When coming from a pure intention, it is a form of affection, a way of connecting. When done with arrogance or rebellion as between hurt, angry students and hurt, angry teachers, it is a form of chat back, lacking in respect. I hope these thoughts on faith and culture are seen as the first variety. It takes cheek for someone who has only been here a year to comment on such a vital and profound subject.
On a number of occasions, I have witnessed painful confusion in people who regard themselves as good Christians feeling they should repudiate their history as a people, their cultural background. Notwithstanding some practices that by today’s standards are primitive and unacceptable, there is a rich historical culture that every Cook Islander could honour. It resides in the legends, the language, the arts, the music, the crafts and the virtues of past generations.
The early navigators who found their way to these islands without compasses came here in vakas they made with their own hands. They were led here by incredible courage, fortitude, and knowledge of God’s star-filled sky, the movement of birds and changes in the waves, and by enormous faith. I do not believe it serves us to deny historical beliefs in their many forms in order to honour God now.
Several years ago, Dan and I were invited by the Ministry of Education to Yap -- a tiny place I had never heard of. Yap is a Pacific island country in Micronesia known for its giant stone money and fabulous diving. Once we agreed to go, we joked, “Yippee. We’re going to Yap.” There was a huge turnout at the airport to greet us, all the men wearing only long blue cloths, and the women in colorful skirts and eis. The Virtues Project workshop of five days included all the leaders of the community along with parents, teachers, students, and clergy.
By the third day, I witnessed much inner conflict for this tiny community. All kinds of other countries and various religious groups came to their shores, offering funding and “development” – in the process, imposing a new culture of technology, changing family systems, and language (English of course). Some of the leaders expressed their sorrow at the loss of their original culture, even in the name of Christianity. I invited them to form groups and come up with words to describe the essence of their culture.
Every descriptor was a virtue. Courage, honour, creativity and so on. I drew one of their sacred symbols on the board – the woven flax bracelet of the apprentice navigator awarded during a coming of age ceremony, and listed the words as each group shared. People, including the men, were weeping. I said, “You can accept the ideas people are bringing to you, choose changes that benefit your people, but no one can ever take these values away from you. How can you honour and preserve them in a modern world?”
There were amazing speeches then, and more tears. A distinguished leader came up to me, and said very seriously, “Linda, you have broken a tabu of our people!” I was shocked. “What did I do?” “You made men cry. We never cry in public.” Then he laughed and hugged me. He had been teasing, but not.
How does one reconcile steadfast faith in one’s religion with appreciation for the values to be found at the heart of culture? How does one unite and integrate different parts of one’s very identity without shame or remorse? I believe it is right to preserve what is historically sacred, such as Marais, language and arts. It is good to freely dive deep into the virtues to be found in one’s history.
Dan and I were delighted by a legend shared on her CD by Nane Herman Purea, a beautiful friend and one who greets and drives many tourists around Aitutaki. The legend is that the first navigators were lost in a storm. Two gods appeared – Tangaroa and Rongo, gods of the sea, sky and land, to guide the sailors to this haven. The name Aitutaki means “guided by the hands of the gods.” Dan and I took that as a confirmation that we were guided to these shores too. I believe God is an awesome God, a generous Lord, who is not made smaller by honouring the beliefs of the past as the forces that forged us to be the people we are today. We always have been and always will be people of God.