Moana Toa: Pasifika female leadership series – Waskam Emelda Davis
Moana Toa is an initiative by the AM's Pasifika Collections and Engagement team 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.
We continue Moana Toa with Councillor for the City of Sydney, Waskam Emelda Davis.
Emelda is second-generation Australian South Sea Islander and is of First Nations and Caribbean descent. She is the President and co-founder of the Australian South Sea Islanders (Port Jackson) (ASSIPJ) where she continues her work focused on gaining recognition for the descendants of Australia’s Blackbirding trade. Some 60,000 South Sea Islanders were brought to Australia through kidnapping, Blackbirding and utilising exploitative indentured contracts for the establishment of sugar, maritime, and pastoral industries.
Emelda shared with us her links to Vanuatu:
My grandfather is from Tanna Island, he was taken at the age of 12, my great-grandmother was taken from Ambae Island in Vanuatu and my great-grandfather was from a mission in Harvey Bay and his name was Terry Santo, which is Santo Island.
Emelda has extensive experience working in community development, media and marketing, and has worked with federal, state, community, and grassroots organisations. While completing a Master of Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, she was recently awarded funding through the Networking Tranby ARC Scholarship for her MA thesis, Children of the Sugar Slaves – Black and Resilient. Incorporating oral history, Emelda summarised the research paper as being about "how Australian South Sea Islanders ... came to be here. Black and Resilient is about people of colour and our resilience and the emotional labour that goes into advocacy work and recognition.”
Since 2004, Emelda has been the director of Onyx Management Group where she highlights First Nations, Australian South Sea Islander, Pacific and POC voices in film, television, sports, event management, music and entertainment.
In 2021, Emelda was sworn in as a Councillor for the City of Sydney as part of Team Clover.
Emelda's connection to artefacts in the AM's Pasifika Collection
Emelda explained the significance of Ni-Vanuatuan tamtam or slit drums of which the Australian Museum holds a small collection. These expertly carved drums can exceed four metres in height and typically stood on the ranhara or village dancing ground and are strongly linked to ritual life. Tamtam are commonly associated with Ambrym Island where they can also be known as atingting kon. These vertical drums have a longitudinal slit and are played by striking the edges when “working with ancestry,” as Emelda explains.
Emelda brought a tamtam from her own collection that holds special significance as it is from Ambae, her great-grandmother’s Island. This tamtam was gifted to her by the former Foreign Minister for Vanuatu during a visit to Australia for Sugar Fest in 2019. This tamtam holds a special place in her home. “I have this in my house it is a form of protection as well and it’s guarding our space.”
In the Australian Museum’s Pacific Collection there is a wide variety of hair ornaments and headdresses that reflect the cultural diversity of the Ni-Vanuatuan Islands. The right to wear certain adornments is acquired and are linked to specific meanings.
Emelda wears Marook feathers which are personally significant and are tied to an important experience and event that Emelda recounts for us:
[There was] a huge ceremony and [they] painted my face and took me into the nakamal and put these feathers into my hair and the chief gave me the name Waskam and this is a marook feather and it allows me to stand in the nakamal and speak amongst the chiefs whereas the women sit.
This occurred following the 2015 Cyclone Pam that devastated many islands after which Emelda worked with the Council of Chiefs in Vanuatu to provide disaster relief. In recognition of her work the Council of Chiefs took her to the nakamal where kava is drunk and performed the ceremony and was given the marook feathers she wears.
The stories connected to the objects from Emelda’s Ni-Vanuatuan heritage demonstrate the enduring links that Pasifika people maintain and nurture despite the disruptions caused by colonisation. Emelda underlined the significance by encouraging Pasifika people to,
Stand in your power, know your identity and if you don’t know your heritage or your bloodline – find it.
Australian South Sea Islanders and other members of the Pasifika diaspora in Australia can find power and strength through knowing where we are from and maintaining or establishing links with our island homes.
Emelda continues to advocate for the recognition of Australian South Sea Islanders and raising awareness of the continued exploitation of seasonal workers from the Pacific in Australia today.
Tanku tumas and thank you for reading our second instalment of Moana Toa. A special thank you to Councillor Waskam Emelda Davis for sharing your time and knowledge with us.
Bolton, L. 2005, ‘Dressing for transition: weddings, clothing and change in Vanuatu’, in The Art of Clothing: A Pacific Experience, edited by Susan Kuchler and Graeme Were, pp. 19-31. London: Routledge.
Kjellgren, E. 2005, ‘From Fanla to New York and back: recovering the authorship and iconography of a slit drum from Ambrym Island, Vanuatu’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 17, pp. 118-129.
Knowles, C. 2015, “Slit drum, Vanuatu’, in Trophies, Relics and Curios?: Missionary Heritage from Africa and the Pacific, edited by Karen Jacobs, Chatal Knowles, and Chris Wingfield, pp. 63-65. Leiden: Sidestone Press.