Kanak people

Kanak (French spelling until 1984: Canaque) are the indigenousMelanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia, an overseas collectivity of France in the southwest Pacific. According to the 2019 census, they make up 41.2% of the total population with around 112,000 people.[1]

Indigenous people of New Caledonia
“Kanak” redirects here. For other uses, see Kanak (disambiguation).


One of the flags of New Caledonia and the cultural flag of the Kanak community, showing a flèche faîtière (a spear-like wooden totem monument placed atop traditional dwellings)

Kanak women talking in New Caledonia
Total population
111,856 (2019)
Regions with significant populations
New Caledonia 111,856[1]
Metropolitan France A few thousand
French  New Caledonian languages

Though Melanesian settlement is recorded on Grande Terre’s Presqu’île de Foué as far back as the Lapita culture, the origin of Kanak people is unclear. Ethnographic research has shown that Polynesian seafarers have intermarried with the Kanaks over the centuries.[2][3] The Kanaks refer to the European inhabitants of New Caledonia as Caldoches.

New Caledonia was annexed to France in 1853, and became an overseas territory of France in 1956. An independence movement led to a failed revolt in 1967, and was restarted in 1984, pursuing total independence status from the French rule. When the 1988 Matignon agreements were signed between the representatives of France and New Caledonia to decide on holding the referendum for independence, Jean-Marie Tjibaou, the Kanak leader of the independence movement, had mooted a proposal to set up an Agency for the Development of Kanak Culture (ADCK). After Tjibaou’s assassination in 1989, the French President François Mitterrand ordered that a cultural centre on the lines suggested by Tjibaou be set up in Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia; it was to be the last of Mitterrand’s Grands Projets.[4] The Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Centre was formally established in May 1998.[5]

Although ancient Lapita potteries date back to 1500 BC, and the people of the island have long been involved in the arts, since the establishment of the ADCK, Kanak arts and crafts have become more popular in New Caledonia. Wooden carvings in the shape of hawks, ancient gods, serpents and turtles are popular as is flèche faîtière, a carving which resembles a small totem pole with symbolic shapes. Music, dance and singing are part of many a Kanak ceremonial function and dances are performed during the traditional Kanak gatherings with the objective of cementing relationships within the clan and with ancestors.

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The word ‘Kanak’ is derived from kanaka maoli, a Hawaiian phrase meaning ‘ordinary person’ which was at one time applied indiscriminately by European colonisers, traders and missionaries in Oceania to any non-European Pacific islander.[6] Prior to European contact, there were no unified states in New Caledonia, and no single self-appellation used to refer to its inhabitants. Other words have been coined from Kanak in the past few generations: Kanaky is an ethno-political name for the island or the entire territory.[7]Kanéka is a musical genre associated with the Kanak, stylistically a form of reggae with added flutes, percussion and harmonies. Kaneka often has political lyrics and is sung in Drehu, Paici or other Melanesian languages, or in French. The word “kanak” is grammatically invariable. The German racial epithet Kanake — which is now applied to all non-whites, even Southern Europeans in some cases, and especially to Turkish immigrants – also derives from the same source, and was originally applied to people from German colonial possessions in Oceania.[8]

Antique lithograph of Kanaks.

Melanesian settlement on Grande Terre dates back at least as far as the Lapita culture.[9] However, the origin of Kanak people is unclear. Obsidian transported from New Guinea was found with the earliest New Caledonian Lapita pottery. In addition, some researchers have claimed there is evidence of New Caledonian human habitation dating from 3000 BC (predating Lapita culture by 1500 years), while others claim to have found pre-Lapita pottery.[10] At the Fourth Lapita Conference, held in June 2000, in Canberra, Australia, the question was posed: “Is Lapita Kanak, or is Lapita the oldest and first ancestor of a later culture that is labelled Kanak?”[11] Still another problem in determining the origin and early history of Kanak people is that the archaeological interpretation is in conflict with the views of Kanak people which have become politicized subsequent to colonial rule.[12]

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