The Prince

This is as close to a real Marquesan as we got. The stern look on his face belies the warmth and generosity of his character. Augustin could be contemplating the uncertain future ahead of him. At this time he’s mending a saddle on his newly tamed horse and he’s got that look on his face again. Yesterday morning he had been taking her to the sea to gently wash her with the salty water and then deftly climbed on top of her. The horse is a recent capture from the wild and is being domesticated, we’re told. “Wild animal then”, I remark, sounding for depth of thought, “wild is good!” “Yes, wild animal”, is his response and with a hint of mischief he adds: “Wild people, also good!” It is an obvious compliment to the oversized collar of boar tusks that hangs heavy around his neck. At least two dozens of them are strung on a thread. They bounce up and down his chest with his every move and then run beneath the bundle of Rasta hair behind his head. “Come on, let’s have some coffee!”, he invites us to their beach shack. Soon we’re spooning instant coffee into faded plastic cups, peeling bananas and chewing on slices of green grapefruit.

Augustin likes to walk. Long, extensive walks up and down the valleys and crests ease the pain in his mind. His mind is torn. His ancestors talk to him from a vast and unchanging past, where the evil abstraction of money has not yet been etched into the human soul, where working the earth sustains you and your community, where hunting, planting and gathering are a process of constant learning and spiritual growth. Then he sees his children walking away from him into the sunset of materialistic distortion. For Augustin a lot can be blamed on the French and their constant extraction of vital resources from his islands; the main evildoers for him are the politicians with their million and one scheme to deceit and funnel public moneys to their own deep pockets; they’re closely followed by the priests who with their Catholic doctrine have run havoc with the spirit of his people. But he is acutely aware that the true source of our dilemma is within, it is implanted in the way we are.

Just five generations back his forefathers were kings, reining swiftly not only this island, but also others close by of the Marquesan group. His own father was mayor of Nuku Hiva for five years, visionary and creator of social change. He was the one who made sure that the family’s extensive lands remained untouched by the hunger for exploitation that swept over the islands like a medieval bout of plague. The shadow of his lineage is long and heavy and Augustin dropped out of school at 14 to go and live in the woods. Nowadays he’s sorry he did and wishes he had taken up law to understand the inner workings of the exploitation. His hope is that one of his sons will do that for him. The humble task he sets out to accomplish without leaving that shadow is to tend the land, look after it and make it productive so that man can live on it. His hope is that the next generation will make the right choice. The awareness that the chances for that are slim doesn’t stop nibbling stubbornly at his thinking. “When they come out here during vacation time, there’s no TV”, he bitterly states, “all that costs money. Here we can live by sharing things. We don’t have to sell ourselves.”

Augustin’s house sits behind an ancient stone platform, almost hidden by a thicket of papaya and grapefruit trees. He had us come there to pick some fruits for our provisioning. Casser des fruits, is the term for that in Marquesan French. It’s an open structure topped with tin roofing panels. Rough-hewn studs divide the space up into the usual units of a living space, bedroom and kitchen away from the road, work area and table towards the front. The table reveals at once where Augustin’s real passion is. “I’m an artist too, you know,” he reveals, and there his eyes take on a special shine. And if the objects hanging from the rafters were not enough he adds: “I sculpt. I work with wood and bones. But I have to concentrate on it. Now I’m busy with raising the beasts, so I can’t focus. Once I’m at it, I work for a couple weeks straight. You can’t do a little here and a little there. It starts with a drawing. You can’t cut a piece if you can’t draw. All this stuff has been passed on to me from the ancient ones. It is in my blood.”

The entire table surface is sculpted in relief. Intrinsic symbols tell a story of structure, of belonging to a place, of knowing what to say and when. Boar and goat skulls hang under the roof. Some have ornamentation carved into them, like tattoos for a fleshless beast. The urge to ornament is evident. Augustin’s entire right arm is covered with tattoos. The steel blue drawings on his dark skin seem to spill out onto the table and now other pieces of sculpted bones come out of bags. Big eyed tiki figurines carved out of a goat femur, one with a double face, where your eye is tricked and shifts back an forth between seeing one guy looking straight at you first and then that guy transfigures into two lovers in profile fused solid and eternally into a mutual stare. The tools of this ancient trade you would like to know? A high speed Dremel with a dazzling array of bits and tips, diamond tipped wheels for the teeth, which are the hardest to shape. “Maybe I’ll do something for the festival,” he muses, “that’s pretty much within a year. I’ll start two months before. You can’t just go there with two or three pieces, you have to have a lot. Each piece is unique. It comes out of me. My dad showed me how to do it in the beginning. Not everything, just getting me started on the path. I hope my kids will pick it up too.” Then he shifts gears and goes on to proclaim: “The new leader will emerge from our midst. His entire body will be tattooed. It cannot be otherwise. That’s how it has to be. Not some skirmish politicians. They don’t know anything about us. Then we can go independent. The French say they’re bringing a lot of money here. But what about all the things they take away? They never mention all the things the take from here!” There’s a crescendo surfing underneath his voice and I want to fan the flames: “All those French should be sent back home!” “No,” he throws back, “no, the French they should be fried!”

 

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