There are many reasons to love the movie Moana, the 2016 Disney animation about a young Polynesian girl struggling to both heal her island and to realize her full potential. When watching in theatres, I found myself in tears as I watched Moana’s intrepid Polynesian ancestors singing the rousing ‘We Know the Way.’ Half of the song is in Tokelauan, an indigenous language spoken by only 3 thousand people but that language was somehow blaring from the speakers of this cinemaplex playing a Hollywood blockbuster. Such a thing wouldn’t have seemed imaginable much less possible even ten years ago. Some American audiences can barely seem to tolerate Spanish, much less an unfamiliar indigenous language. (A friend recently sent me a New York Times article about the Maori-language version of the film!)
The film breaks out of so many boxes with its strong, complex female lead, lack of romantic storyline, lack of white characters, depiction of supportive women who encourage Moana, efforts to embrace non-Western cultures, music, languages and mythos, themes about climate change and living in harmony with nature, and very complex ‘villain’— if one can even call her that.
But there is another aspect of the story that struck me as incredibly unique, innovative, and moving— the film’s usurpation of typical Hollywood attitudes towards the past and ancestry. Rather than the traditional struggle between the creative, modern, forward-looking youth and the traditional, backwards older generation, the young adult and oppressive parent he has to prove wrong, the story of Moana tells of the transformative power of a deep, balanced connection with the past and the wisdom of our ancestors. It is only by reconnecting with her ancestors, breaking the silences that surround their stories, lessons, and way of life, and following the guidance of her grandmother and honoring her spirit, that Moana is able to find her way, liberate and bring harmony to her people, her island, and herself— and to heal Te Fiti.
The importance of this connection or oneness with the past is infused throughout the film and it’s music. In ‘We Know the Way,’ the chief sings with his people (voiced by Lin Manuel Miranda for the English lines):
We keep our island in our mind
and when it’s time to find home
We know the way
Aue, aue, we are explorers reading every sign
We tell the stories of our elders
In the never ending chain
In this story, the past and our ancestors are not an oppressive, stifling force to be overpowered or escaped from. They are a source of guidance, strength, and healing, the missing key to the happiness, freedom, and survival of their peoples and their lands. Perhaps this is the real heart that Moana is able to restore.
In one of her darkest moments, in the song ‘I Am Moana,’ Moana searches for guidance from her grandmother— symbolized to her by the beautiful manta rays that she loved— realizing through the song that who she is and what she can be is entirely wrapped up in her individuality, her connection with nature (the ocean and her island), and her people (her family) and her ancestors. She declares to them and to herself:
I am a girl who loves my island
I’m the girl who loves the sea
It calls me
I am the daughter of the village chief
We are descended from voyagers
Who found their way across the world
They call me
I’ve delivered us to where we are
I have journeyed farther
I am everything I’ve learned and more
Still it calls me
And the call isn’t out there at all, it’s inside me
It’s like the tide; always falling and rising
I will carry you here in my heart you’ll remind me
That come what may
I know the way
I am Moana!
This story is a disruptive tale (to standard Hollywood/Western tropes), asking us to reconsider our attitudes to where we come from, and the lands and waters that have created us. It tells us that our ancestors, our histories, our past are sources of strength, guidance, and healing and also are how we find ourselves and our way.
And more importantly, this is a story that specifically honors and apologizes to the indigenous cultures that it draws inspiration from. This story recognizes and places at its center, the power, importance, and vitality of the very cultures, stories, languages, and histories that colonialism and racism forced these people to silence, abandon, hide, forget, and grieve for generations. It stops the continual onslaught of messaging that devalues and ignores their knowledge, ways of life, and teachings. Instead it depicts them as fundamental to life, and honoring them as sources of healing power, guidance, and strength. It validates the claims of indigenous people that reconnecting with their cultural past, practices, languages, and stories is the way towards healing, wholeness, and the chance to thrive.
In many ways this message and movie are not for white, Westernized, or Hollywood culture at all. Instead it is a very special message for indigenous people.