The false idols of America's south seas fantasy

Ben Marks of CollectorsWeekly says: "Here's an interview with Tiki Pop author Sven Kirsten on the roots and shoots of Tiki culture in America. Have a Mai Tai-soaked, Hawaiian-bbq weekend!"

tiki Collectors Weekly: Where did the word “Tiki” come from?

Kirsten: Tiki was a mythological figure in Polynesia, a region defined by the Polynesian Triangle: There’s Hawaii in the north, Easter Island in the east, and New Zealand in the southwest. In the middle of that triangle are islands like Tahiti and Samoa. All of these islands share some common heritage and a similar language. They also had a religion based on ancestor worship, where their ancestors were deified in stories and myths and became their gods.

Tiki was like the Polynesian Adam, the creator of man, but he was sort of half-man and half-god. Eventually, all carvings and depictions that had human features became known as Tikis. The word “Tiki” was used in the Marquesas and by the Maori in New Zealand. In Hawaii, they’re called Ki’i, and in Tahiti they’re called Ti’i, because of the language variation. For example, the Hawaiian word for Tahiti is Kahiki (which was also a great restaurant in Columbus, Ohio), because the T becomes a K in Hawaiian. But that didn’t really matter to the Americans in the 1950s—basically all the different carving styles became members of the happy Tiki family, including the Easter Island Moai statues.

Notable Replies

  1. No big visible population of Polynesians around to object?

    And it occurs to me: It is mostly about the props, not the people. The occasional fire dancer maybe, but Tiki culture is mostly about leaf roofed cabanas, statues, funny drinks and the like.

  2. Discussion of Polynesian religions is seriously wrong. It was not ancestor worship as usually understood ... as in China, frex. The island aristocrats believed that they had power (mana) because they descended from the gods. They were the ones with the impressive genealogies (such as the Kumulipo). Commoners could remember a few generations only.

  3. There was one of those near the SIlver Spring Metro stop in the 1980s. It was a little run down. As we walked in one evening the waiter was doing the Heimlich on a fat lady and I swear to god she coughed up what looked like an entire pork chop which she had apparently been trying to swallow whole like an anaconda.

  4. My big kahuna CEO is a major Tiki guy (not-a-mega-millions-CEO)... It is always fun to visit his home because I get to sample his latest rum acquisitions and check out the latest tiki statue that he has commissioned. His wife is a graphic designer who kinda loves that Atomic Tiki vibe, so I guess that they bonded over that... There are always a few folks at his gatherings that he has met via his Tiki-bar adventures and they are always fun, but give off the same vibe that I get off of others that are a bit obsessed with an artificial "culture". It is the same as when I visit my friend who is involved with medieval/renaissance stuff except there I am tasting different meads and checking out her new tent for the Pennsic Wars... All just different flavors of Nerd -- Tiki-Nerds, Medieval-Nerds, etc (as a rigorously traditional Geek-Nerd, I find their failure to be authentic quite disturbing).

  5. They all sound authentically drunk, at least.

Continue the discussion

14 more replies