In the book Tivaivai: The Social Fabric of the Cook Islands, the authors Susanne Kuchler and Andrea Eimke write that, “the ‘new’ Cook Islanders have not had the opportunity to sit with their elders and watch canoes being carved or tivaivai sewn.” The authors go on to point out that “schoolbooks contain little about building houses from natural materials, carving canoes or the secrets of traditional crafts…Organised education cannot be compared with hands-on experience of village traditions.”
Books and school curriculum tends to focus on NZ curriculum at the expense of valuing traditional crafts and knowledge.
In Pukapuka, this is less so than anywhere else in the Cook Islands where life still revolves around three villages that meet every fortnight and make decisions through consensus.
Women’s work and men’s work remain largely separated.
Men fish, build houses, feed pigs and carve canoes.
Women go to the uwi, cook and make women’s crafts.
There is flexibility in this, too, and the women remain strong.
What makes Pukapuka unique is that lack of regular transport and the magic of the land has kept these Polynesian traditions more alive than in many other places in the Pacific.
The Ministry of Education tertiary and secondary Life Skills programme formalises some of this village learning for the younger generation, although the knowledge really travels through lineages of families, dreams, festivals and gift-giving.
Riata Marukore, the tertiary tutor for tivaivai and the Women, Youth and Sports Development Officer for Pukapuka, learned from her mother, Kapa Marukore.
She grew up surrounded by women in the village and the vaine tinis with yearly tivaivai competitions.
“My mother had a big box of tivaivais,” said Marukore, “I just learned by watching her. When, my mother passed away in Raro, I took all of her tivaivais and sent them down to the kids for her funeral.” For Marukore, the tivaivai is a gift from your heart and mind and its part of the passage to becoming a woman. “When I was 18, I made my first tivaivai,” she said, “and I gave the blue and red manu tivaivai to my husband on our wedding day.” Later, when he died young, she buried him in it.
Today, many young women don’t know how to make the tivaivai. When someone gets buried, a factory sheet is more often used. “I want to teach and support the women’s crafts for the young girls because most of them don’t know how to sew tivaivai,” said Marukore, “Today, only a few women from church and the older women know. The main thing is that I want the youngest ones to know for their future.” The young women learning from Marukore agree. At first, a large group came but only a few faithful stayed day after day to really learn patiently and meditatively. Loimata Atirai, 20, said, “I took no interest at first but when I started actually doing the tivaivai I got really interested. I like sitting down, having time to myself and reminiscing.” Pila Lavalua, a primary school teacher, comes to help out after school because she said, “I like sitting with the women and talking and it clears my head from the school day.” Teuamua Malo, 27, comes every day and patiently sews learning so that she can one day make her own tivaivai for her own family. “It’s important for us youth here in Pukapuka to learn how to do these things,” she said, “so that when the old people die, we will still be able to do these things.” Maoake Ngatokolua, 23, made a tivaivai with her grandmother when she was young. “We made a blue and green one for when my grandpa died and now am learning a more difficult stitch so I too can make my own tivaivai for my family.” Then she leans down and kisses the hot pink and yellow sheet, “because it’s beautiful”.
Riata Marukore and another woman cut the hot pink flower pattern months ago, much the way you cut a paper snowflake. “Cutting the pattern can be quite hard,” she said, “because you put the pattern on a piece of cloth draw it on the cloth and then cut it out and follow the drawing. Only a few people do the cutting of the pattern.” She chose a yellow and hot pink fabric and green thread as the tivaivai is meant to invoke joy, colour and celebration. “There’s so many different kinds of colours and patterns and stitches. This one is the manu,” said Marukore. It took a tremendous amount of patience to sew day after day and only after three months did it finish. It will be given as a departing gift and sent across the seas weaving together islands and distance.
Throughout Polynesia, tivaivai, patchwork and quilting has been given as gifts, invoking warmth and celebrating important passages in life. Now that these young women know the art, they will be able to make their own tivaivai to mark their own life, weaving their biographies into their sheets. “It’s yanga akaloa, a work of love,” said Marukore, “it comes from my mawutu, from inside of me.”