Traditional Seafarers Gather to Celebrate Art and Culture in the Pacific Islands

Paddlers and voyagers share a moment of greeting during the welcoming ceremony of FestPac 2016 in Guam. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Recently, I had the privilege of attending the 12th Festival of the Pacific Arts (FestPac) in Guam. Similar to the Olympics, FestPac is held every four years in a different host-nation. This year, it was held in Guam, an island in the Mariana Island chain that is home to a diverse group of people, including the proud Chamorro population that is indigenous to these islands. This region is also well-known because of the famous Marianas Trench — the deepest known part of the planet’s oceans.

The delegation from the Solomon Islands proudly showing their colors at FestPac. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
The delegation from the Solomon Islands proudly showing their colors at FestPac. There were a total of 27 delegations in attendance this year. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

This two-week festival brought in hundreds of delegates representing 27 island states, as well as thousands of visitors from around the world.  However, unlike sporting events such as the Olympics, the Pacific Games, or the Micronesian Games, this festival is one of celebration rather than competition. It is an exposé of culture, art, and pride – a sharing of stories and ideas that ultimately serve to bring stronger cohesion amongst our islands.

In other words, one could say that FestPac serves as a mechanism to shift the Pacific mindset away from being “small-island states” to one “large-ocean nation”.

Many of the voyaging captains, navigators, and crew of the Pacific. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Many of the voyaging leaders and crewmembers from all throughout the Pacific Islands. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

During the festival, every day is filled with performances, workshops, and cultural demonstrations. Each day was filled with its own stories and lessons. However, the most memorable part for me during my entire time at FestPac was the opening ceremony. This cultural welcome saw a fleet of Micronesian and Chamorro canoes sailing into the Paseo Boat Basin at sunrise.  This was a beautiful moment for everyone in attendance, to see a horizon full of voyaging canoes against the orange hue of sunrise. As the canoes sailed in, chants could be heard from the crews aboard each vessel, only to be matched by chants from different communities watching from shore.

Paddlers quietly await the arrival of the voyaging canoes at sunrise. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
Paddlers quietly await the arrival of the voyaging canoes at sunrise. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
One by one, the voyaging canoes from all over Micronesia and Guam begin to sail in. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
One by one, the voyaging canoes from all over Micronesia and Guam begin to sail in. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

Perhaps I’m biased because of my personal (albeit limited) experiences as a voyager, but I couldn’t have fathomed a more beautiful harmony of sights and sounds. I don’t know if ancient Pacific Islanders had ever gathered in such a manner — one where Polynesians, Micronesians, and Melanesians all joined together in songs and chants as one unified family. But looking around me, it is clear that we all share in the collective realization that the massive ocean which separates our islands is also the same one that unites us. To me, this sense of solidarity is the most important part of the Festival of the Pacific Arts. It is also why I cannot wait until 2020, in which Hawai’i will be hosting the next FestPac. By that time, Hōkūle’a will have completed her voyage around the world and will most likely be leading the procession of voyaging canoes onto our Hawaiian shores.

Voyagers ready their canoe for departure as a commercial motorboat zooms by. (Photo by Daniel Lin
Voyagers ready their canoe for departure as a commercial motorboat zooms by. (Photo by Daniel Lin
A young boy watches the men of his community embark on a sail, eagerly awaiting the day when he is old enough to join a deep-sea voyage. (Photo by Daniel Lin)
A young boy watches the men of his community embark on a sail, eagerly awaiting the day when he is old enough to join a deep-sea voyage. (Photo by Daniel Lin)

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A photographer and National Geographic Young Explorer, Dan has spent his career trying to better understand the nexus between people in remote regions of the Asia/Pacific and their rapidly changing environment. Dan is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the Associated Press, and the Guardian. He believes firmly in the power of visual storytelling as a vessel for advocacy and awareness, which helps to better inform policy makers. In 2016, Dan started the Pacific Storytellers Cooperative seeking to empower the next generation of storytellers from the Pacific Islands. Additionally, Dan is a crewmember for the Polynesian Voyaging Society, a Fellow of The Explorers Club, and a member of the IUCN Specialist Group on Cultural and Spiritual Values of Protected Areas. He received his Masters Degree from Harvard University