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The Roots

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

The idea of getting back to the root of something whether it be identity, idea, or issue is a common if not clichéd figure of speech that uses the plant term “root” as a metaphor for origin. The root—as the part of the plant that is underground—in this sense also implies basic causes, underlying aspects, deeper connections, and perhaps hidden sources. Roots of plants secure the stalks, stems, and trunks in soil conveying water and nourishment through networks of numerous branches and fibers to the leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds. Root has become synonymous with origin, genesis, foundation, core, reason, heart, essence, family, ancestry, heritage, birthplace, and homeland. In Oceanic culture awareness of the roots of ancestry is acute as evidenced in many name games that trace lines of genealogical connections to the farthest reaching remembrances of high chiefs, kings, queens, and deities. Such root logic extends itself befittingly to the ceremonial use of one particularly sacred root known to many of the cultures across Oceania as kava.

The kava root is the main ingredient of a ceremonial and recreational drink that has been ritualized and enjoyed for thousands of years among many Oceanic cultures. Piper methysticum is the botanical name for the pepper shrub that produces the kava root, but Oceanians each have their own name for it: Samoans, Tongans, Vanuatuans, Marquesans, Rarotongans, and Hawaiians generally use the term kava but the word derives form others that relate to a bitter taste or even poison such as awa, kawa, a’ava, awa’awa, and kawakawa; the related ginger-like root awapuhi is named similarly for its strong, peppery flavor (Lynch 498). Tahitians have used hoi to describe the same root. Fijians use the term yaqona which is based on the root word gona and is derived from the Fijian word kona for ‘the bitter thing’ (Lynch 499). Ultimately, according to linguist John Lynch who traces the use and trade histories of the plant and its names, “the term kava derives from an earlier *kawaRi that referred to ‘roots with special properties’” (Lynch 511). When the root is infused into water for the kava drink, the psychoactive and ritual properties of Piper methysticum have a mildly narcotic effect.

There are many strains of kava but only two main ways to prepare it: if the kava is to be used immediately, the fresh root will be “grated into a pulpy mass by rubbing it back and forth on slabs of course-grained rock or concrete” and then shaped into balls (Turner 204). If the kava is to be used later, the stem and root are dried and then pulverized with a mortar and pestle into a powder which is then pressed into water through cloth. The appeal of kava’s properties serves both traditional ceremonial and social recreational uses in Oceanic customs. While each Oceanic culture has specific rites and methods for drinking kava, the traditional, ceremonial use of kava is generally situated in gatherings of various formality and centers around making and serving the drink according to strict rules. Agricultural economist Ronald Gatty, describes a Fijian kava ceremony:

The dried root is ground up, mixed with water, strained and then served from the

large central bowl. With one cup of a coconut half-shell, each guest is served in

turn, in order of social standing and with a flourish of presentation that includes

chanting and sometimes dancing. Tradition dictates that each guest must finish his

drink in one gulp. (243)

As the center of the sacred ceremony, the large wooden kava bowl has also become a representational image that is often depicted on clothing and in Oceanic artwork. The Samoan Sensation website describes the many legged kava bowl as—“Stonehenge supporting a huge bowl that touches the ground in the middle.” But the kava bowl symbolizes more than just the sharing of a drink at a party. In a formal kava ceremony, the kava bowl and all the participants have specific seats that form a wide circle or half circle. Each participant sits according to his or her rank (although in many traditions, especially in earlier times, kava ceremony was only for men) and is served according to that rank by a designated person usually of lesser rank (a young boy or taupo—princess). The expression and celebration of roles is punctuated by the placement of the kava bowl in the circle.

Ethnographer James W. Turner also looks to the Fijian ceremony for his discussion of kava ritual; here he makes a distinction between the social use and ritual use of kava:

In many cases the kava circle is not only the setting for important ritual, it is also a

forum for talk. In Fiji, aside from relatively infrequent public events such as funerals,

weddings, and meetings of various kinds, yaqona is the only thing that brings men

together in a setting conducive to conversation. Informal conversation around the

yaqona bowl keeps men of the community informed about current and future

events and the actions of others. (207)

The relaxing properties of kava make it conducive to friendly conversation and even giddy camaraderie making it the perfect focus for a talking circle. But the kava circle serves other political and spiritual purposes, too. As Turner further explains, the spatial arrangement of the assembled kava drinkers underscores the fact that the primary focus of kava ritual is chiefship (207). “At a Fijian public ceremony, the presiding chief sits at the head of the kava circle, he and the kava bowl face one another across the open space,” this, says Turner, connects the chief to the ceremony and all the participants in a way that establishes a relationship that is more complex than hierarchy:

On these solemn occasions, a functionary known as the mata nivanua

(literally, “face of the land”) speaks on behalf of the chief. Still the chief is not

physically isolated from the other participants. The seating arrangement

emphasizes a gradation of rank rather than the separation that governed the

relationship between ruler and subject…. That difference is the essence of

chiefship. It is not simply hierarchy that is underscored in the kava ceremony

but also continuity within society. (207)

Turner describes this complexity as a kind of duality expressing both “we are all united,” and “we are all different.” The kava circle affirms the connectedness—what Turner calls the continuity—as well as the inequality in the socio-political realm.

Where Turner’s discussion gets really interesting is when he turns to the more ritual aspects of the kava circle and here his look at Tongan kava ceremony expands to all of Polynesia. In Tongan ceremony, not only does the ritual reflect the historical relationships among title holders, but it also expresses a much farther reaching continuity:

The presiding chief and other participants are, for the duration of the

ceremony, the embodiment of ancestral title-holders [and] … the

identification between chief and deity was characteristic of chiefship

throughout Polynesia. … As the temporary incarnation of the god, he drank

the first cup…and, whether the presiding personage sat as chief or priest, he

was the living manifestation of a spirit being” (Turner 208).

Those who participate in kava ceremony do so not only in the presence of their ancestors but as physical embodiments of their ancestors, who, by the way, are also considered deities. Translation: drink kava, be god. “In the context of ritual, the mana of kava has a transformative function. Through its agency, an assembly is brought into contact with the sacred.... It is through the kava bowl, placed as it is at the base of the circle, that linkage is achieved both physically and symbolically” (208).

Kava has also been used in shamanic ways to induce trance; and “As a ceremonial gift, kava was offered to ancestral spirits on the domestic altar and offered to such supernaturals as the shark patron” (Gatty 246). A few drops of kava is still poured out of each cup beneath the floor mats before it is drunk as an offering to the ancestors/gods of Samoan households. And in Niue, “Before kava was introduced, coconut water was drunk ceremonially with a libation poured out for the gods, as is done with kava in Samoa” (Gatty 242). Naturally, with the onset of colonialism and Christianity, the face of the kava circle has largely taken on its more sociopolitical look masking what trembles beneath the surface as alignment with the divine. In Oceania, kava drinking has become largely more recreational, but even in its presence at card games and parties its use is often accompanied by formal speeches and other etiquette.

Kava’s relaxing properties have created a recent surge in Western cultural popularity of the root resulting in a current craze for kava products in the form of supplement pills, candies, powders, and teas. Kava bars can be found all over Hawaii and in the hippest of cities as far away from Oceania as Ashville, California, and Boca Raton, Florida attracting all kinds of fans from aging hippies and pleasure gurus to new age hipsters and raw-food health nuts. The bars often stick to Oceanic culture themes but probably never effect any kind of traditional ceremony. As the drink lends itself well to gregarious conversation, kava bars are often designed in ways to encourage social conversation. One kava bar in California describes its décor as a refreshing, elegant tiki atmosphere. The kava bars I’ve visited on the Big Island of Hawaii feature diner-like seating with counters in-the-round so that everyone can face each other and talk; all of them stick to a typically traditional island theme. The elaborate décor in Mystic Water Kava Bar of Hollywood, Florida, however, looks like something off the set of the TV show Fraggle Rock or the film The Lord of the Rings. The entire bar appears to be woven into an underground system of nodules and tendrils of roots. This kava bar’s web page features photos of traditional Fijian kava ceremony and touts the medicinal and spiritual properties of the drink. While many of the bars seem to be aware of the roots of the root and its traditional uses, the information and awareness are only nods to kava’s ceremonial origins. And often the sacred aspects are completely ignored or misinterpreted.

To uproot is to interrupt, to remove from the home. When the root is taken out of Oceania is the Oceania taken out of the root? A rather snarky article in Charleston City Paper online reviews the Vanuatu Kava Bar in Asheville and personifies kava as “a chilled-out, Buddha-bellied beach bum who likes nothing more than to sit by the sea, talk with his friends, and strum away on the ukulele.” The same article discusses the unique flavor of the drink: “But there's a downside to kava. It tastes like ass. ‘If there is a nasty thing you do have to face down for the pleasure of it, it’s the taste,’ says Andrew Procyk, managing partner of Vanuatu. ‘It tastes like something of a combination between dirt and tree bark’” (Haire). Western references and uses of kava point rather to its commodified enjoyment value overlooking any inherent spiritual value. Yogi Tea brand markets their kava as “Stress Relief.” The selling point for the West is that it makes you feel good. Which in turn may allow you to remember who you really are…but most likely not in the way of immediate alignment with ancestors or embodiment of deities to find spiritual visionary solutions to present predicaments with mythic connections to the past. I have never seen that going on in a kava bar.

To pull up the roots is to dig at the source of a problem, to figure it out and maybe get rid of it before it grows beyond control. As a part of the Western, dominant mainland ideal, I often drink kava to calm down, feel better, or get to sleep, because I don’t have other systems in place to effectively deal with the stressors of daily life. Obsession with internet, social networks, video games, movies, work, drugs, and alcohol express the Western preference for distraction, pleasure and superficial ameliorates for our troubles. In our world of convenience and entertainment it is easy to substitute habit for ritual. The use of kava as just another pill or drink to smooth over and numb a lack of connection to self, family, and ultimately a natural cosmic order perpetuates the post-colonial legacy of disconnect. Appropriating kava and Oceanic culture without an understanding of respect for the true mana, the power within the plants, the people, the culture and our true place within the complex continuities of the spiritual realm invoked by each sip of the drink is a gross ethnocentric error. The root is origin, genesis, foundation, core, reason, heart, essence, family, ancestry, heritage, birthplace, and homeland. Perhaps a practice of awareness and a deeper, even ritualized use of kava can bring us not back but rather present, home, to the presence of our roots.

Works Cited

Gatty, Ronald. “Kava: Polynesian Beverage Shrub.” Economic Botany 10.3 (1956). 241- 49. Springer. JStor. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Haire, Chris. “It's Time to Chill Out With a Mug of Kava: Two Shots to Paradise.”Charleston City Paper. 11 Aug. 2010. Web. 3 Apr. 2011.

Lynch, John. “Potent Roots and the Origin of Kava.” Oceanic Linguistics 41.2 (2002). 493-513. Hawaii UP. JStor. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

Turner, James W. “‘The Water of Life’: Kava Ritual and the Logic of Sacrifice.” Ethnology 25.3 (1986). 203-14. U of Pittsburgh. JStor. Web. 30 Mar. 2011.

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