Opinion: why we should beware of the word ‘traditional’

Opinion: why we should beware of the word ‘traditional’

In 1994, four years before the opening of Te Papa, Samoan novelist and scholar Albert Wendt was an advisor for the planned Pacific exhibitions. He requested that we abandon the use of terms like ‘traditional art’ in our labels and display signage. ‘Traditional means nothing to me!’ he said. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was talking about.

I had gone through university learning about traditional societies. As a person of Samoan descent, I was used to hearing about our traditional culture and customs. As a museum worker, I talked about traditional cultures all the time.

However, Wendt was asking us, as Pacific people and museum workers to decolonise the language we use in our exhibitions. In his view, the word ‘traditional’ as used in categories such as ‘traditional arts’ and ‘traditional practices’ was the vocabulary of Western ways of writing about and cataloguing indigenous peoples.

We in museums had bought into it, and our communities had internalised it.

Portrait of Albert Wendt; 1996; Photographer: Hamish McDonald
Portrait of Albert Wendt; 1996; Photographer: Hamish McDonald

Later, in an interview I had with him in 2008 he explained his position to me in more detail:

‘I came to feel very uncomfortable with terms such as traditional, folk history, folk art…Colonial scholars and researchers used them whenever they referred to us but not to their cultures. Such terms I concluded were part and parcel of the Euro-centric colonial vocabulary. Traditional inferred our cultures were /are so tradition-bound they were static and slow to change; that they weren’t dynamic and growing and changing; that because they were slow to change and fixed in history they were ‘simple and easy to understand.’ Traditional also had implications about how we were viewed as people even to the extent that, because we were tradition bound, we behaved out of habit and past practice and [were] slow to adapt to other ways or change our own ways, that we didn’t want to think for ourselves, or were incapable of individual thinking and expression.’

Towards a New Oceania

This year, marks 40 years since Wendt first published these ideas in his inspiring essay Towards a New Oceania. It was 1976, and a formative period for Pacific literature, new art forms, and their developing markets.

In his essay, he argued, ‘Any real understanding of ourselves and our existing cultures calls for an attempt to understand colonialism and what it did and is still doing to us.’

Wendt challenged the idea of ‘traditional cultures’ and cultural essentialisms, criticising corruption and the use of ‘tradition’ by our political and cultural leaders.

He argued that, ‘There is no state of cultural purity (or perfect state of cultural goodness),’ and warned of stagnation, ‘an invitation for a culture to choke in its own bloody odour, juices, and excreta.’

He reminded us, ‘No culture is ever static and can be preserved . . . like a stuffed gorilla in a museum’ (Wendt 1976, 58, 53, 52).

Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris. Photographer Claire Regnault 2015
Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Museum of Hunting and Nature, Paris. Photographer Claire Regnault 2015

He asked a series of questions that are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago:

(a) Is there such a creature as traditional culture?

(b) If there is, what period in the growth of a culture is to be called traditional?

(c) If traditional cultures do exist in Oceania, to what extent are they colonial creations?

(d) What is authentic culture?

(e) Is the differentiation we make between the culture(s) of our urban areas (meaning foreign) and those of our rural areas (meaning traditional) a valid one? . . .

(f) Why is it that the most vocal exponents of preserving our true cultures live in our towns and pursue life-styles which, in their own terminology, are alien and unpure?

(g) Are some of us advocating the preservation of our cultures not for ourselves but for our brothers, the rural masses, and by doing this ensure the maintenance of a status quo in which we enjoy privileged positions?

(h) Should there be ONE sanctified/ official/ sacred interpretation of one’s culture? And who should do this interpreting? (Wendt 1976, 52; italics in original)

In his request to the Pacific staff at Te Papa, Wendt was challenging us to decolonise our curatorial practice. To take care with the concepts and language we used in our representation of Pacific peoples.

However, Wendt’s questions around tradition are not purely academic or relevant only to museums.

Pacific artists, painters, sculptors, choreographers, dancers, composers, tattooists, and even orators have struggled with the ‘traditional’ in ‘traditional Pacific arts’ and the limits it places on their practices.

’ahu ’ula ( feathered cloak), 1700s, Hawaii, maker unknown. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (FE000327)
’ahu ’ula ( feathered cloak), 1700s, Hawaii, maker unknown. Gift of Lord St Oswald, 1912. CC BY-NC-ND licence. Te Papa (FE000327)

In 2016, Wendt’s call to understand colonialism and its historical and contemporary implications continues to provide a current of urgency in our work for Pacific Cultures at Te Papa.

This year, Te Papa returned a sacred ‘ahu’ula (cloak) to Hawaii on long term loan, developed new collections of works from artists in Guåhan, and appointed a Curator of Pacific Art – the first position of its kind in an institution in New Zealand.

These kinds of activities are the decolonising mechanisms through which museums can remember the past, document the present, and secure the future of the communities they represent.

For your inspiration Albert Wendt, fa’afetai tele!


Albert Wendt (1976) Towards a New Oceania. Mana Review: A South Pacific Journal of Language and Literature ( January) 1 (1): 49–60. Reprinted most recently in The Arnold Anthology of Post-colonial Literatures in English, edited by John Thieme, 641–651. London: Edward Arnold, 1996.

Relevant links:

Albert Wendt’s Critical and Creative Legacy in Oceania: An Introduction

Albert Wendt Biography

This content of this blog first appeared in the article Against Tradition by Sean Mallon (PDF, 90 KB)


  1. I as a pa palagic connected with Samoa for more than 50 yrs have observed the loss of many of those traditional ways. In being critical Mr Wendt should also remember his own colonial heratige and the changes to tradional ways forced on Samoans by his forbares. We who are using the english language know that there are ^traditional methods or ways^ relating to all cultures. Since my retirement I have lived and worked Bhutan, Vanuatu and two areas of Papua Niu Guini, there in less developed places you gain the full meaning of ^tradional^ . Sure we all evolve in various ways, however there always remain ^ traditional ways^, the way we used to do things, be it 50 yrs ago or 120 yrs ago, thus any item from any time in the past may be termed a traditional way.
    ^tu ma masani^

  2. Interesting conversations. I 200% agree with Wendt and his challenge to decolonise our thinking and future perspectives.

  3. Hello, Sean! Thank you for this. Tonight I am appreciating Albert Wendt’s perspectives, George Nuku’s, and everyone else’s shared here. In the past I have used the terms “tradition/traditional” to discuss and write about my own art work. This was my way to purposefully separate it from Western European approaches, practices, and definitions and instead bring value and attention to the breadth of historic Samoan art forms that were produced and worn by my family and/or handed down for generations. I wanted to acknowledge that the process for conceptualizing, making, and receiving these things carried greater weight and influence on my own artistic process. With all of that said, in recent years I have trouble now with the word “traditional” and find myself looking for other words and seeking direction from other indigenous contemporary artists. So again I appreciate everyone’s comments. Much to think about.

  4. I respect Wendt’s viewpoint very much–esp. as it pertains to colonialism. And, I would like to make a few comments. (1) The word “traditional” was adopted a few decades back as a way of stopping to use words like “indigenous” and “primitive.” It was intended in a good way. Now “indigenous” is back in favor and “traditional” is not, it seems. Funny thing about language, how it shifts both in usage and in favor. (2) It is not true that Europeans do not use terms like “folk arts” with reference to their own cultures, that is, their historic cultures. Europeans (in Europe) profit enormously from using folk arts to promote tourism and also promoting local pride and good times at fetes. As a possible criticism of these practices, one could say along with the author that contemporary Europeans have frozen their past traditions as though they were forever the same. This has created the same or similar errors in understanding the past that the author mentions. Additionally, (3) as a citizen of the United States who has genetic indigenous inheritance but was raised in the dominant culture, I have noted two strands of thinking among indigenous peoples here, the Native Americans. One strand is getting on with contemporary life as the author recommends and is not be limited by the past. Another is stuck in the past, that is my viewpoint. This second grouping has turned the forms of their past culture into idols and seem not to realize that their ancestors were always changing and adapting with whatever life brought to them. I see these two attitudes as shaped by the fallout from the interior form of colonialism practiced by the U.S. government, fallout in all its forms, but primarily in regard to serious declines in economic prosperity and in freedom both politically and in terms of literal movement of native peoples.

    I wonder if this is not also the case in NZ? And I have another question, a hard one. To what extent was Albert Wendt’s opinion shaped by his own strategy for personal economic success?

    1. +Carol Bell, I think you know the answer to your own question. Colonised people’s are presented with a simple choice “adapt or die”. The two strands of thinking you mention, the first group would tend to adapt, the second would prefer to hold true to some static beliefs (notionally they would rather die proudly than accept compromise). Either way, integration is painful for the integrated and words like “indigenous, traditional and primitive” can all sound a bit lame when applied to one self, however acceptable to everyone else. IT Sales 101. We deliberately refer to a prospective customers’ IT environment as “Legacy or Heritage,” clearly calling it out as “inferior”compared to the shinny new infrastructure we want them to buy instead. Statements like this help polarise people for and against so a buying decision can be made easily. It’s never a clean process and there is always going to be a hurt minority who didn’t get what they wanted and they go on moaning to anyone who will listen forever after :-).

    2. Author

      Thank you Brian and Carol for reading the blog and contributing your thoughtful commentaries.

  5. When I have to engaging with other pacific Islander artist I constantly become victim of thier sense of grandeur through the european skills and mode of art productions that they have accumulated, in the quest to be international cosmopolitan artist, writer, curator, ect I quest I believe is mistakenly fuelled by a belief that anybody can lived through as a member of different tribe, gender, ethnicity, ect with cultural markings that are different from the tribe,gender,ethnicity that anybody individual seems to assimilate to, Incorporating traditional Tongan artist practices into my living as artist artist has not been regressive. My art practice has become a bridge between western art and Tongan art and I adjust the shortcommings of the two different forms of art practice with the knowledge that I have of the other art practice or other art practice in other parts of the world. Culture and its productions bear interactions between different tribes, genders,ethnicities, I am not concerned about authenticity but I endeavour to conscientiously engage in art practice that is wonderful to everybody.Malo au’pito, Ko Ofa atu. Vili Lui.

  6. Aloha, This really hits the truth in many ways, I am fighting for my families aina or lands. With all of the interferences that the foreigners have injected and manipulated into our cultural why’s. The Colonial why is to remove host Cultural system or inject enough of their Traditional ways of lifestyle so they may maintain superiority or be able to be privileged to do or say something we could never do. If it was not for a hand full of my Kupuna explaining our Cultural mine set and Cultural understanding of how we thought and operated during specific Time periods and passed the knowledge down. I would have never been able to locate or Identify these lands. Understanding that my fifth great-grandfather was the man that struck Kamehameha the Great, back in the 1700. With all the History deleted of our family. If not for my Kupuna I wouldn’t know where to start and know the true story or History of this incident. The history books make little mention of this significant event. It is also known as Kanawai Mamalahoe, The first Law of the lands of the Kingdom of Hawaii. Because of the of the significant importance of this incident. The events location and circumstance surrounding the history of this story. The foreigner would have never gotten the lands or positions that they stand upon today. It is wonderful to know that our Cultural ways are rooted in our faith and spirituality of our gods. Loyalty respected, and Honor, Morality, and understanding of ourselves and environment. We traveled the open oceans with confidence and knowledge. It is the foundation of our culture imbedded in our teaching of our Kupuna passed down in our cultural way. That saved me and set me back online. By understanding and applying their Knowledge I have found countless untold stories that surface for the dark places that mean wished would never come back for they tell the whole different story. Had I followed the traditional way I would not have had such an exciting journey and a Pasion to seek the ways of my cultural heritage. My tutu old gramma stated to me “Let know one tell you we come from someplace else. Other than here our home for we ascended from the heavens to the Island of mu, our job is to teach the people of this world to take care of mother earth for we are Kanaka Maole. Traditions are their word traditions is their way. thank you for making it understand able.

  7. That is a New Age Western concept — that our traditional Polynesian culture is fluid and subject to change, and that tradition is merely acting out of “habit.” That’s how you have those idiots in Australia with the “College of Kahuna Sciences,” dancing around massage tables wearing sarongs. It’s how you have that unholy mess of fake Huna practitioners charging exorbitant fees to learn made up nonsense. It’s a license for the Colonist to commodify our sacred practices and say it is whatever they want it to be. 1) Can you change fishing and farming by moon cycles? It served a vital purpose of protecting fragile ecosystems while ensuring the community had food. Do you guys remember how to do that? My dad and uncles grew up with it. 2) How about navigation? If you decide to change something, you’ll end up lost. 3) ORAL cultures like that of the Kahuna are very clear – you need genealogy, hi follow established protocols, you must get permission. Are you going to feed someone a plant that a Kahuna knows would kill someone with a heart condition?

  8. Our Culture doesnt exist in a museum
    Our culture is alive and vibrant and happening all around us

    1. Author

      Thank you for reading and commenting Te Ari!

  9. I found this article refreshing, since it analyses the colonisation of indigenous cultures and the effect on them, more importantly Wendt articulates a strong line of comments that make good sense and for indigenous cultures to heighten their awareness of colonial definitions on us indigenous peoples. Thank you Albert.

    1. Author

      Thanks for reading Georgia!

  10. I disagree with David’s comment regarding the ‘long term loan’of the ‘ahu ‘ula.
    At Te Papa, the cloak is seen as a beautiful object made for someone we don’t connect to, however in Hawaii it is a connection to their past, and is sacred. It was worn by a person of the highest mana, and was like much of their culture, removed from them.
    It will have far more meaning to Hawaiian people than it will have sitting in a glass case in Wellington.

    1. Author

      Kia orana Caroline, thank you for reading and commenting!

  11. Fair enough, I understand the concept and the genuine motives behind it. But, I still cannot agree with the return of the cloak on “long-term loan”. Museums are responsible for the care and interpretation of the objects in their collections. They should not, in my view, be in the business of trying to “correct” the circumstances of the acquisition of their collections. This leads to a negation of history and to a diminution of the collections. The same holds true for the imminent return of Te Hau Ki Turanga. How can we nasty “whities” hope to understand the culture of our adopted homeland, if you won’t show it to us in our National Museum?

    1. David Maskill, The Education of History regarding a peoples Toi or Tikanga should not fall solely on the shoulders of Museums, History needs to be taught in schools. all New Zealanders deserve the right to hear the history of this Whenua and its Occupants passed in order to better understand the present day inhabitants. But until that day where New Zealands histories both, pre and post colonization is taught in our schools, then many Kiwis like your good self will fail to see these gifts as TAONGA, but instead and continue to consider them as mere objects. some of these Toi Maori/Taonga are not meant to be seen for many reasons… But many kiwis would know this if it was compulsory learning in NZ Schools. Cheers. Wil

    2. We might also ask, how can we “Whities” possibly understand the culture if we keep it locked up in a museum? Don’t let it breathe and live?

    3. Generally interested to hear how you think that repatriation negates history David. From all that I saw of the repatriation of the ‘ahu’ula, history was present. It was present in the songs that were sung and the words that were spoken. It was present when it was welcomed into Bishop Museum, and present in the subsequent presentations I’ve seen about the return of the taonga. This presence of history has helped me to understand Te Papa’s role in this exchange, and my presence in this Polynesian country, in a way that keeping the ‘ahu’ula would not have.

    4. Have some respect David Maskell. Ancestral “objects” of any culture belong to direct descendants unless otherwise specified; consequently, to collect or “acquire” them is theft, to support that is disrespect and illegal, to demand that is arrogance – to expect that is greed…
      Anyone with a genuine desire to learn the culture of their adopted homeland can earn directly from that culture rather than viewing “objects” on display; especially when they have choose to “adopt” that culture’s ancestral nation as their homeland – and it consists only of 2 small (main) islands – regardless of whether you are a “nasty whities,” blackies, yellowies or greenies!
      Its nasty. Just ask.

    5. I believe academia in their whiteousness have developed key pathways to maintain ko lakou mau wahi kulana or their status as all knowing from an elevated position . So to maintain their elevated position they simplify the darkies into elementary categories such as folk lore, black magic as opposed to white magic like Santa Claus in the skies over East L.A. Old Hawaiian saying ” if it’s not yours, no touch. If you like use, ask. When pau, put back”
      Wiley Kanak

    6. Author

      Thank you everyone for your responses and for reading the blog!

    7. Having worked in several major U.S. public and with one university museum as an Indigenous person within the academic tradition, colonial institutions celebrate their historic legacy of collections often without any honest or actual interest in what or how the works were taken/stolen from indigenous peoples. The idea of protection and relevance as procurement for their society is a good myth otherwise they would not have such coveted jobs of interpretation. Living
      descendants of indigenous peoples interested in this study have two obstacles to overcome: being stuck with language not Our Own when speaking of museum collections and then trying to be heard as we explain meaning and relevance to museum people whose interest is institutional preservation of themselves, in my experience.

  12. George Nuku – Personally i disagree with the stance taken by Albert Wendt to abandon the term ‘Traditional’ – I completely own and dominate this concept in my practise -people ask me ‘oh is that traditional what you are doing in plastic? etc’ – i say ‘yes it is very traditional’ -they usually then say ‘oh its just that i have never seen it before’ etc – i usually reply ‘everything is new once’ – we have a strong tradition of innovation – the definition of true tradition is creating the culture from the resources around you in a given moment of time. I won’t back down from saying i am traditional or my work is traditional -it is for me to say that first about myself and my work. what anyone says after that is their opinion, – there is nothing special about opinion – everyone has one.. If i have to label myself then it is ‘contemporary traditional.’

    1. I agree-ish George, if referring to extinct cultures…but in a living, evolving culture (ie Maori); traditions can vary consderably depending on where you are, who you’re with and which (tribal) hat you’re wearing – whereas ‘traditional’ infers specific, fixed, unchanging?

    2. Author

      Kia ora George, Teresa… thank you for sharing your views and reading the blog!

    1. Author

      Thanks for reading Malena!

  13. Thank you, very thought provoking.

    1. Author

      Thanks for reading Olwen!

  14. Mahalo nui!
    Great read and still so relevant!

    1. Author

      mahalo Kawika, thank you for reading!

  15. I am ready to ditch traditional, but what is the ideal replacement for this word.

    1. Author

      Thank you Tisa for reading the blog and taking time to comment. I am not sure if there is an ideal replacement. I think if we are referring to the past we should try to be specific about times and places. If we are referring to a practice in the early 20th century like dance for example, we should say so. If it is late 1970s, let’s highlight that point. In our exhibition labels at Te Papa our writers began to use the terms custom and customary. The rationale given by our head writer at the time was as follows “The terms custom and customary on the other hand were considered to sound more dynamic and to have the connotation of things that endure but also adapt, so a ‘kastom dance’ might feature at specific occasions but the content of the dance might change”. This issue about how we deal with replacing ‘traditional’ is discussed in full in the article link at the bottom of the blog.

    2. I’m for replacing the word traditional with Indigenous. For me, it is an omni word. I prefer Indigenous (Maoli) Architecture. Also suffixes can make the word descriptive as is TRADITIONALLY done in colonial lingo.

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