Tahiti and Her Islands were settled by Polynesians coming from Tonga and Samoa between AD 300 and 800. The islands were first spotted by a Spanish ship in 1606 but it took another 160 years till the islands were officially discovered by Samuel Wallis, an English sea captain. Wallis was followed in April 1768 by the French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, who made Tahiti famous in Europe when he published an account of his travel.
European fascination with the islands of Tahiti grew even stronger when news spread of both the mutiny of Capt. William Bligh’s crew and when Capt. James Cook returned from his South Pacific explorations with thousands of illustrations of Tahitian flora and fauna.
In the 1800s, the arrival of whalers, British missionaries, and French military expeditions forever changed the way of life on Tahiti and created a French-British rivalry for control of the islands. The Tahiti’s Queen Pomare ruled Tahiti until 1847, when she finally accepted French protection of the islands of Tahiti and Moorea.
The island remained a French protectorate until 1880, when King Pomare V was forced to cede the sovereignty of Tahiti and its dependencies to France.
In 1957, all the islands of Tahiti were reconstituted as the overseas French territory called French Polynesia. In 1984, a statue of autonomy was implemented and, in 1998, French Polynesia became an overseas country with greater self-governing powers with their own assembly and president.
Although 75% of the population is Polynesian, French influence is strong. Nevertheless, the Tahitians of the modern era maintain the heritage and traditions of their Polynesian ancestors. Traditions are kept alive by teaching the Tahitian language in school, encouraging traditional sports, arts, and crafts (tattoo, handicrafts, etc), and performing Tahitian dance and music.
Dances are directly linked with all aspects of life and accompanied by traditional musical instruments such as thunderous drums, conch shells, and harmonic nasal flutes. Open-air sanctuaries called marae were once the center of power in ancient Polynesia, a place to worship the gods, negotiate peace treaties, celebrate war, and to launch voyages to colonize other parts of the South Pacific. Today, these large stone structures still host the important events. Artistics skills are kept sacred and were passed on by both the ‚Äúmamas,‚Äù the guardians of tradition and the matriarchs of Tahitian society, as well as through traditional craftsmanship.
One of the most important cultural celebrations in Tahiti is Heiva i Tahiti held during June, July and August. In celebration of ancient traditions and competitions, Tahitians gather in Papeete from many islands to display their crafts, compete in ancient sporting events, and recreate traditional and elaborate dance performances.
The Hawaiki Nui in November is an international Outrigger Canoe Race from the island of Huahine to Raiatea, Tahaa, and Bora Bora. Over 100 teams from canoeing countries all over the world participate in this grueling open-ocean race.