At the age of 15, Moemoana Schwenke is one of few female Siva Afi (fire dancers) in the world, challenging gender stereotypes while pushing her own limits of fearlessness. The connection she shares with her Polynesian culture is so strong that it influences almost everything that she does, from performing arts and promoting equality to advocating for the preservation of our environment. At such a young age, Moemoana shows us a beautiful example of what it looks like to be a young Pacific woman who isn’t afraid to stand up and show the world who she is. We’re proud to bring you her story and we hope it inspires you to embrace everything it means to be who you are as a Pacific person – as Moemoana says, “You are not just anybody.”
Tell us a bit about yourself, your connection with your Polynesian culture, and how you came to follow that path?
Talofa Lava. My name is Moemoana Schwenke, meaning ‘sleeping ocean’ and I am 15 years old. I was born in Samoa and raised between the islands of Samoa, New Zealand and Australia. For as long as I can remember I’ve cherished pacific island dancing and had a strong connection to my Polynesian culture, land and people. I express my love of culture through performing arts and creative/visual arts. I have immense pride for where I come, and the customs and traditions my culture beholds illustrates the young woman I am.
I was raised in a family who was bound together by culture and because of that, it has been forevermore imbedded within me. My mother Maryjane McKibbin Schwenke, and father Frederick Schwenke, are the most passionate and purposeful people I know. Crowned Miss Samoa Australia, Miss Samoa and Miss South Pacific, my mother Maryjane is the reason I came to be encapsulated and enchanted by the Samoan Siva. She showed me through dance, the beauty of a taupou, her gracefulness, elegance and warrior like talents. It was that moment that I wanted to become a dancer, because dancing can tell a story without even saying a word.
As a little girl I was mesmerised by my mother and father’s journey, talent and creative minds, but ultimately their love for their culture and people. The same love that gave them the opportunity to travel worldwide and all around the Pacific, sharing Polynesia. Travelling alongside them, mimicking their actions, learning how to dance and understanding culture, at the age of six I can remember preforming in front of hundreds of thousands. When I danced on a stage for the very first time it all made sense, I finally understood. I understood that my connection with culture was because it was what I most proud of. It was something I wanted to show off to the world.
Moving to Australia from New Zealand, nothing has ceased my love for performing arts, but my path has definitely changed. Deep within the concrete jungle of suburban Sydney, a Pacific Island Cultural arts Centre ‘Matavai Cultural Arts’, to which I am a student and teacher has taught me new skills and allowed me to unite, share and connect with fellow pacific islanders. Matavai was founded by my parents, and it is here that the rhythm of wooden log drums can be heard, echoing the heartbeat of my Pacific Island people, alive, full of love, sacred and free. It is here I am free to learn and embrace my culture, to dance traditional dances. I am free to chant the songs of my ancestors and to express my cultural heritage and identity.
It is here that I have learnt how to dance several island cultures including Hawaiian, Samoan, Cook Island, Tongan, Fijian and the skill of Siva afi. I’ve preformed with dance school Matavai Cultural Arts at events such as ‘Pasefika Vibes’, MUA Voyage, Samoan Independence Day, Fiji Day, Tonga Day, The ALOHA movie premiere and many more. I spend a great amount of my time, nearly every day of the week, teaching kids about their culture through dance and making costumes for performances.
I’m also currently one of the worlds very few female Siva Afi (fire knife) dancers and am training to one day go to the Siva Afi World Championships. I work to challenge the stereotypes between both genders and break the barriers of a woman’s capability, because women can accomplish anything. I test my own courage and fearlessness by fire knife dancing and seek to influence other Pacific Island people to do so. Having a stick with fire at both ends is risky but it allows me to channel my inner warrior that is fearless and strong, as well as teach myself how to be, feel, stand and fight like the great ancestral warriors of the pacific.
How do your interests and work with performing arts tie into your passion for climate change?
I share and promote my individuality and the essence of who I am, my heritage, culture and the blood that runs through my veins through art. I am inspired by the environment and all sources of the earth we as humans rely on, therefore I am very spirited about issues like sea level rising in the pacific as a result of climate change.
I dance and perform in honour of my ancestors who navigated and fought for a peaceful land. The very exact land that we are destroying today. The very exact land we take for granted by polluting and exploiting.
I believe that the Samoan Siva is graceful, mimicking the ocean that is steady, flowing and wise. So whether it is creative/visual art or performing arts, I am able to share my message about climate change and hopefully make a difference. As someone who is capable of making a difference, I believe I need to do so.
Climate change is threatening my land, my people and my ancient culture. We are the custodians of the ocean, and our traditional relationship with the ocean is woven into the fabric of our existence and identity. I want the world to be aware of my Pacific Island’s cries and pleas for the people of the world to stop polluting the Earth. For my ancestors who navigated, for my forefathers who fought and my elders who are struggling to maintain it, we need to care for our Earth.
It burdens my heart to believe that if pollution to the Earth does not end, my Pacific Island people will have to stand in fear for their own land that is threatened to be underwater because of climate change. My heartbeats everyday because I know I have an island home to go back too, awaiting my pursuits. Climate change is real, it threatens my land and it can take all that I love- my island home, away.
The beauty of my island and people enlightens my soul and frees my mind, if it was gone, if I was without it, I would be lost.
What have been the biggest challenges so far, and what have been the most valuable lessons through these challenges?
My mum always says, “You’re always going to be the odd one out when you’re born a leader”. Living in Australia, I am faced with challenges of always being different. I look, speak, act and think vastly different from everyone else. I see this as a challenge because through past experiences the fact that I was not like everyone else lowered my self-confidence and the pride I had for my interests and myself. I tended to change my views just to fit in, however as much as I tried to shadow others, as much as I tried to change, I could never suffice.
I’ve learnt and grown to believe that I’m unique, and that I’m a leader not a follower. From this challenge I have also learnt that ‘different’ is not wrong and is not odd, it is actually quite captivating. I have realised that if I feel strongly about my values and beliefs, there’s nothing else to do but embrace it.
What motivates you to push forward with your work, and with the goal that you’re hoping to achieve?
The thing that motivates me to push forward is the immense passion, pride and love I have for being a Pacific Islander. I cant even put into words how proud I am. Performing Arts is my passion because it is what God has put in my heart to do and something I can’t get enough of. It’s when I am in the studio sweating and exhausted that I can feel alive and at peace with myself, that truly motivates me. All those hours and hours of practice are worth those few minutes on stage. When I get on stage I am at my happiest and nothing else matters but performing, expressing my island culture and letting the audience escape to another place if only for a moment. That is what I live for and that is what motivates me.
What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of following a similar path as you have?
With all that I learn and know about the Pacific Islands, I believe the world can be such a better place if people express and share their talents. Never hide your talents or strengths because the world needs more.
Don’t try to change who you are, instead, embrace your individuality. It’s easy for people who follow the status quo to take you down because of your differences. The key is to always stay true to yourself and know that this is who you are, so wear it proudly. Everyone is entitled to his or her own beliefs and by embracing you; you can positively spark other people’s interest through your actions.
I myself, along with all people have the moral obligation to stand as a voice for the voiceless, and to be the eyes for those who are blindfolded. Climate change is real, and if my one voice, my young voice, speaks loud enough, will echo out until the world acts. When you find a passion for something, be sure to stand up for it, counteract it and never hold back.
Also remember that you are not just anybody, you are a Pacific Islander, you are important and you can make positive change. As a Pacific person wear your culture with pride and know that you come from a bloodline that goes back hundreds of thousands of years ago, you come from beautiful, intelligent, humble, hardworking people who navigated vast oceans to find home, the Pacific Ocean, the largest ocean in the world. Each one of us is inevitably born to do great things. I think that’s pretty incredible.
We’d like to thank Moemoana for sharing her thoughts, ideas and hopes with us by telling her story. If you’d like to stay in touch, you can find her on Facebook and Instagram. We wish her all the best and look forward to seeing her perform sometime soon!
Photo 2: ILENS Photography Ben Tapealava