OPINION: Growing up, met with vindictive comments whenever we try to learn about our culture, it’s easy to just turn our back on it all – and that’s why the Voyaging Society is struggling for funds and support.
More than a thousand years ago, the Pacific people set out on the backs of double-hulled vaka and traversed the ocean in search of a home.
Some people were dropped off in Fiji and Tonga along the way (where the Micronesian and Melanesian cultures developed); others continued to Tahiti, where Polynesian culture developed.
Each of these groups developed unique customs and traditions of their own, with the variety of islands that make them up having their own niches of culture, with one core thing in common across the entire Pacific region.
The way they had all arrived at their islands was on vaka, and the only way they were able to travel between islands (or away from them, if they were trying to outrun a particularly fast foe) was on these vaka.
They learnt how to navigate using the sky and the stars, and the mechanics of a vaka was one of the core life skills these people held dear to their hearts.
But, with the arrival of the missionaries, and the subsequent colonisation, among the first things to be forgotten and cast aside was voyaging. In fewer than a hundred years, a thousand years’ worth of knowledge was gone.
Not all hope was lost, though.
In 1976, the voyaging renaissance began. Mau Piailug, who held much knowledge (ancient and modern) concerning voyaging, taught a select few pupils what he knew, always emphasising the spirit it took to be a navigator.
The Cook Islands Voyaging Society was founded in 1992, with the aim of promoting voyaging, “and thereby recognise and preserve our cultural ancestry; protect and conserve our Marae Moana, our oceans, lagoons and waterways.”
The society vowed to contribute to a sustainable environment, achieve broad participation, recognition and support for its endeavours, and ignite the voyaging spirit – all the while developing voyaging for the benefit of the people and the growth of all communities of Cook Islands.
Different members of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society each have their own views and values based on voyaging as a sustainable practice.
As a result of the many talks that my Education for Sustainability class has had the opportunity to have with these members, I have learnt enough to say this: the practice of voyaging (as well as the cultural and historical knowledge that comes with it) contributes to a sustainable future within the Cook Islands, one where our culture and environment are not in danger of being lost to development and so-called progress.
The biggest, most endangered thing that needs to be preserved is our culture.
We pass down our history and knowledge orally, with the majority of it not written down.
Like so many other islands in the Pacific, many facets of Cook Islands culture are under threat, such as our languages, knowledge of history, ways of living and traditional practices.
Though this is mostly on Rarotonga, which is the most modernised of all our islands, all the islands in the Cook Islands are affected in some way.
A lot of cultural knowledge is not common knowledge, and you are considered to be really connected to your roots only if you know at least a few stories.
Dr Evangelene Daniela-Wong tells how our past, our history and legends, make us who we are today.
“Legends are metaphors for facts,” she explains. “In our stories and legends, we can see our history written in the metaphors; like how Maui ‘pulling up an island’ didn’t have to mean he pulled it up literally, but pulled his vaka towards it.”
When she asked us in the class to name heroes of legend, historical voyagers and some of the unique stories from each island in the Cook Islands, barely any of us were able to do so. Everyone kept asking if “Maui and Moana” counted.
We have such a rich history that is constantly coming up with new ways to keep itself alive while staying true to original form.
“Our ancestors built their vaka out of what were the best materials available for them; we do the same nowadays, with fibreglass and the like. But we still use the same designs, methods and knowledge of before,” Tetini Pekepo said.
Still, there is a lot within our history that we are not taught; even recent movements, like the vaka renaissance and the Mana Moana fleet, are not common knowledge among the Cook Islands community – in that they are not commemorated and revered the way other, more European narratives are.
When we stop caring and learning about our culture, we become disconnected and apathetic towards what makes us who we are; we are not aware of how much we do not know until specific events point it out.
This makes me think of how, since we have disconnected from many aspects of our culture, you would think we’d be grabbing for every opportunity we can to learn more about, as well as become more involved in, our heritage and traditions.
Yet, that is not how it is. We don’t do that, because the majority of us are not taught to want to desperately hold our culture close. We are shamed for being a “plastic islander” before we are taught to appreciate our culture, making the majority of us not want to learn anything about our culture.
When I was younger, I thought that any cultural class I had was useless, because I wouldn’t need any of it in the future. Learning Cook Islands Maori was useless, because you only needed to know English to get far in life. You don’t bother to learn how to dance culturally if you aren’t good at it, because the teacher yells at you when you get it wrong and the kids make fun of you. It’s too hard to weave kikau crafts, they never look good, or to husk a coconut, so you just don’t.
It wasn’t just me who thought that – or, rather, was taught to think like that and made to feel like that.
Though everyone has their own variation, these are the messages we young people get from the older generation, whether that is directly, or indirectly through our peer group.
My grandmother and her siblings weren’t allowed to speak English in their home; they learnt it at school, but never passed the language on because they were not looking to keep it alive. It was just a necessity to learn it.
Eventually, all of the vindictive comments you are met with when you try to learn anything culturally related get to you, and you stop trying.
It is further compacted when your family and the majority of people you interact with also have no cultural knowledge because they, too, faced the exact same thing you face.
You go so long facing all of this, and it’s fine; you don’t need your culture and it doesn’t need you.
Then suddenly you start to grow older and now you are shamed for not knowing your history, your family, where you come from, how to speak the language, how to work the land, how to be a proper islander.
In year 10, one of my classmates stood up and gave a speech about how you are plastic if you don’t know your language; maybe the speech also applied to him, but all I remember feeling was angry. Who was he to say I wasn’t a real Cook Islander because I am not connected to my culture in that way, even though I was born and raised here?
Then, again, who was I to call myself a Cook Islander if I wasn’t connected to my culture in any of these ways? This sticks with me, because I always wonder whose fault it is.
Is it my fault because I stopped making an effort, since I felt I would never be accepted, and to take on the effort of learning my culture, trying to find and access all this knowledge that meant I had to connect with people outside my family and not any sort of book (books don’t criticise your ineptitude), find a place where I could be supported and learn freely without judgement …
Or is it the fault of the generations who could have built us a supportive environment, but instead expect us to learn and know without them having to lift a finger?
It is only recently that organisations like the Voyaging Society, Korero o te Orau and the like have begun to try to create these sorts of spaces outside of schools and households. Unfortunately, they don’t have enough of an impact as our school environments do.
The curriculum of Rarotongan schools is structured around learning European topics, and the only “cultural” class we have is Cook Islands Maori (which covers the syntax of the Cook Islands language, and some food preparation).
Rarely do we ever put other classes in the specific context of Cook Islands culture, and when we do we look at it through a Euro-centric perspective.
We learn about other places, and we want to go live in New Zealand or the like because it has more opportunities and is more valued than the Cook Islands; this is especially proven by the fact that, as of 2020 an estimated 62,000 people of Cook Islands decent live in New Zealand and 17,563 people live in the Cook Islands.
Without being strongly rooted in our traditions, we lose our identity, and our people to a diaspora that lives in a bigger country.
In a presentation I saw Dr Daniela-Wong give on mental health, she mentioned the phrase “Te tumu rakau akau putuputu ia e te matangi ketaketa rai tona aka”: the tree that has strong roots survives anything.
If we want our culture to survive, we need to be teaching our history, and passing down our stories and knowledge so that it isn’t lost when an elder dies, and it lives on with every member of our culture.
Environmentally and economically, the Cook Islands has a lot that we can do to build a better future for the generations that are coming after us.
But, despite all this potential, there is a lot we are wasting, as well as a lot of it we aren’t doing to the best of our ability.
When Dr Teina Rongo visited us to talk about climate science and a bit on migration, he spoke about how most scientific discoveries and theories made based on the Pacific Islands are done by scientists from anywhere but the Pacific.
On the topic of Polynesian migration from Tahiti (the reason everyone was splitting off from Tahiti and in search of other islands), he said the theories non-Polynesian scientists proposed were mostly about the tribes on the islands warring, there being a lack of food, or they were being chased out by each other in a fight for land.
Dr Rongo pointed out how the theories from people from different backgrounds were very contrasting, and it would be good for more people to get involved in science because “it is better if we tell our own stories”.
Anthony Vavia (who is studying to get his Masters in marine biology, and is doing a study on Mitiaro about fisheries) said: “We can, as Pacific Islanders, bring our ancestral knowledge of fishing and combine the data and numbers to validate it.”
Science, as we know it, is based on “discovering” what is already known and using it to combat issues we face in society today.
“These designs are old, but tried and tested over thousands of years. Depending on the manpower available, it could take a year to finish building a vaka; but in recent times, it could take 32 days.”
Tetini Pekepo continued with: “If you don’t do trial and error, you never learn or progress forward.”
If we have the knowledge, then we can confirm its accuracy by going into a field of science. We have so much we can contribute. This was pretty thought-inducing and inspiring, as it crafts a good caricature of a contemporary world where scientific achievements are being merged with Pacific cultural knowledge.
We could use our values and opportunities to create meaningful careers for our people and preserve our environment. Instead, they want to do things like suck up the resources in our seabeds, create jobs for “the now” and not think about the implications these have for our future generations.
Instead of empowering our younger generation to create a change within the world, to try shift the world’s focus from self-centred, materialistic values and set a stage for positive progress, our elders are more focused on letting our culture die out and exploiting our resources to keep up with what Western powers are doing.
We could focus on what we have locally and improving that, instead of trying to make it big on an international stage.
The Marumaru Atua has so much use and it can be expanded to improve much here.
I think that the vaka could be used more to travel to other islands (such as the Northern group) and take people there, instead of the diesel boats and the planes that get chartered to transport people, which end up damaging the environment.
It costs a lot to travel to the Northern group on a flight, upwards of 1,000 dollars, and if the vaka were supported enough to be able to make trips like that often then we wouldn’t be damaging our oceans with oil diffusion.
Economically, the Voyaging Society runs on donations from organisations outside of the Cook Islands, which is not a completely stable financial situation to be in and they would be much more steady if they found alternate sources of income.
Typically, there are many traditional activities and practices that a community can come together under and get involved in, something that Pacific communities are well known for; but for Cook Islands, there is a definite dissonance between the members of the Rarotongan community and the cultural knowledge and activities available to them, as only a small percentage participate in these activities or are involved with them in any way.
There are families that put a lot of effort into immersing their young ones in the culture, whether it be by dancing, drumming, or more, but for most families in Rarotonga this is not the case.
If you ask a young person in the Cook Islands what their favourite hobby or pastime is, chances are they will say something about sports, watching movies or going to church; only a rare few people would say something cultural, and even fewer would talk about sailing.
If we can’t find ways to involve all members of our community, then we run the risk of losing these practices because there are not enough people to continue on with them.
I think that, because so many families are not raised inside the culture and a part of it from the moment they are born, we need to start laying down the groundwork now so that people can get involved in it whenever they choose to and are not hindered by fear of judgement or stigma.
It is important to connect with your history, and for a community as small as ours, that means you also have to connect with the people.