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Isa Lei

The Fiji Love Song

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, July 12, 2000.

Isa Lei is a Fijian love song written when a medical student, named Thomas, at the beginning of the last century fell in love with a lady of high birth.  He was forbidden to marry her, and in his despondency he sang his love and depression in a hauntingly beautiful song, which good taste and environmental impact laws forbid me to sing for you. It became the Fijian love song. My image of Fiji is of the lady Isa listening, as she did in her old age, as the song written for her by a long dead lover wafts across the water sung by natives paddling the ocean canoes, or children just for the fun of it, or from the radio of a tourist's boat. I've never been to Fiji, but that is my image, somewhat romantic. It is a true story, with the lady Isa dying in the 1960s.

Now my image of the tearful old woman with a smile of remembrance has been replaced by the smirk of George Speight, a native Fijian who organized the recent coup. He has apparently won virtually all his goals, although the world, especially the Anglo world, is threatening boycotts and repercussions. Fiji has coups every decade or so. They have been considered by the world with the same trepidation that a slap fight in the gym generates. This one is different. There have been hostages, and death or two. At first glance, Speight seems the prototypical racist thug risen large, Al Sharpton with guns. A closer look is deserved, and it is of great interest to indigenous peoples everywhere.

Fiji is a group of islands northeast of Australia and has significant land mass, more than you might first think. There are more people there than you might suppose. Fiji was once English - weren't we all? - and the English - rather than try to instruct the natives in mercantile economy, much less the industrial revolution, imported middle class east Indians to run the sugar plantations. When the English left, they also left a large population of Hindu and Muslim Indians who now owned the lands the English had usurped. The English had, out of guilt, thrown something of a conciliatory nature to the native land owners, which may have been more or less fair a century and a half ago. But the rents never rose, and the highly subsidized sugar industry would have to be more subsidized if the current owners, often of Indian descent, had to shell out a fair and equitable rent to the native Fijian families. These rents are set by the government, and when the last election produced for the first time an ethnic Indian as head honcho, tensions rose since Fijians had been hoping to get some compensation for the land. The first thing the new government did was to extend the rents negotiated long ago by the British, and hence hostages and bad feeling. How a native Indian was elected if feelings are really this strong is a mystery of sorts. We must recall, though, that the main islands are different from the Western Islands, and native Fijians are apparently not united on this topic of Speight.

Fiji used to advertise itself as the way the world should be, and now is considering a new catch phrase: Fiji, the other 'f' word. As complicated as the issues are, and as unlikely that they can be settled soon, they serve as an illustrative example of the problems and potential solutions that, say, the Sioux and American government might look at.

The ethnic Indians of Fiji have been there centuries, and they raise the question - rightly - how long do people need to live in a land to be acknowledged as native? The Dutch, who have been in South Africa for five centuries, used to raise that issue. I, and most people, would have to agree that a century or more grants privilege. Not long enough? Be careful. The Sioux have only been in the Black Hills for about as long as the Indians have been in Fiji, and for as embarrassing a reason. They were driven out of the forests of Minnesota by the Ojibways. Why are they allowed to claim that the Black Hills are essential to their people, but the native born Fijians of Indian descent are not? And what about the Crow, who used to sort of own them till the vicious Sioux, which means snake, by the way, drove them out? Fun, eh? I knew you'd love this.

Well, here's an issue. If you want to be acknowledged as Fijian natives in the year 2000, why not, you know, abandon 1830 rent structures and pay your own way with year 2000 rents? Most Fijians are not asking for land back, with the exception of those who are holding hostages on Turtle Island. They are asking for something approaching a fair and equitable price for it. I understand that this will provide an economic shock, and will require higher taxes or subsidy from other nations, primarily Australia, but at least the burden is more fairly shared, and the native Fijians may get enough money to buy land back. This is what terrifies the Indians, and you can imagine the horror with which the American Federal government views it. But not really. If we establish a base line for compensation, what year would it be in? And can one indigenous people sue another for a war or problem two centuries old? Three centuries? Five? When then? And how, since you cannot punish the descendents of crooks and shouldn't.

In Fiji, descendents of what we now call original islanders - provided they were indeed first there and not just the first to conquer - constitute 51% of the population. Forty seven percent are ethnic Indians. The remaining 2% are Starbucks employees, MTV beach dance imports, and American drunks who can't find their skiff back to the yacht. It doesn't get closer or more dangerous than that. How Fiji handles the repercussions of this incident will decide how we think of these islands and their people for the next century. Not to mention, the income of the natives if tourism packs up and heads for Guadalcanal.....or, rather, Hawaii.

I would like the saddest thing about Fiji to be that elder lady gently tortured by a love song written for her by......... well, it doesn't matter anymore.