Moana Toa is an initiative by the Pasifika Collections and Engagement team at the Australian Museum that aims to link Pasifika female leadership to culture and arts. To mark International Women’s Day 2022, the initiative will celebrate Pasifika women leading in their respective careers and recognise their contribution to changing the climate of gender equality through a series of blog posts and videos.

The literal translation of Moana and Toa in many Pasifika languages is "Ocean" and "Strong." The Pacific Ocean is home to tens of thousands of culturally diverse islands, and in many islands, the Pacific Ocean is referred to as "Our Mother." Therefore, the Moana Toa initiative aims to celebrate the strength, versatility and grace of Pasifika women and girls.

The series was created by Moemoana Schwenke, Anaseini Ulakai and Miriama Simmons.

Waves, looking out to the Pacific Ocean
Pacific Ocean Image: Supplied
© Creative Commons

Pacific greetings!

We begin Moana Toa with Tongan-Fijian woman Melissa Malu.

Melissa is the first woman of Pacific Islander heritage to be appointed the role of Pasifika Collections and Engagement Manager at the Australian Museum, and has extensive experience working with communities in culture, social impact, and communications. She has always been passionate about working with youth, and has piloted several youth-focused programs in South-Western Sydney.

Melissa Malu, Pasifika Collections & Engagement Manager
Melissa Malu, Pasifika Collections & Engagement Manager at the Australian Museum Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

Melissa has a generous heart, and is dedicated to uplifting Pasifika people. Her central vision for her team is to "elevate Pacific voices, so that we are able to tell our own stories," she tells us. Pasifika visibility is important to her — being seen and heard by others, nurturing an authentic influence and engaging strategically for a far-reaching impact — both within the Pasifika-Australian diaspora, the region and the world.

During her short time in her role at the AM, Melissa has made phenomenal progress in many areas — and has exciting plans while working towards delivering a Pasifika Gallery in September 2023.

Melissa's connection to artefacts in the AM's Pasifika Collection


In Fiji, Melissa is from Nukunuku, Lakeba, Lau. In the Fijian collection, Melissa expressed her connection to the tabua. The tabua is a polished tooth of a sperm whale, traditionally bound together with coconut sinnet. The Australian Museum has a variety of sacred tabua in different sizes, textures, colours and styles.

Tabua, Fiji (E021125)
Tabua, Fiji Acquired 04 September 1912 The tabua is the most valuable and prized of all traditional Fijian objects. Tabua are the teeth from sperm whales that are beached throughout the Fijian Islands. A tabua is fashioned by rubbing down the natural grooves of the whale’s tooth until smooth, and then polishing this with a mixture of coconut oil and turmeric. Small holes are place through both ends of the tooth, through which a cord woven from coconut fibre or pandanus palm leaf is threaded. Image: Finton Mahony
© Australian Museum

The tabua each have distinct cultural and historical stories bound to them. Tabua is supreme among Fijian valuables — and can be referred to as a cultural currency that circulates in Fijian society during important ceremonial gatherings. Ceremonial gatherings where tabua is commonly exchanged include weddings, birthdays, funerals and other important life milestones. In Fiji, there is great significance in gifting a tabua to another individual, as it is a signifier of the highest level of respect, honour and loyalty. Each tabua also embodies mana or spiritual power, that enhances its intrinsic value to the recipient. The recipient of a tabua, bound by tradition, is expected to accept the esteemed offering.

Melissa’s connection to the tabua stems from an early childhood memory.

My earliest memory of the tabua was actually wearing it. I’m the eldest child to my parents and when it was time for me to cut my hair, it was a big ceremony called Na Ikoti. I remember wearing the Tabua around my neck.

Na ikoti is a hair cutting ceremony practiced in parts of Fiji, and the tabua is often exchanged. The tabua in this particular ceremony, represents the Fijian cultural value of vakarokoroko or respect.

Watch Melissa's interview

Kato teu and kato alu

In Tonga, Melissa is from Holopeka Ha’apai, Malapo Tongatapu and Tu’anuku Vava’u. When discussing the Tongan collection she articulates her fascination with kato teu and kato alu, also known as Tongan ceremonial baskets. Cultural knowledge holders explain that the kato alu traditionally originates from the island of ‘Eua, and were made with rare weaving techniques. In comparison, kato teu are the modern representation of the kato alu, and can be decorated with appropriate modern textiles. They are both circular in shape, and are intricately bound together by the roots of the alu plant (epipremnum pinnatum) or tuaniu (cocos nucifera).

The Australian Museum has a variety of decorative kato teu and kato alu, that reveal each creators intricacy and artistry, but also mark history. Today, the creation of baskets in Tonga is a common skill, however many of the Tongan ceremonial baskets in the collection are created with weaving techniques that cultural knowledge holders say haven’t been seen for generations.

Ceremonial gatherings where the people of Tonga gift kato teu and kato alu include weddings, birthdays and funerals. The gifting of Tongan ceremonial baskets is a representation of anga fakatonga or Tongan custom, womanhood and the core values in Tongan culture that include faka’apa’apa or respect, tauhi va or keeping of good relations, mamahi’i me’a or loyalty and 'loto tō’ or humility. These core Tongan values were coined by her late majesty Queen Salote Tupou III, who also professed that the essence of a fafine Tonga or Tongan woman is her efinanga. In Tongan language the literal translation of efinanga is basket, and the figurative meaning of efinanga is that it is the carrier of Tonga’s core values.

I’ve always been fascinated about the kato teu or kato alu, because of what they represent.

The Tongan ceremonial baskets are both a vessel that signals roles and responsibilities of a Tongan woman, and an anchor of the Tongan fundamental values that unify society.

Kato teu ceremonial basket
Cultural knowledge holders explain that the kato alu traditionally originates from the island of ‘Eua, and were made with rare weaving techniques. In comparison, kato teu are the modern representation of the kato alu, and can be decorated with appropriate modern textiles. Image: Melissa Malu
© Melissa Malu

Melissa’s connection to the baskets stems from her memories growing up in Tonga, where she gained the most of her cultural knowledge and remembers actively decorating and mending kato teu and kato alu. She also recalls seeing Tongan women keeping coconut oil, perfume, powder and other feminine items inside kato teu and kato alu.

Of Tonga’s four core values, Melissa holds tauhi va or keeping of good relations to the highest regard. In her role at the AM, she believes that it is pivotal to have unified relationships with Pasifika people and the wider community. She tells us that in order for Pasifika people to collectively elevate our voices, we must nurture the relationships between one another.

Collectivism and reciprocity are guiding principles among Pasifika cultures, and are embodied through both the Fijian tabua, and Tongan kato teu and kato alu. These artefacts remind Pasifika people today, the importance of holding steadfast to our cultural values, customs and art forms while navigating through our future.

The artefacts are testament to our living cultures and the brilliance of our Pasifika ancestors who so selflessly passed these knowledges and practices to their succeeding generations — and who were interdependent on one another, and the environment in order to survive and thrive. Melissa eloquently sums up what the Pasifika collection has reinstated within her life when she says — “We don’t do anything on our own in Pasifika, it's a collective effort!”

Malo ‘aupito and thank you for reading our first instalment of Moana Toa. A special thank you to Melissa Malu for being our first guest to feature.


Arno, A. 2005, ‘Cobo and tabua in Fiji: Two forms of cultural currency in an economy of sentiment’, American ethnologist, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 46–62.

Hettinger, A. 1997, ‘The Making of the Kato Alu: A Traditional Tongan Basket’, Economic botany, vol. 51, no. 2, pp. 144–148.

Hooper, S. 2013, “Supreme Among our Valuables: Whale Teeth Tabua, Chiefship and Power in Eastern Fiji”, Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 122, no. 2, pp. 103–160.