For centuries, the Polynesian people of the South Pacific worshiped, among others, the god 'Oro. Then the missionaries arrived and began instructing them on the true path to enlightenment. Now the islands are teeming with religion, seething with it—Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Buddhists, Catholics, even the Anabaptists—all teaching the one true holy word. In the Protestant churches, women in the congregation wear splendid white hats and the traditional missionary dresses. Most of the first hour of every Sunday service is devoted to singing the haunting Polynesian himenes. Tahitians do not hold anything in. They throw their heads back and raise their voices high when they are hymning, as if they were trying to get God's undivided attention.
"On Sundays after they come back from church, they play volleyball or soccer or go paddling," says Cincy Efird, a painter from New Bern, N.C. who was living in Tahiti last summer. "After that, everybody sits and sings. It's their big day of the entire week, and it's all centered around sports and singing."
The Polynesians used to spend their day of worship much differently. Before the Europeans arrived, services were conducted in an open temple called a marae. The largest and most holy temple in the islands was Taputapuatea on Raiatea, where ritual human sacrifices were sometimes performed. "Maybe 100,000 to 200,000 people were sacrificed in that temple," says Salmon, exaggerating the fact some thousandfold, perhaps to entertain his visitor. "The marae was a terrible place, with dead bodies strewn about and flies everywhere. They used to put coconut rope through the ears of defilers of the temple and hang them in the trees. Tahitians are very superstitious about the temple. Taputapuatea is still a very sacred place, and Tahitians don't like to see it desecrated. Last year a boy urinated on one of the rocks in that temple and all of his hair fell out. They don't like to talk about that."
Women were never sacrificed at the marae, and the men who were chosen for the honor had to be magnificent physical specimens who were "unblemished by women," according to Salmon. At an elaborate reenactment of the marae ceremony produced for last summer's Tiurai, a solemn procession of warriors from the Marquesas Islands bore their human sacrifice into the temple on a litter of coconut palms. The Tahitians then entered carrying several large bunches of fruit, which was what they had chosen to sacrifice. If you were a Marquesan, you had to be reexamining the priorities that had led you to this exalted moment. A lifetime of building your body and girding your loins, only to be offered up for ritual slaughter alongside a cantaloupe.
The man who served as high priest at the festival's marae was that iron-eyed impresario, Salmon. Once the producer of the most lavish Polynesian floor shows on Waikiki Beach, his talents were eagerly put to use by the festival's organizers. That, of course, didn't prevent the outspoken Salmon from showing his soaring contempt for them at every opportunity. One day shortly after the marae ceremony, he was hustled off to one of the out islands to meet a delegation of visiting dignitaries. "They sent me on this trip because they respect me," Salmon says. "They have no choice, I'm the shaman of the country."
The entertainment for the visiting dignitaries was supposed to be provided by a troupe of authentic Tahitian dancers, but the show didn't really hit its stride until Salmon began loudly denouncing the performers for wearing "grass skirts" that were, in fact, made of shredded plastic trash bags. "I told them, 'I'm not performing with plastic skirts. I'm famous,' " says Salmon. "I started walking down the beach, and they came after me. They said they were going to arrest me if I didn't come back, so I came back. But I wasn't pleased. Plastic skirts in Tahiti. Ooh, what an insult."
After Salmon returned to Tahiti in 1980, he set about trying to revive the island's ancient traditions, many of which had already begun to disappear. The custom that had probably fallen on hardest times was tattooing, once a vibrant art form in the Tahitian culture. Although not held in particularly high esteem in many parts of the world, tattoos were a sign of status and power in Tahiti. "The tattooed people didn't eat with the untattooed," says Salmon. "And a woman wouldn't stay with a man if he didn't have his tattoos." The district chiefs were the only ones allowed to wear intricate designs on their bodies.
You could get just about any kind of tattoo you wanted at the Tiurai's tattooing exhibition, which was conducted by Salmon and a Maori tribesman from New Zealand in a grass hut behind the Museum of Tahiti and Her Islands. A bowl of warm water and a dirty rag were used to wipe away the excess blood, so that it wouldn't cover up the design as the artist went about his work. The ink had been made by mixing water with charcoal or carbon, and spectators were invited to lie down on a straw mat and have the ink pounded into their flesh with a whalebone needle and a wooden mallet. The action stopped only when the people getting tattooed passed out from the pain and had to be carried away.
Nothing that was produced at that exhibition could compare with the stunning tattoo that belongs to Teve Tuhipua, a bellman at the Beachcomber Hotel in Faaa. Three years ago Tuhipua went to Samoa for a simple tattoo, but the beauty of the Samoan designs made his skin frieze. "I say to myself, why not? I will try it," recalls Tuhipua, who chose his design because it "blinds the eyes." After a six-week ordeal, the job was finally done. The dark filigree of the tattoos covered almost every part of his body, the only exceptions being his face, the soles of his feet and one other isthmus of his anatomy that might delicately be described as No-Tattoo Atoll. "That gonna be too painful," he says.
As important as the games were to the daylight hours of the Festival of Arts, it was dancing that bound together the nights, just as it has always bound life together in Tahiti. When the first English sailing ships arrived in Tahiti, they were surprised by what one of their officers later described as the "wantonness" of the dance. "Even if they begin in decency," wrote a visitor in 1849, "they invariably end with gestures of an abusive sensuality." During the festival you could usually tell what kind of night it had been by looking in the sand on the dance floor at the Place Vaiete, a square in downtown Papeete. The more fevered the dancers' exertions, the more strange the vegetation you were likely to find strewn about the premises. This curious molting process gradually diminished the costumes of all the dancers except of the men of Papua New Guinea.