a wonderful find.  

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett *****

dontsleeptherearesnakesI read this shortly after it came out, and I’ve been going nuts trying to remember the title. Thank goodness for Google’s search engine! Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is an amazing memoir that challenges assumptions under which most first-worlders have lived for a very long time.

Everett went to Brazil with his wife;they were Protestant missionaries, sent by their church to convert the Pirahas, an indigenous people who live deep inside the Amazon jungle, to Christ. They took a few tools and trinkets with them, which have been useful to missionaries–think of them as spiritual bribes–for generations. They traveled under tremendous physical hardship, experiencing terrible illness and threatened by deadly snakes and other jungle life, risking their necks for their cause.

Furthermore, they were tasked with deciphering the Piraha language so that the New Testament could be translated for the salvation of these Christless savages.

Instead, the opposite occurred.

First of all, the Pirahas didn’t want their stinking trinkets. Even items that Westerners regard as essential, such as knives and cooking pots, were only of temporary interest. When presented with these goodies, they would enjoy them, then abandon them. Because stuff doesn’t matter to the Pirahas, and when you’re a nomadic people, you need to travel light.

At first, Everett patiently tried to teach them to hang onto things so they’d have them when they needed them. He watched them go to a tremendous amount of effort to replicate a process that the knife, the cook pot could have shortened by hours, not to mention a reduced physical effort. But over the course of time, they let him know that it wasn’t that they didn’t understand him; they just didn’t agree.

And the greatest barrier to the conversion of the Pirahas to Christianity is this: they were already happy.

Eventually, Everett found himself questioning his own prayers. Why was he asking the Almighty to help him change these people, to obliterate their successful lifestyle–at least by the basic standard of personal fulfillment, as opposed to who has the greater technology–in order to become grasping materialists trying to keep up with the Joneses?

Ultimately, he came to a startling conclusion: the Pirahas were absolutely correct. His God was a myth. All the Pirahas needed was what they already had, and to be left alone, along with the environment in which they flourished. And this conclusion ultimately cost him his marriage, but he could not, would not retreat into the opiate of Christianity. Once he had a clue, he couldn’t lose it.

It’s a fascinating read.

Everett also develops a new understanding of how language is learned. My daughter, who is a passionate linguist herself, tells me that his discovery is flawed and has been discredited. I would not know. It sure sounded interesting to me.

The one thing I can guarantee is that if you have no religious drum to pound yourself, you’ll find the transformation that occurs here compelling.

Not recommended reading for serious Christians.

Come On Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, by Christina Thompson*****

come

This book has been published for awhile, but it’s worth revisiting. There’s just nothing out there like it, at least not that I have found.

For years I searched for history books that gave either the past history, or current culture, of the Pacific Islands. The population I taught had large numbers of Islander kids in it, and they would be the first to tell you, their culture and history is NOTHING like that of people called “Asian”, i.e., China, Japan, Korea…maybe a teensy bit more like Cambodia.

This fabulous book, listed under “anthropology” (a part of the book store I never go! Good thing I saw it reviewed and went looking for it!), gives an insightful and caring chronology from the early Maoris (an indigenous people who were insightful and suspicious enough NOT to be friendly toward the British crews who came to “claim” their islands for the crown) to the present-day life there. *spoilers from here on*

The writer stayed long enough to fall in love with, and marry, one of the citizens there, and she gained insights that many of us would not have, if we simply traveled there to write a thesis and get out again.

I encourage you to read this book (you will need a strong sense of geography and a fresh, untired mind), and draw your own conclusions