It is also interesting that the writer uses the reo tupuna performances as an example and that the letter was accompanied by a picture of the Ma’uke group, with performers’ faces painted black in part, as well as their legs and arms. Maybe I can help with the reasoning behind this.
If the people here in Tumutevarovaro were from north of Tahiti and the Marquesas, then one could imagine that they brought with them the tattoo prevalent amoungst Marquesan men and women. In fact the legend of Puaikura warrior and navigator, Rau Mataiapo, speaks of him saving up precious red kura feathers as payment for the tattoo he would receive in Nuku Hiva where he sailed with his son. It was a return voyage, as Tui, the chief that greeted him in Nuku Hiva spoke of his unfinished tattoo.
As it happened, Rau Mataiapo and his son were killed by the would-be friends in Nuku Hiva and his people of Te Vaka Pu Enua later avenged his death and the death of his wife Kura, who cried a river of tears in a place we now know as Vai o Kura.
Marquesan tattoos covered the whole body, legs and arms - and yes, across the face. It was done in parts or sections and a man showed his mana by having it done. The letter-writer maybe fails to understand the connection to our tatau past to the people of Te Henua (Northern Marquesas) and Te Fenua Enata (Southern Marquesas), both meaning “The Land of Men”. Even if we look south to the people of Karika, as a chief from the island of Manu’a he would have had a pe’a or malofie tattoed on his abdomen, and thighs.
On April 2, 1777, Captain Cook sailed two ships, the Resolution and the Discovery, near the reef of Atiu and off Orovaru. They were visited by warriors in 10 canoes trading food and artefacts for cloth, beads, nails and axes. The warriors were unarmed and friendly. They had beards and long hair, either loose or in a top-knot. They were also documented as being heavily tattooed on their legs below the knee.
Around 10am the next morning three armed longboats approached the reef and Lieutenants Gore and Burney, surgeon/naturalist Anderson, and Omai, the Raiatea translator, were taken over the reef in Atiu canoes. Ashore there were many armed warriors including three chiefs who were distinguished by the prized red kura feathers in the holes in their earlobes and tattoos, mainly on the upper body sides and back.
In Aitutaki the traditional voyaging vaka, Tu E moana, Rangi Pae Uta – Rangipae Tai, Te Uataoa, Irakau and Kakeroa were distinguished not only by name, but also by particular carving patterns on the vaka and the tattoo patterns on those from that vaka. When Te Rangi Hiroa visited Mangaia he also identified numbers of tattoo patterns on the people there, including the puwakewake on the chest, shoulder and upper arms and pa’oro from knee to ankle.
The attempt to display our pre-missionary past with black paint is maybe not so strange and when we connect our tattoo past with the present, in fact the black should cover more than what we currently see displayed at Te Maeva Nui. Our brothers and sisters in Aotearoa have kept this taonga as have the people of Samoa, whereas we threw it all away.
If it were not for the accounts of Te Rangi Hiroa and of Captain Goodenough and his men on the Discovery we may never have understood this connection with tatau and ourselves, and our long, rich and noble past.
Thomas Tarurongo Wynne.