Tevita Ka'ili presents new book on Tongan sociospatial relations

Written by: 
Jessica Leon

Dr. Tevita O. Ka’ili, Pacific Island Studies Department chair, had a special book signing and presentation at the BYU-Hawaii Bookstore on Nov. 29 for his new book “Marking Indigeneity: The Tongan Art of Sociospatial Relations.”

Ka’ili began by acknowledging the indigenous native people of Hawaii. He started by giving a definition of the word indigenous: “People who have an ancestral or genealogical tie to a place.” He explained he is not only focusing on people with deep ancestral roots, but also long-distance routes for those who have migrated to a different place.

Ka’ili acknowledged many people have done this type of work in different topics. His book focuses on the way indigenous people perceive time and space based on a concept called “tauhi va,” which is a Tongan word based on the idea of maintaining good relations.

He explained details of the Tongan terms of “ta” as a beat of marking time through rhythm, and “va” a space between two things. The focus of his research is the act of sustaining harmonious relationships by the concept of “fatongia,” which is the responsibility or obligation to one another.

“Most of the people on Oceania think about time and space, so past, present, and future are arranged differently. The past is in front, not in the back. The idea is that you bring that time and you use it to help guide your present and future.”

He talked about the indigenous mobility that not only Tongans, but also Pacific Islanders have had as a tradition when moving and going to different places by voyaging. He focused his research in the aspects of “tauhi va” in Maui, such as food sharing, the giving of money, weddings, and performing funerals. “All of these are all parts of taking care of relationships with one another.”

The setting of the presentation had a traditional Tongan decoration displayed in the front part where Ka’ili and special guests sat, one of the guests being John Bell, vice president of academics. A special number was performed by three women who sang the Hawaii pono’i and Tongan National Anthem. After the performance, Elizabeth Rago Ka’ili, Ka’ili’s wife, had the honor of presenting her husband prior to his remarks.

While introducing her husband, Rago Ka’ili said, “I understand that many who do this type of research make conduct interviews and move on. Not Tevita. I saw him help paint homes, do farm work. ... I saw him stay until 4 in the morning scanning photos and write letters of support for family members. I saw Tevita translating English materials to Tongan and Tongan to English and serve his community which contributed so much to his education.”

Ka’ili’s wife shared what she saw her husband doing while in Maui. “He was busy every weekend, even at nights. He was teaching at the local community college, and weekends he would go on to help people paint their homes.”

She shared a story of when Tevita and their ward took part in a Tongan exchange in Maui. “The ward basically had a deal with a farmer that they would do all this work like mending fences, landscape work, and repair work, and then they would get one or two cows in exchange. Those cows were then used for ward camp to feed the whole ward.

“Tevita was part of the whole reciprocal system, so he would go out and do the work with the other Tongans of the ward.” She explained the work he did was mostly physical, but he added technology to the work field as well.

She added, “[He] attempted to give back what they were giving him. They gave us so much, from their knowledge and experience, family history to food, like huge buckets of mangoes. There is no way we could possibly pay them back for everything, but we tried.”

Teitirake Toabo Kabwaua, a junior majoring in anthropology, Pacific Islands studies, and political science from Kiribati, said the moment Ka’ili mentioned this event about the presentation of the book during one of his classes, she got really excited. “I love anthropology, Pacific Island studies, and cultures. That's the reason why I came to the presentation, and it’s very interesting since the book focuses on the diaspora of the Tongans here. Hearing from him first hand is very interesting since a lot of Tongans are here, and he explained the … types of migrations.”

Kabwaua explained she found many similarities to her own culture while listening to the presentation. “When he was talking about the past, present, and future, I got it because I was raised with that same particular knowledge. That’s my culture. That’s what I was taught when I was a kid. I was so emotional. I was even crying when he was talking because even though he was talking about Tongan culture, it's just similar to other Pacific islands, including mine.”

She also said the wedding tradition Ka’ili talked about during the presentation is a similar tradition within her own culture where family and friends will contribute money. “It is so common to ask what you need from an aunt or an uncle. It’s a reciprocal tradition.”

Kabwaua said, “He is a great example that I look up to because he has worked so hard. Not a lot of islanders have ever been up in the writing front line to talk about their own island. Instead of that, Western historians and anthropologist have been the ones who write about the islands, but they don’t know much about the culture. It has really touched me that he is an islander writing about his own culture.”

Dr. Ka’ili has an exceptional way to bring Polynesian history from Western recordings and the culture itself together, according to Kabwaua. “Western historians and anthropologists, to be honest, talk about the islanders in mostly negative ways since they actually don’t know the culture.”

She explained how Ka’ili can narrate the story from both sides of each culture. “He is so passionate about the islanders and he gathers knowledge from different teachings and sources. I’ll definitely read the book during the Spring because I really want to see his work. I've read some of his articles about space and time. They are very good.”

Rago Ka’ili explained how her husband had to put off the book for around six years since he was called to serve as bishop in the Laie community. “His work and calling as bishop was his priority.” She said his PhD was based on his research in Maui already. She added how he still was balancing work trying to write a book.

“It was so long ago,” she said. “I was primary president at the time, so a lot of the kids have been on missions or married. Some of them have had their first child, so they are all grown now. It has been a long time, but it still made such a profound impact on our lives in his life educationally and in our life spiritually. This book is the final step. [It] ends up coming like a full circle–we started and now we're ending there in Maui.”

Rago Ka’ili complimented her husband, “He is an extraordinary person. Some people are a certain way to the public and another way at home, but Tevita isn't. He is always following through on his church responsibilities and on his family responsibilities. He is pretty amazing. I'm proud but also very blessed to know him.”

Date Published: 
Friday, December 15, 2017
Last Edited: 
Friday, December 15, 2017