Cultural identity and the ‘brown economy’

Saturday May 21, 2016 Written by Published in Weekend
A dancer puts all her concentration and energy into her performance at last year’s Te Maeva Nui festival. 16052021 A dancer puts all her concentration and energy into her performance at last year’s Te Maeva Nui festival. 16052021

This feature, written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne,takes a thought-provoking look at misconceptions of cultural identity in the Cook Islands, particularly in regard to the cultural experiences we present to tourists. Wynne, who moved home to the Cook Islands in 2011, is a counsellor at Araura College on Aitutaki.

An article in USA today, noted that Hawai’i has recently taken a look at its so-called cultural icons to determine for themselves what is authentic and what isn’t.

Why have they done this? Well mainly because the advent of global tourism inadvertently reclassified Hawai’ian culture and turned it into a marketable commodity.

Somewhere though, along the way they awoke to the fact that much of what was being pitched as Hawai’ian was in fact nothing to do with their culture at all. Immediately the icons of coconut bras and grass skirts as well as fire dancing and Tiki bars came under close scrutiny. How could Hawai’ian people have been duped into thinking the reflection they saw was actually them and not this cardboard copy for tourist consumption?

Meanwhile around the world today, global tourists have become more discerning and searching for that point of difference. They do not succumb so easily to the “Disneyfication” of indigenous tourism and are coming to understand that the show or item they are watching maybe isn’t as authentic as the showmen would have them believe.

Maybe the time to question authenticity is upon us and maybe those that peddle “cultural” experiences need to take stock of what this could mean for them.

Can we be informed at what we see today? What has become tradition, is it actually culture, and can we be informed so as we can clearly make that distinction? One is entertaining, and entertainment, the other is also entertaining but also about our identity and what has made us unique for centuries. The two must never be confused as the same.

Not surprisingly with regard to the sometimes diminished view indigenous people have of tourism, a 2010 state survey in Hawai’i found nearly 60 percent of them don’t believe it helps preserve their language and culture. Which runs contrary to what we hear showmen peddle, at market stalls and hotel Island nights?

Have we contributed to misconceptions by the way the Cook Islands is marketed and presented to outsiders? Travellers, who see holiday brochures with photos of grass skirts, coconut bras, Samoan fire-knife dancing and Tahitian hula dancers, wearing pareu material, naturally get the impression these are understood Cook Islands cultural traditions.

Have we ever wondered how the island night ever came to being and the many parts of that island night that we can now challenge its authenticity?

What were the forces that brought this together and how did they produce this thing we have accepted as our own. Because sometimes it’s about as real as the coconut bras the girls are wearing and the fire dancing they perform, or the kitsch Tiki-esque bars and halls they are performed in.

Mimi Kirk in an article she wrote for the Smithsonian Society in 2007 said: Rather than simply a performance geared for tourists, the dance is something Hawaiians did for themselves for centuries, at religious ceremonies honoring gods or rites of passage and at social occasions as a means of passing down history” and that films Like the 1961 Elvis movie Blue Hawaii, were stereotypes that threatened to become the only readily available representations of hula, an age-old Hawaiian cultural practice enacted through chanting, singing and dancing.

So we see a push back from those that wish to preserve some integrity with regard to what is truly Hawai’ian and that which is purely for the tourist industry. That which is entertaining, but not necessarily culture. This call to protect and preserve culture away from tourist eyes may well be the point of difference that we as Maori here in Rarotonga and Pa Enua can offer the discerning tourist, as opposed to the boozy, party bus traveller that just wants to see a young woman dance with very little clothes on.

Can I also suggest that in this transaction we purposely choose the young “pretty” (half caste) and nubile girls to dance, and have redefined what is beautiful to our young women and what beautiful looks like to us. That grown women can no longer be dancers and that the heavy, dark and wiry-haired need not apply, or are relegated to the back. Disturbingly, we have done this to ourselves.

Speaking at the tourism conference in Aitutaki recently, a woman said, yes, we should make sure our culture is preserved, but we still want to also make sure that our dancers are sexy.

“Sexy,” I thought, I wonder how many others think that our cultural dancing must be sexy. Because if it’s about sexy dressed up as culture then all we have done is create a burlesque show, with our young women there as fodder for voyeuristic customers happy to pay for it.

And the show must go on, with the guaranteed sexual innuendo on the part of the show master..”hey..let’s put a little more lead in that pencil…” as he points out the lurid effects of eating rukau. Surely those old crooners’ days are numbered. Can we not deliver something to our visitors that is authentic, has a real sense of cultural integrity and doesn’t demand our young women to push their pareu sarong down almost to the pubic bone, and all in the name of culture? Of course we can, we just need to want to do that.

So, what about the fire dance?

The fire dance as we know it, is only 70 years old. Fire was added to the traditional Samoan dance, Siva Afi , by a guy named Freddie Letuli who was performing a cabaret-style island night in San Francisico in 1946. He noticed a Hindu fire eater and a little girl with lighted batons. The fire eater loaned him some fuel, he wrapped some towels around his knife, and the fire knife dance was born.

It is not a traditional part of Polynesian culture and is in fact an adaptation of a Hindu practice. To say that this is part of our culture is simply not true. Yes, it is entertaining, so maybe should we represent it as such.

The coconut bra: well interestingly, I asked some of our girls in Raro that dance about the coconut bra. Why do we wear them? The answer from them was simple: “because it’s part of our culture.”

Sadly I had to break the news to them that our women never wore coconut bras and it’s almost as absurd as wearing margarine containers on their breasts. I also took the time to ask them how much they had learned about our culture. They all danced and some two to three nights a week. “Nothing,” they all replied, “I can’t speak Maori so I don’t actually know what the words mean.”

“Nothing,” I thought, but this was a cultural show?

Pareu material was an invention of our good friends the missionaries. Maretu in the book Cannibals to Converts and translated annotated and edited by Marjorie Tuainekore Crocombe, described how the missionaries desperately wanted the men, especially, to not wear Maro. The women took to wearing pareu material as it initiated them towards being baptised. Those that didn’t wear it were “put out.” The men refused as they saw it as “womanly” to wear a “skirt,” which is interesting when we consider men’s modern dance costumes. But if they wanted baptism into this new religion, then pareu must be worn, and so it became part of our adopted new identity.

When we explore our traditional greeting, the response is often described as a kiss and or a hug, or even a handshake. This despite Captains Cook and Goodenough describing the rubbing of noses as the greeting met when they traversed through Pa Enua, as did Bligh when he came to Rarotonga. Whenever I ask students what was our traditional greeting, it is almost always met with the same answer, a hug or a kiss. Introducing the idea that we would “Ongi” is often retorted with a, “Not us sir, that’s just New Zealand Maori.” Perplexed I puzzle at how we ever got so disconnected from our own history.

I guess my question is this: Can we be more than just virile warriors, or dusky seductive maidens to others and especially when we define ourselves? Can we have the courage to portray ourselves as we truly are or with at least as little cultural Photoshop editing to that image as possible? Whether others find it entertaining, or sexy should be of little concern; surely. Or do we keep doing what we have done until one day we no longer recognise ourselves anymore.

Tourism as a source of income for our economy is a reality. This is not about knocking it, but ensuring that we represent as true to form as we can ourselves, our history and all that entails our culture.

The discerning tourist, as I have already stated, wants more than just a cabaret show dressed as culture. They are actually looking for the people, the culture untouched, and a credibility and honesty that can’t be accessed at Disneyland.

People often talk about the green tourist and green economy, conservation and clean green tourism. New Zealand has built a whole industry on it. The “Brown Economy’ is all about us and our culture and as kaitiaki of that we need to ensure that it is looked after and not misrepresented. The revival of traditional voyaging may be a good example of our traditions and traditional knowledge mixed with modern materials as an example of how we can achieve this.

Can I conclude with a quote from my cultural mentor “Uncle” Arerangi Tongia when I posed these questions to him..and he said…”To maintain an equilibrium concerning the evolution of cultural improvements to appease our guests so they will continue to market for us and return again and again versus the authenticity of our tradition and cultural norms/values. We confront a dilemma.”

How we choose and have chosen to confront this dilemma is entirely up to us. 

T

12 comments

  • Comment Link tai taratoa matakovi Wednesday, 25 May 2016 13:26 posted by tai taratoa matakovi

    Thomas Tarurongo Wynne thank you for your article well said. Its called colonisation this gave us a new identity and for a moment we were lost in this new world, our values and beliefs were over powered by this world, Our true identity is in need of restoration. Food for thought, E kore e riro e ti-tamore no Rarotonga. We cannot be overcome, We are a firmly rooted cabbage tree from Rarotonga.
    Tai Matakovi

  • Comment Link deb upington Wednesday, 25 May 2016 10:19 posted by deb upington

    Beautifully stated. As a discerning tourist, I have enjoyed my visit there two years ago enormously..I stayed away from the "big shows" and hard, instead working at a school and getting to know the teachers and kids I hope to learn far more about the real earl culture and everyday life next visit, in august

  • Comment Link deb upington Wednesday, 25 May 2016 10:19 posted by deb upington

    Beautifully stated. As a discerning tourist, I have enjoyed my visit there two years ago enormously..I stayed away from the "big shows" and hard, instead working at a school and getting to know the teachers and kids I hope to learn far more about the real earl culture and everyday life next visit, in august

  • Comment Link Nga Marsters Wednesday, 25 May 2016 01:10 posted by Nga Marsters

    I copied and paste from the article...just click on 'published in weekend' top right hand corner of the photo.
    This feature, written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne,takes a thought-provoking look at misconceptions of cultural identity in the Cook Islands, particularly in regard to the cultural experiences we present to tourists. Wynne, who moved home to the Cook Islands in 2011, is a counsellor at Araura College on Aitutaki.

  • Comment Link Teremoana Katoa-Samuel Tuesday, 24 May 2016 18:19 posted by Teremoana Katoa-Samuel

    Am I correct to say that Thomas Tarurongo Wynne is the author, as stated in the intro.
    E MAORI-MAOHI au!

    Shalom, Ia Orana, Kia Orana and Kia Ora e te iti tangata Maori-Maohi!
    Teremoana

  • Comment Link tupuna tangata Tuesday, 24 May 2016 03:40 posted by tupuna tangata

    Very interesting ummm why WHO what .... Pointing a finger won't do anything but acting upon it will make a change and bring back the old ways alive we learn as we go day

  • Comment Link Dave Tuesday, 24 May 2016 01:31 posted by Dave

    Brilliant piece of writing.

  • Comment Link Tiffany Monday, 23 May 2016 23:24 posted by Tiffany

    My great grandmother was from the Cook Islands and unfortunately she did not pass down the knowledge of her culture or language with the rest of the family. I have been trying to research the Cook Islands in order to learn its history, culture and language- do you have any suggestions on what sources I can go to, and that are authentic?

  • Comment Link Tina Kea Monday, 23 May 2016 21:00 posted by Tina Kea

    Thank you for writing this material. This needs to be shared over and over again for our peoe to see and read and hopefully take interest and follow through and teach their children our real culture. history and importantly who we really are and really understand how important it is to learn our culture for any hope of preserving it.

  • Comment Link Nga Marsters Monday, 23 May 2016 00:39 posted by Nga Marsters

    A dilemma indeed...much window dressing or undressing. Where to from here? Life is not a static thing but a constantly evolving fluidity...what is culture? Such a big and ongoing question and as we know it is more than language, food, rites/celebrations...it's the unspoken, unseen and a 'feeling'.
    I appreciate tivaevae, the riotous colours and have grown the love of creating tivaevae. I recognise its origins are far from Cook Island Maori tradition - however the process of creativity is flirtatious and difficult to deny its power. Can we be in danger of overthinking and therefore miss precious moments of discovery.
    Academics will argue the validity of using nature materials to keep the authenticity of costumes. Plastic ei katu, does that mean plastic coconuts and many note that other Pacific peoples now embrace ei katu as part of their dress. There is no doubt ei katu will become an intrinsic part of the wider Pacific identity as our Cook Island-ness becomes homogenised. The ease of identifying our people in a Pacific gathering is not so simple now. I recall a colleague calling out to me, "Hey Nga, there's some of your people." and I said, "what do you mean?". "You know they've got those things on their head." Indeed, they were my people.

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