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From Fale to Film: Polynesian Inspirations for Moana

I came to the 2016 Disney film Moana only recently thanks to my little one. The kid is OBSESSED with the adventures of Moana and Maui, and we’ll watch parts of it while playing or drying off after a bath (or when Mama and Daddy need a mental break). This means I’ve seen the film, in snatches or in toto, around 25 times in the past nine months.

All that exposure led to a delightful side effect: it turned me into a fan of the movie. Disney’s animated movies have been consistently delightful since The Princess & The Frog kickstarted the Disney Revival in 2009, but Moana is the best and most beautiful of the lot (all apologies to Tangled, which is a very close second).

The most intriguing part about the movie (aside from Heihei the strangely elderly rooster) are the actual cultures that form its sociocultural backdrop. Moana is brimming with objects, people, and places rooted in Polynesian cultures from across the south Pacific.  

Life on Motunui: The Fale 

“A village on the Manu’a Island Group, Samoa, circa 1890-1910 showing traditional Samoan oval thatched houses.” (source)

The beginning third of the movie takes place on Motunui, a beautiful island analogous to Samoa. Moana’s father is Jango Fett the village chief, and we see multiple shots of their community’s homes, including a large, open-walled structure where her family lives and important village councils are held. These structures are called fale; given the movie’s historical context, these fale would be made entirely of materials at hand. The enormous pillars that hold up the roof were typically from breadfruit trees and sometimes twenty-five feet above the fale’s floor. 

The really incredible part of any fale, whether it was an afolau (a guest house) or the fala tele (the main building for any family), is the ‘afa, or plaited, tightly woven rope made of coconut husks. Even an average-sized fale requires tens of thousands of feet of ‘afa, all of which has to be soaked in water for weeks, beaten, dried, and finally woven by hand (the braiding depended on local culture). ‘Afa is durable and strong; if cared for the plaited rope can last up to ten years. 

The weaving of ‘afa is a communal act, one in which every member of the family and village participates. The Irish artist-cum-adventurer Robert Gibbings, traveling through Polynesia in the mid-1940s to gather research for a book, was told by a village elder, “In your country only a few men can make nails, but in Samoa, everyone can make nails”—the ‘afa.

Te Fiti’s Heart: The Pounamu

Moana’s plot revolves around restoring the the goddess Te Fiti’s heart, a glowing, engraved green stone. It gets tons of screentime—it’s eaten by Heihei, used as a bargaining chip against the plundering, monstrous Tamatoa, and finally given back to Te Fiti, stopping the blight that’s been destroying islands and bringing peace back to the ocean. It’s more than a convenient and translucent MacGuffin crafted by a writers’ room in Hollywood; it’s a pounamu.

Sometimes called greenstone in English, pounamu are treasured by the Maori of New Zealand (they’re often called taonga, or treasured artifact). Greenstone is carved into everything from tools and weapons to ceremonial gifts and jewelry. The history of a pounamu is extremely important; one that’s been in the possession of one family for many generations is considered to possess its own powerful mana, or life energy.

Pounamu is found only in New Zealand’s South Island, and since 1997 the greenstone fields have belonged solely to the Maori iwi (tribe) Ngāi Tahu. The tribe is a fierce protector of pounamu; every piece that has been “sourced legitimately and processed with cultural respect” is part of a growing database maintained by the iwi. If you’re ever in New Zealand and come across pounamu, check this guide to know whether you can keep it or not!

The Camakau & Wayfinding

Another important part of the plot of the film is Moana’s canoe. She finds it hidden in a cavern on Motunui along with many other, much larger vessels. Moana learns how to be a wayfinder on that canoe, known as a camakau in Fiji (the bigger boats look to be based on the drua, a ship that could measure up to one hundred feet in length and carry up to two hundred people).

Moana longs to sail the ocean but lacks the needed training and experience. Thanks to Maui’s expertise, she learns how to become a wayfinder for her people by the end of the movie. It’s understandable that the movie compresses Moana’s training into a few nifty montages, but the seemingly short amount of time their journey takes (10 days? 2 weeks? Most adventures are much shorter than we think—just ask Tolkien) is just a fraction of the time it’d take a real apprentice wayfinder to master the craft. 

Mau teaches navigation by the stars to his son.

Take the legendary Mau Piailug (1932-2010), for example. Mau was trained by his grandfather and other family members from the age of four til eighteen before being initiated in the secretive Pwo ceremony. I mean, consider how large the Pacific Ocean is—the Polynesian Triangle alone is 800,000(!) square miles. Moana is off to a good start, but she’ll be in her thirties before she finally masters the finer points of piloting her camakau.

There are so many more fascinating things about Moana’s real-life cultural inspirations (more than enough to do another article in the future, in fact…) that I’d encourage you to dive down a wikipedia rabbit hole on any of these topics. And, of course, check out the film if you haven’t already!

(For real, though—can we just take a second to address the ageless terror/imperishable wonder that is Heihei? We see him pecking around when Moana is a toddler, and then goes adventuring with her sixteen years later. Heihei’s either an Ancient One or has discovered the secret to immortality.)