Scattered to the north and east of Australia, across the world's deepest, largest ocean are the Pacific Islands. Pacific Islanders have migrated around the world, predominantly to New Zealand, the United States and Australia. In Australia, more than 206,000 people are of Pacific Islander heritage, people distinct in their unique cultural histories, traditions and often an unwavering devotion to family.
But how much do you know about Pacific cultures? Do you know what differentiates a Samoan from a Tongan, a Fijian from a Cook Islander?
Ravana Saifoloi, a Canberran of Samoan descent, believes this distinction is important when it comes to identity. Especially for young people.
"When you go back to the islands, being a Pacific Islander is different to what it is here. Over there you either identify as Samoan, Tongan, Fijian, etc, but over here you aren't afforded that distinction. You're lumped together as being from the Pacific,” the 24-year-old said.
"Navigating the space of adolescence is hard enough. Not knowing where you come from doesn’t help, and tradition is a way we can connect. Knowing your tradition and your culture sets a sturdy foundation for what you can learn about yourself.”
This belief brought her to co-organise Canberra's Polyfest, an event in which secondary school students showcase Pacific Island cultures through music, dance and costume.
Performers also compete in four divisions: Samoan, Tongan, Cook Island, and Maori. Still, it’s not all about distinction and division, Saifoloi said.
“Performance is a unifying factor across all Pacific nations," she said.
"In Pacific history, the ocean is what connects us. Our ancestors were navigators. Pacific history tells us we frequently migrated or travelled between islands in the past, so the cultures are interrelated.
“With the Maori language, some words sound very similar to Samoan. Same with Tongan, same with Cook Islander.
“And there’s a new diasporic community forming. People aren’t just part of one ethnic group, they’ll be half Pacific Islander, half Australian. Or a mix of different islands.”
Competitors are students from Karabar High School, St Clare's and from a combination of Northside schools, all between the ages of 12 and 18.
There will also be a night market in conjunction with Polyfest, run by local Polynesian businesses. Arts, craft and foods like poke bowls, taro, pork buns and chop suey will be there for hungry festival-goers.
Polyfest started in 1976 in Otara, New Zealand and in 2018, the annual event drew crowds of almost 100,000. The event is new to Australia, with the first Polyfest Australia event running in Sydney in March, followed by one in Brisbane in September.
The idea to bring it to Canberra came from Saifoloi’s Australian National University colleague and Polyfest co-organiser Cathleen Nansen.
Nansen, who has a "big heart for the Pacific movement", hopes to encourage young people to connect with their roots, which she admits can be difficult in a western society, a plight which Saifoloi identified with.
"I went to a monocultural high school, and this is something I wish I had when I was there. Trying to balance the two worlds I was living in was always a struggle.
"Having these Polynesian groups would have helped, especially in terms of identity. Finding a place where you aren't categorised as the other, where you aren't starkly different, in an inclusive space."
Erindale Theatre. Friday, November 30, 6-10pm. Tickets via Eventbrite. $10-20.