Forty years ago, in March 1972, the inaugural Polynesian Festival was held at Whakarewarewa Marae in Rotorua. It marked the first time recently-arrived migrant Pacific cultures were performed in such a context. Since this time, specifically Pacific as well as combined Maori/Pacific festivals have become a vital part of annual events calendars for schools and communities across the country. There are now more than twenty such events.
Pacific festivals celebrate the place of Pacific cultures and peoples in New Zealand. They reflect the ongoing connections that Pacific peoples have to ancestral homelands while also reaffirming a sense of New Zealand as a new Pacific homeland.
In a poetic sense, they also represent a culmination of the great Pacific migrations, where the diversity of indigenous and migrant Pacific cultures exists alongside new expressions of pan-Pacific unity.
Broadly, two types of festivals have evolved. The first came out secondary schools and are known as Polyfests (an abbreviation of Polynesian festival). They celebrate the maintenance of Pacific cultures primarily through song and dance. Some events have also incorporated other elements, like art exhibitions, fashion shows, and speech competitions.
Polyfests are about the passing of cultural traditions from community leaders to the next generations. In this sense audiences are primarily focused on performance standards and quality so that, even where the events are participation-only, Polyfests can become highly-competitive environments. This is most visible at Auckland’s Polyfest, where intense competition between schools results in the high levels of secrecy that surround performances.
Pasifika festivals, by contrast, celebrate Pacific cultures through what researcher Ruth Talo calls a “grand arena of Pacific-ness.” They’re designed to encourage people to walk around, look at and buy arts and crafts, smell, look at and buy food and drink, engage with other stalls, meet, talk and socialise with family, friends and communities, and to watch and be entertained by performances. Everything is designed to be consumed by the audience and they, in turn, are able to pick and choose from the potpourri of material culture offered up for consumption.