Photo: Palauan performers stand ready at the 12th FestPAC in Guam in 2016
Palauan performers stand ready at the 12th FestPAC in Guam in 2016 while flags from other Pacific Island nations fly in the background. - Photo: Eric Chang

This June, a 19th-century effort to build a coalition among Pacific Island communities will take a monumental leap forward at the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts in Hawaiʻi (FestPAC).

Building political relationships with Pacific Island nations began under Kamehameha III, and by the time of Kamehameha V, the Hawaiian Kingdom monarchy had established diplomatic relationships throughout Polynesia. King Kalākaua furthered this diplomacy during his reign and sought to secure the kingdom’s leadership position among Asian and Pacific Island nations following his 1881 worldwide voyage.

Photo: Traditional Cook Island dancer
Traditional Cook Island dancer at the 12th FestPAC in Guam in 2016. – Photo: Steve Hardy

At its diplomatic height in 1887, the Hawaiian Kingdom government had 103 embassies and posts worldwide, including several throughout the Pacific.

Sāmoa’s King Malietoa Laupepa signed a Treaty of Confederacy with Hawaiʻi in February 1887, and Kalākaua’s administration was well on its way to building a Polynesian Confederacy. However, a civil war in Sāmoa and the forced signing of Hawaiʻi’s Bayonet Constitution stunted Kalākaua’s vision of a politically unified region.

Ultimately, Hawaiʻi drifted away from the monarchy’s political relationships in the Pacific.

Fast-forward to 2024, and an inaugural Pacific Traditional Leaders Forum, a key component of FestPAC, will convene. This forum, which brings together traditional leaders from across the Pacific, aims to foster dialogue, strengthen relationships, and address shared challenges.

The June summit was planned at a Traditional Leaders Talanoa in Fiji this past February. A “Talanoa” is a Pacific Island form of dialogue that brings people together to share opposing views without any predetermined expectations for agreement.

Hosted by the Paramount Chief of the Kubuna Confederacy of the island of Bau in Fiji, Turaga na Vunivalu na Tui Kaba, Ratu Epenisa Cakobau, the Traditional Leaders Talanoa welcomed a diverse group of attendees. These included Māori King Tūheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII, Sāmoa’s Tui Ātua Tupua Tamasese Tupuola Tufuga Efi, and representatives from the Hawai’i delegation, FestPAC Commission Chair Kalani Kalani Ka’anā’anā, FestPAC Festival Director Aaron Salā, and Board Chair Carmen “Hulu” Lindsey from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA).

The House of Kawānanakoa was to be represented by its senior member, Prince David Kaumualiʻi Kawānanakoa. Prince Kawānankoa asked Hailama Farden, who often serves as a representative for the Royal family, to accompany him. In April, Farden began a new role at OHA as the senior director of Hawaiian Cultural Affairs.

“The many royal families of the Pacific have engaged with the Kawānanakoas for generations; and recognize their aliʻi lineage. The beauty, as was supported in Fiji, is that the same respect for the current generation of the ʻohana Kawānanakoa continues to be acknowledged by the fellow traditional aliʻi lines of the Pacific.” Farden said. “An important part of re-establishing Hawaiʻi’s place at the table is the reconnecting of lines and genealogy. Another part is acknowledging that while traditional leaders have a meaningful voice in Pacific Island communities, organizations like OHA have the resources and responsibility to be engaged in policymaking decisions. This balance will be critical to the success of future meetings.”

The Talanoa in Fiji set the agenda items for the upcoming Forum in Hawaiʻi, including defining objectives, roles, protocols, and a long-term commitment to ongoing meetings.

The forum’s agenda will focus on the shared challenges Pacific Island nations face, including sustainable economies, Indigenous rights, and the growing diaspora of Pacific Island peoples. However, the most critical issue that demands immediate attention is climate change and adaptation, a challenge that affects us all.

Every Pacific Island nation attending FestPAC is on the front line of the climate crisis. From rising sea levels that threaten their very existence to extreme weather events that disrupt their economies and livelihoods, climate change significantly impacts all the people of Oceania.

In February, OHA authorized $1.5 million to assist with FestPAC activities, including the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, an Ecumenical Service, and the Pacific Traditional Leaders Forum.

“The forum re-establishes the pilina between the Pacific nations and Hawaiʻi. OHA has a tremendous opportunity to re-engage in a much more meaningful and significant way at an international level,” said Stacy Kealohalani Ferreira, Office of Hawaiian Affairs Ka Pouhana/CEO. “By continuing the momentum from the Talanoa in Fiji to FestPAC here in Hawaiʻi, we will start to coalesce a geopolitical force through collective advocacy and strategic action. When we come together in solidarity at a global level, we now have a powerful voice that cannot be ignored.”

“The historic nature of the Talanoa at FestPAC cannot be overstated. Fiji honored that Kalākaua saw the vision to create a federation and decided that now was the time to bring leaders together. The descendants of those leaders who were going to talk in the 19th century will now meet. Never in history has this happened. From traditional chiefs to the ones the world recognizes as kings to the elected officials. They are all gathering at FestPAC. Think about the gravity of that.”