Ala 'I Sia

ALA ‘I SIA, ALA ‘I KOLONGA:

(Skillful at Sia, Skillful at Kolonga)

An Indigenous Tongan Proverb for Contemporary Pacific Islanders

[This essay is reprinted by permission of the author. It first appeared in the Moana Publication, Spring 1997 Volume 1 Number 1. This publication is an University of Utah Pacific Islander Student Publication.]

A person’s ability to master more than one environment was highly valued among the early Tongans. This esteemed ability is reflected in the well-known Tongan proverb: “Ala ‘I Sia, Ala ‘I Kolonga” or translated as “Skillful at Sia, Skillful at Kolonga.” This indigenous Tongan proverb derived its meaning from the pigeon trappers’ practice of “heu lupe” or the snaring of pigeons. The mound on which the pigeons were trapped was called the “sia,” and the cooking place for the pigeon trappers was called the “kolonga.” Thus, the proverb, “Ala ‘I Sia, Ala ‘I Kolonga,” was phrased to honor the trapper who was not only skillful in snaring the pigeons but also skillful at cooking the pigeons. Later, this Tongan proverb became applicable to individuals that have the ability to successfully function in multiple contexts.

This proverbial expression embodies the distinction and esteem that early Tongans associated with individuals who could master and function in multiple contexts, or those who have the abilities to work in either the “sia” or the “kolonga.” Furthermore, it captured an element of the wisdom that was known to the early Tongans. That is, humans have a better chance of surviving if they are adaptable, skillful and functional in more than one environment. It is this indigenous wisdom of our Tongan ancestors that I postulate: Pacific Islanders must function in multiple cultural contexts in order to perpetuate and sustain their survival in this foreign environment called America.

Since the colonization of the Pacific Islands by the imperialist Americans, British, Germans, French, and Spanish, the Pacific Islanders have had to discard and compromise many of their cultural heritages in order to function in their colonizers’ exploitive and oppressive world. This cultural imposition and imperialism have nearly eradicated and annihilated the life styles, languages, values, and traditions of the Pacific Islanders. Throughout the oppressive years of colonization, Pacific Islanders struggled with the negative repercussions of the colonizers’ political, social, educational, and economic institutions. Consequently, this European hegemony led to the migration of Pacific Islanders from their tropical island homes to other countries for the purpose of seeking a better life and opportunity for them and their children. Following the arrival of Pacific Islanders in their new environment, they were greeted with “internal colonization” and “institutional racism” which not only permeate nearly every aspect of the new culture, but continue to obliterate and marginalize the Pacific Islanders’ cultural heritage. Subsequently, the problem was exacerbated and compounded when they found a disproportionate number of their children performing poorly in academics, dropping out of school, joining gangs, and engaging in criminal activities. As the problems escalated, the parents became perplexed over the reasons for their children’s behaviors. For many years, many of these parents have been socializing their children to disregard their cultural heritage and embrace the culture of their colonizers. In fact, many parents claim that they prohibited their children from communicating in their native languages so that they can speak without accents. Their reason for this practice was to help their children become accepted in the White culture and ultimately succeed in their schools. Moreover, other parents limit or even forbid their children from attending their native cultural functions because they fear that it may act as an impediment to their children’s academic success. But despite all these efforts, the problems continue to escalate and parents are still perplexed over their children’s behavior.

It is not my intention to undermine or degrade the child rearing practices of our parents, for I believe that parents reared their children according to what they thought was best for their children’s future. However, I am raising this issue so that perhaps, we can reexamine and reevaluate the child rearing practices and philosophies that were imposed upon us by our colonizers and determine if they are detrimental or beneficial for our children. Indeed, I am proposing that we deconstruct and decolonize the child rearing philosophies and practices of our colonizers in order to expose its negative impacts on our children. With the high percentage of school drop outs, gangs, criminal activities, and low academic performance among Pacific Islanders, it is possible that these behaviors are children’s ways of reminding us and the dominant White society that they adamantly and resolutely oppose being deprived of their native cultural heritage. If this is true, then I propose that perhaps it is time that we rekindle and heed the indigenous wisdom that is expressed in our ancestors’ proverb: “Ala ‘I Sia, Ala ‘I Kolonga.” In other words, perhaps it is time to discontinue the inefficacious practice of socializing our children to disregard and despise their native culture, and allow them to embrace it. This practice does not advocate the negation of the White dominant culture, however, it promotes true biculturalism and bilingualism by allowing Pacific Islander children to master both their native culture and the mainstream American culture. By educating them about their native culture, this will facilitate the formation and development of a healthy ethnic group identity. It is in my opinion, that only when a child is grounded and rooted in his or her native culture that he or she is able to shift back and forth among different cultural contexts. This is not an easy task, but it is possible. It is challenging because it requires not only parents to change the way they have been socializing their children, but it also advocates for radical structural changes in the dominant societal institutions.

The home and the school institutions can clearly illustrate my point. In order for a child to master and function in both the home and the school, there has to be a minimization of the incongruency that exist between the two institutions. The two institutions must complement and support each another. For example, the school institution will need to foster and cultivate bilingualism rather than denigrate and disparage students that are bilingual. In addition, the school must be more accepting of students by valuing collectivism and interdependence rather than indoctrinating them with individualistic and independent values. These radical changes will allow children to become functional in both institutions. Therefore, rather than socializing Pacific Islanders to disregard their cultural heritage and solely conform into this foreign dominant White culture, we should strive to heed our ancestors’ wisdom and socialize our children to master both cultures as children that are “Ala ‘I Sia, Ala ‘I Kolonga.”

by Tevita O. Ka’ili

Tevita O. Ka’ili is currently a graduate student at the University of Utah’s Graduate School of Social Work. His emphasis is in Children and Family practices.

[ref: Moana Publications]

© Copyright 1997, Tevita O. Ka’ili