It’s one thing to recognise the lack of Cook Islands traditional knowledge in today’s younger generation, and another to come up with ways to help bring that knowledge back to life.
When it comes to the practical skills, values and knowledge (agriculture and voyaging specifically) our ancestors considered vital to their lives and society so long ago, only a few can say that they know what those skills are.
Even fewer are able to say that they can do those skills.
But the school holiday programme ‘Atui’anga ki te Tango (that has been running since October of 2018 and is run by non-government organisation Korero te Orau) delivers activities meant to connect youth to their roots, and build a foundation for them to grow.
That’s in order to bring back cultural and historical ties that have been severed – or never made in the first place.
Alternating between junior and senior programmes, this year’s two-week senior program (which tends to be focused learning for about 15 students) was a collaborative effort between Korero o te Orau and the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, with marine activities the focus.
The first week had participants obtaining scuba diving and skin diving certifications at Dive Rarotonga, and learning about the marine environment with Dr Teina Rongo, chairman of Korero o te Orau.
The second week was the Mana Vaka programme, which ran from January 19-25, learning both practical voyaging skills as well as historical knowledge in many environments.
The Voyaging Society ran the Mana Vaka program, and had members actively sharing their knowledge with the participating youth.
The first two days were full of learning the history and the past of voyaging at the Pa Ariki museum and Highland Paradise.
This was done because, as Korero o te Orau’s Jackie Rongo put it, “if you don’t know about your past you don’t know the way to your future; if you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you are going. It’s getting the children to learn about who they are.”
Monday was spent at the Pa Ariki palace, talking about Pa Ariki’s history and the history of voyaging in that particular area of the island, around Vaerota.
Participants heard stories from Sam Napa (the son of Pa Ariki) and he took them through the exhibits in the museum.
On Tuesday they went up to Highland Paradise with Danny Mataroa, whom they describe as “an amazing storyteller”.
Rongo continues: “Every time you go up there you learn something new, something you didn’t know before.”
On this occasion, Mataroa focused on their voyaging history. Up at Highland Paradise there’s a rock called compass rock, and getting the Voyaging Society up there to actually see this rock – for Evangelene Daniela-Wong, one of the voyaging society members, it was her first time seeing this rock.
“To align the stories that we are told with physical reality, we can see that here when it’s a certain time of the year and the time is right; the stars align with the Compass Rock it points straight to Aotearoa,” says Rongo. “It is very powerful, lots of mana with the history side of things.”
The power our myths and legends hold, beyond that of impressive storytelling and unbelievable feats, is seen in the truths they come from.
Says Jackie Rongo: “We’re hoping that these children continue to be immersed in it and appreciate the history as they go.”
They have been running this programme since October 2018, starting with about 70 junior 70 students. It’s grown: the October 2019 junoior programme had about 150 students in Puaikura. The first senior programme was in July last year, with UNESCO funding, and this month’s programme was supported by Nia Tero, a donor.
To get lots of experienced people sharing their knowledge, the participants of the programme were introduced to many people within the community who have knowledge to impart.
The Voyaging Society has a vaka exhibit at the National Museum. There, Papa William Powell, master canoe builder, explained the parts of the canoe, the paiere, all the way to the tools used to build it.
Then, at the Sailing Club out in Muri, was their first “hands-on” day. “In spite of the rainy weather, we were still going because that’s voyaging. You never know what conditions you are going to get and because of that you learn to roll with the elements.
“You work with the wind, the rain, the sun, the stars, the moon and that’s what we are hoping to continue to build with these children – being connected to your environment, which is the history and ancestry.”
Cook Islands Voyaging Society member Dion Wong says it’s cool to have the organisations doing this together, “because we’re all in the same boat”.
They have a common goal, and it’s good for them to come together when they want to get things done.
“We broke the kids into three groups and split them off into different activities. They were doing recapping on vaka knowledge, knots, parts of the boat in one place – then somewhere else they would be doing a bit more, points of sail, where the wind is coming from, identifying the wind and how it’s affecting the sails before they are getting out on to the water.
“The weather is rainy but, for a lot of first timers who may not have experience sailing before, there’s only a little bit of wind which is perfect teaching conditions.”
Dr Teina Rongo spoke of how this week was a bunch of new firsts. “This is the first time for us to work with the Sailing Club and the Voyaging Society, and it’s a good opportunity to show the rationality of introducing it into the curriculum at schools.
“Taking sailing as a sport and using it to understand our culture and traditional voyaging is what the Sailing Club and the Cook Islands Voyaging Society can do when partnered. Understanding the wind, understanding currents, it’s all useful and interesting stuff that would do really well in schools.”
For the Cook Islands Voyaging Society, they had many things to teach and a lot of passion to make that happen.
Alex Teariki Oloha shares: “For this programme our goal was, I would say, awareness. Whenever we’ve done an education programme, you would be surprised to find out how many young Cook Islanders do not know that they have a canoe.
“People see it on the news, or when we move it somewhere, and they can identify it with a ‘okay, I think that’s Vaka Marumaru Atua’ but they don’t know that is the Cook Island people’s canoe and they are welcome to come on board anytime and learn about it and be involved.
“So for me, this is the main thing, it’s awareness that all the mapu, all the youth and older Cook Islanders can come be involved and we would love them to be involved. That would be my main goal.”
As well as skill and knowledge building, this week’s programme had one end goal; sailing the Vaka Marumaru Atua.
“Following on, for these guys who have actively come to participate, the whole week has been building up to actually taking them sailing on Vaka Marumaru Atua. We’ve taken them through a training summary of what actual crew would do and learn to get up to speed to become actual, practical, sailors on board the vaka – specifically on board the vaka.
“Because that’s the connection to sailing here, and sailing on the vaka is different to other types of sailing.
“The main difference between the vaka and other boats would be the hull, the extra sails, and the navigation techniques we add in a sprinkling of, to help you know where you are.”
The overall aim of the Voyaging Society is the “maintenance of traditional sailing knowledge and the passing on of that knowledge.”
As Oloha put it, “voyaging is not something specific to the Cook Islands; it’s a Pacific thing.
“We all do it in slightly different ways, and our goal is to teach and hold on to the knowledge about voyaging for us specifically – as well as any insight we have along the way, whatever we can dig up from the past and retain that knowledge so we can pass it on.
“Most of our history was lost. This period we’re in is the Renaissance period; there was pretty much no navigators left in Polynesia, all throughout there were none left who were identified.
“So we had to delve right in to Micronesia to find someone who was able to teach. In recent times, people have come out with little piece of knowledge to add on to what has been relearnt – but I would say that probably 90 per cent of the knowledge was lost and we are now trying to pull it all back as we relearn everything.”
When it comes to the knowledge and history of the Cook Islands, there is a very apparent disconnect between all aspects of our history.
As we “develop” more, and become more deeply rooted in the European ways that were introduced to us a short while ago, we are slowly letting go of our values and past.
Jackie Rongo says: “It’s just that we’re forgetting and becoming more disconnected, adopting more of a Western lifestyle. So much so, that you forget about these connections and that they are so important.
“The concern is that the transfer of knowledge is not happening as it should, because parents are either too busy or that knowledge wasn’t transferred to them. It’s part of why we do the holiday programs.
“A lot of these kids, when they started with this, they’ve never been on a paitaro, they’ve never been in the water, they’ve never been up hiking and that’s a part of why we do it – because children are disconnected, and this is the way to introduce them back and build their appreciation.
“If you’re not connected to the environment, if you don’t know about the wetlands you will fill them in or sell it off to the highest bidder because you won’t understand the function or the significance of it.
“Like with Vaerota and all of it’s controversy – it is a very historical, sacred point for voyaging. It’s the entrance to Avana passage, and it’s a classic case of families forgetting their own history and selling it off.
“Them not knowing how sacred and how important that site is, not only for Rarotonga and the Cook Islands but for the whole of Polynesia and voyaging.
“These are the results of when you forget who you are, where you come from, your history. Cook Islands history is not taught; even the name ‘Cook Islands’ – it has no significance to the people here, it was just a cartographer said ‘Captain Cook sailed through your nation, you’ll be called the Cook Islands’.”
Korero o te Orau are recognising that the way forward is trying to find a combination of cultural and traditional knowledge, and also incorporating scientific learning. That’s where the scuba certification comes in. It allows the children to have these skills to enable them to see an environment they would not have necessarily seen.
“We’re trying to merge them, and acknowledge that yes we use phones, yes the computers are there, yes we are talking about deep sea mining and those kinds of issues.
“It’s being aware of both sides so that whatever profession these children get into, whether it’s law or medicine or what have you, they will always be rooted in this.”
There are many ways that we can preserve our culture and history, while also moving forward with the rest of the world and developing.
It’s just a matter of finding a good combination, and making sure we don’t lose what matters at heart.