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Experiencing the Indigenous Culture of French Polynesia

Learn about the concept of "mana" and how it shapes Polynesian culture.

May 31, 2024

French Polynesia is a remote archipelago of over 100 atolls and islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The five main island groups are called the Austral, Gambier, Marquesa, Society, and Tuamotu islands. These islands, an overseas collectivity of France, are known for spectacular white and black-sand beaches dotted with overwater bungalow accommodations. 

Beneath the surface, islanders are fiercely committed to honoring and reviving the customs of their ancient ancestors whose intelligence and understanding of the Earth saw them sail across the Pacific guided by stars and currents. Here’s how to experience Indigenous culture in French Polynesia. 

Polynesian Mana

While visiting French Polynesia, you will come across the term “mana” on a regular basis. This is a Polynesian concept relating to energy and how it is manifested. Mana exists at the heart of everything in French Polynesia: the weather, art, storytelling, and beyond. 

Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash


Tattooing served as a means of storytelling and chronicling a person’s journey through life in ancient South Polynesian society. Every Polynesian “mana” tattoo is unique; the patterns are a reflection of the bearer and will be designed in tandem with the artist. 

Each archipelago developed a distinct technique. In the Marquesa Islands, traditional tattooing is known as “patutiki” and would cover the whole body and face. By comparison, residents of the Society Islands would never tattoo their face.

Colonial interference saw a decline in tattooing and now the islanders are working tirelessly to revive this sacred form of expression. Celebrate the culture by engaging with Polynesians about their tattoos and hearing the story behind the ink.

Textile art 

French Polynesia has unique customs relating to weaving, dyeing, and textile crafts. These include the production of Tahiti’s tifaifai (applique bed quilts) and pareu (dyed garments worn as skirts and dresses by women). Other communities rely on palm fronds and other plants to create homewares and decorative arts. It’s often possible to partake in a workshop that teaches you the basics. 

If you’re not a master of the handicrafts, rest assured you can purchase artisanal goods crafted at the hands of Polynesians. Visit markets to purchase woven fabrics, handmade jewelry, and trinkets. 


The unpolluted environs of French Polynesia means you can appreciate a night sky beaded with the brightest stars. Most hotels can assist with stargazing tours to remote areas such as volcanoes where you can learn about Polynesian astronomy and try your hand at astrophotography. Select resorts run stargazing cruises which bring you even closer to the experience of the ancient seafarers.  

Photo by Tevei Renvoyé on Unsplash


Snorkeling and diving has historically driven tourism in French Polynesia. Hiking is only now emerging following a government scheme in 2021. Young Tahitians underwent training in professional guiding as part of the island’s commitment to sustainable tourism and nurturing the local economy. Most of the hiking ​​guides are from Indigenous communities and the emphasis of the tours is to educate travelers about native Polynesian beliefs and flora. 

Luxury resorts in French Polynesia are passionate about introducing guests to Indigenous culture. They host craft workshops, cooking classes, dance performances, Tahitian language lessons, and nature walks alongside the usual water activities. 

Contact Darby at Darby’s Destinations to devise a bespoke vacation in French Polynesia balancing luxury and culture. 

Ready to embark on your own journey to the extraordinary?