Myths about Pukapuka

Friday February 22, 2013 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka

Freelance journalist Amelia Borofsky is a regular contributor to Cook Islands News. Borofsky is based in Pukapuka where she spent her formative years when her father was stationed there as an anthropologist for the University of Hawaii.

While in Rarotonga I heard many myths about Pukapuka. Perhaps because of Pukapuka’s isolation, or its sheer awesomeness, these myths persist. Many of them are racist, and some sexist. These myths, often stereotypes, do not allow for the variety and diversity of experience that marks all groups of people. Here is my personal experience and opinion of their truth.

Myth 1: The Women are “Dangerous” and Hypersexual

I have heard sailors say, “Pukapuka is called Danger Island because of its women.” In Rarotonga contract workers asked, “is it true that the women climb into your window at night?” All over the world, women are not, by some unwritten rule, supposed to initiate relations or express their sexuality publicly. Women in Pukapuka do not hide their sexuality. They do not express shame about making sexual jokes or chasing an object of their affection. In terms of genetic diversity, it makes sense that women would go after men, particularly visitors. It is biologically advantageous to increase the gene pool on an atoll and the women are smart about this. Attracting men from the outside can also increase overall resources to a family. So yes, women in Pukapuka are sexual and sexually free, but passing judgment on this depends on your perspective of ‘proper’ sexual behavior for a woman.

Also, to use the famous Pukapukan phrase, ‘it depends.’ No one’s behavior applies to everyone. One friend says, “it is mostly one family of girls that has created this reputation for all Pukapukan women.” This friend, in her late twenties, has only slept with one man in her life, the father of her child. Women in Pukapuka are sexual and in general, sex is more celebrated, but it depends on the person. I think it says more about us, than about Pukapukan women, that sexually free behavior causes such great shock.

Myth 2: The Women Do All the Work

In general, the women in Pukapuka do work harder than the men. Unlike in Rarotonga, the women here work the taro patches. The taro patches are owned and passed down through generations of women. This in fact creates a more equal society where the men work in service of the sea and the women in service of the land. Taro is considered the gift of life from root to shoot. Women control agricultural procreation.

Working the taro patch is harder than fishing. Women also do the cooking, laundry, raising the kids, teaching and nursing jobs. Men tend to fish, work government jobs and sleep. In the United States, women also have the responsibilities of home, child-rearing and outside jobs while men typically only have an outside job. A Norwegian visitor to Pukapuka shared that it is different in Norway. He said in Norway the men do the cooking, the laundry, the child rearing and the outside work while the women drink wine with their friends. More than a few Pukapukan women considered (briefly) moving to Norway. Compared to many other places in the world, however, Pukapuka is a relatively egalitarian society and women have a prominent role in agricultural and village life. And like everywhere in the world (perhaps minus Norway), women do most of the work.

Myth 3: Pukapukans are Lazy

Pukapukans do the work that is necessary. In a place where daily temperatures reach the high thirties and humidity is one hundred per cent, it does not make sense to do extra work. One must conserve energy. As Johnny Frisbie once said, “what do people want? The Pukapukans to build a cereal factory?” By this she meant that there is no reason to create unnecessary work or products. People fish, farm, contribute to family and village obligations, and have government jobs. People do the work that needs to be done when it needs to be done.

It makes sense in Pukapuka to work seasonally and at night rather than during the heat of the day. In preparation for a village feast, the men may stay up all night catching coconut crabs and not sleep for three days working around the clock. Then, they will rest. A woman might spend two weeks weaving a matt only sleeping in ten-minute spurts. When she finishes the matt, then she will rest for a few weeks. Pukapukans work in bursts of productivity according to the natural environment. It’s actually a much more natural rhythm than being tied to a clock. Italians in the countryside do the same.

Pukapukans also know how to relax. They know how to listen to the wind and watch the sea. People in the West go on meditation retreats to try and achieve this kind of serenity. People here already know how to relax body, mind and spirit. I have yet to meet a New Yorker who can sit for hours and watch the snowfall.

Adapting the Pukapukan way of life and work to outside environments can cause culture clashes. I suspect it is this culture clash that caused the myth of Pukapukan laziness. Different just means different. In New Zealand and Australia, Pukapukans do adapt and work hard to buy family homes. Most of their former skills are no longer transferrable and the skills learned abroad don’t transfer well to atoll life. It requires great resilience and adaptation, which Pukapukans have exhibited. Still, those abroad say they miss ‘the freedom’ of work based on tides and seasons.

Myth 4: Pukapukans are Stupid

Pukapukans struggle in the Western-influenced education system. As throughout Polynesia, Pukapukans learn by watching silently, and then doing. This is also the preferred method for learning all martial arts. Pukapukan children learn incredibly quickly. They need to only watch once before repeating it perfectly. One afternoon, I floated on my back in the lagoon. The next day, all the children floated on their back in the lagoon. This happened without a word exchanged.

In this watch and do method, questions are not encouraged. A Hawaiian friend struggled at University because all of her professors wanted her to ask questions and she thought it ‘rude.’ Pukapukans listen quietly, watch and then do with someone providing correction. Then, they go and teach someone younger. This is also the model preferred in medical school training, “watch one, do one, teach one.” You learn more on the job than through the books.

Pukapukan children have skills that I envy. A six-year old can chase, catch and kill a chicken, husk coconuts, catch fish and work the taro patch. I have a doctorate but if someone left me on Motu Ko alone for more than two days I would be dead. A true Pukapukan six-year old would manage for years. When the Australian or New Zealand Pukapukans raised abroad come to visit, they can’t husk a coconut. They complain about the simplest tasks such as collecting coconut husks for firewood. “They’re spoiled,” say the local mothers. While everyone here values a western education and learning English, no one wants a spoiled child who can’t look after themselves.

Pukapukans prefer learning kinesthetically and orally. They excel at these survival skills, sports, singing and storytelling. They struggle more with writing, reading, analyzing and standardized testing.

Pukapukans also face the challenge of not being educated in their own language. They must learn English and Rarotongan Maori at school, requiring them to be fluent in three languages to succeed. Being tested in English and not knowing the language can be extremely challenging.

Pukapukan students thrive in apprenticeship type programmes. They also do well in project-based learning and group activities. When the schooling is adapted to their learning styles, Pukapukans do very well. After all, they have managed to survive on an isolated atoll for at least 29 generations.

Myth 5: Pukapukans Steal

Pukapukans borrow. An item may ‘grow legs,’ and walk off. The item may be returned later or replaced with a different item. If it disappears altogether, it’s the fault of the person who left it out in the open and did not hide it properly. In such a small place it is easy to find out who borrowed what and simply borrow it back. I once made the mistake of leaving my bright orange sneakers out on the front porch. Later in the day, I saw Tumatine walking with them slung over his shoulder. I simply called out and he returned them. The idea of private property differs here and most items belong to the public.

It is common to share resources. Not sharing will you earn you the nickname “stingy,” a serious insult. If someone runs out of sugar or flour they will simply go to someone who still has some and it will be given. If that person runs out of taro, then they will go back to that person and receive some. If someone compliments you on a special shirt or pair of earrings, you are obligated to give it to them, unless you have a good reason. It is a constant exchange of resources and it works well.

Myth 6: Pukapuka is a Baby Factory

In general, Pukapukans do have lots of children. Children are resources. A family wants boys and girls to help with the work and continue the family lineage. In the United States, a child is considered a cost. In the United States, its estimated that a middle-class child attending public schools and a public university costs a family over two hundred thousand in their lifetime. In Pukapuka, no one thinks about the cost of a child but about the benefits of a child. Here a child increases rather than depletes your wealth. The children give back to the family and the community, rather than the other way around. For this reason, and many other reasons, it makes a lot of sense to share children among family members, redistributing the wealth. Children here are a resource rather than a drain on resources and so it makes sense that Pukapukans want to have lots of children. Still, family planning is available and those who want to can take full advantage of it.

Pukapuka functions differently than anywhere I have ever lived. It is not a capitalist system. I can’t quite explain it here, but it has its own rhythms and ways of doing things that makes complete sense for living here. It’s how people have survived on this 3 sq km atoll in the middle of the Pacific for hundreds of years without conflict. Pukpuka is one of the few Polynesian atolls that still has a sizeable population and functions as a village community with time-honored traditions. Life here, like everywhere, continues to change with mobiles, alcohol and migration out. Change makes it all the more important to respect and preserve the uniqueness that Pukapuka offers.

Overall, these myths all come from somewhere and have their grain of truth. To outside eyes it may look like sexual promiscuity, stealing or stupidity but if you look at it from the inside its simply sexual freedom, a different notion of private property and different styles of learning and skills. In a time of globalization and mass modernization, it becomes all the more important to celebrate our differences. I believe that Pukapuka has a lot to teach the world.

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