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Hawaiian carvers defend protocols, Tavioni says ‘It is a Pacific Festival and not Hawaiian only’

Monday 17 June 2024 | Written by Rashneel Kumar | Published in Art, Features, Local, National, Regional


Hawaiian carvers defend protocols, Tavioni says ‘It is a Pacific Festival and not Hawaiian only’
Cook Islands master carver Mike Tavioni and his wife Awhitia Tavioni at the FestPAC 2024 before Awhitia was asked to leave the main tent due to a kapu (tapu). Gallery Tavioni & Vananga/24061614

A group of Hawaiian carvers responded to accusations that a respected female Cook Islands carver was barred from the official carving area at the 13th Pacific Arts Festival and Culture in Honolulu due to a kapu on women carvers.

Awhitia Tavioni, who attended the FestPAC 2024 with her husband and master carver Mike Tavioni, was reportedly told that she couldn’t be in the main tent at the Bishop Museum as the space was kapu and she had to leave.

The couple were disappointed that they were not allowed to carve together – like they had done in the past 30 years during their visits to Hawaii – at the FestPAC 2024.

In a video statement released over the weekend, Hawaiian activist and cultural practitioner Andre Perez said there was no discrimination against the Cook Islands kupuna wahine carver.

Perez claimed that Awhitia set up a vendor table to sell goods and was asked to move it to the neighbouring tent because selling goods in the main tent wasn’t safe and outside their protocol.

“She had a money box on the table right in the middle of a carving workshop in a workspace. That wasn’t safe and that was outside our protocol. So my wahine Camille went over to her and said ‘Sorry Aunty you cannot set up a table to sell things, this is a workspace and it’s kapu to kane’,” said Perez.

“Bishop Museum did not allow us to have vendors to sell things, that was not approved. Also, I was told that the carving space is for official delegates only, there’s liability insurance … We can’t have a ton of people showing up and walking in and out of the space.

“We have to hold that ground because one, it’s our custom and protocol and two, there’s practical logical reasons around safety and crowd control. We can’t have carvers trying to carve and people walking all around them.”

Perez said Awhitia was asked to move her table with her vending goods outside of the workspace into the lower tent and she could still sell her goods.

“We were willing to let them do that; we know it was expensive to come here and this is a way of recouping some of those funds. We totally respect them.”

Perez also said Tavioni was not part of the official Cook Islands delegation and took space which was meant for the official delegates.

He added Tavioni also took valuable and premium wood “to make a paddle as a gift for someone, I don’t know who that was”.

“It did throw off the count of wood supply that we had for all the delegations. So I had to go find more wood for the official Cook Islands delegation when they showed up.”

In a statement to Cook Islands News, Mike Tavioni said he and his wife tried to be part of this FestPAC and celebrate their culture with the other cultural brothers and sisters they know from other parts of the Pacific.

“The festival is held every four years to showcase the multiple cultures of the Pacific. It is a Pacific Festival and not Hawaiian only,” Tavioni said.

“We did not take any tools and did not have any intention of carving anything in Hawaii.”

Tavioni said after their appointment with the CEO of the Bishop Museum, an engagement arranged for them by her niece on Friday, June 7, they went to meet the many carvers of the other islands with whom they had worked with in Lahaina for many years and from other events in other places in the Pacific.

“It was great to be with friends with whom we had carved with in the past. After being asked a number of times by our carver friends why we were not carving, including by my brother carver and master carver from Tonga, Sitiveni Fehoko Feao – I thought that it is a good idea and it means that me and Awhitia can

have a great time working with our cultural friends from all over the

Tavioni said a couple of boys working around the carving tent took him to choose two pieces of wood.

“I was not allowed to take the good tamanu so I took a rotten and irregular piece because I can still make something to leave for the Bishop Museum.”

On Saturday, June 8, the couple went back to the carving space and the two pieces of wood were still there plus an empty table at the edge of the tent, Tavioni said.

“I dressed the pieces of wood and then Awhitia and I glued them together in the vice. Awhitia and I carved together on Saturday shaping the half of the steering paddles blade.

“While I was shaping the other side of the paddle, I noticed that carvers from Papua New Guinea, Easter Island and another were selling their arts and crafts inside the carving tent on their side.

“On Monday, June 10, we returned to Bishop Museum together. I was preparing the other side of the blade. She (Awhitia) was waiting on me and because she wasn’t doing anything and because others were selling that day, I said to Awhitia that maybe she can put the left-over gifts we brought for our Hawaiian friends on the vacant table, maybe somebody may want to buy something.”
According to Mike Tavioni, Awhitia brought out the little plastic box which held five stone adze pendants plus the two left over books he wrote about an Easter Island story and three pareu.

“These few artefacts were on the table at the corner edge of the tent, not in the middle. Nothing was sold. Awhitia was waiting for me to prep the other side of my carving and she was going to help me with it.”

Tavioni said that around this time, Perez approached them and informed them that women were not permitted to carve alongside men in that specific area.

“I said that Awhitia have helped me carve in Hawaii especially Lahaina for many years and there was never any Tapu or Kapu on women. Andre hit the table with his hand and said ‘I don`t care, this is our protocol’. So we exchanged a few words and Awhitia and I left and returned back to our accommodation.”

Tavioni said there were no signs saying that women are forbidden to carve in that space.

“We’d been there together the day before and I didn’t notice any signs and no one said anything to me or Awhitia about a carving protocol or kapu,” he said.

“I also was shocked that it was kapu because she had carved beside me and other men including Hector Busby, Raymond Bumatai, Freddy Tauotaha, Sitiveni Fehoko Feao, the Micronesians and from Hokkaido the Ainu indigenous canoe builders from Japan as well as Haida Indians from Canada and va’ine taratarai va’a Monique Tauotaha – we were altogether in Lahaina at the Festival of canoes for many years carving side by side, no tapu.

“The appointment of master carver Raymond Bumatai from Hilo, Hawaii – to teach students, both girls and boys, to make canoes from Lahaina Luna high school in the Hawaiian style. Awhitia and I were appointed to do the same with Baldwin Highschool students (in Lahaina, Maui) to teach canoe building. “Because of all this history, we were happy to be back with ohana to be back ‘home’ in Hawaii with ohana. The Hawaiians are our ohana. That was our feeling.”

That evening Tavioni’s niece took to social media to share the experience “because she was standing up for her Aunty” on the Gallery Tavioni Facebook page.

The post generated significant discussion and resulted in the Cook Islands News article published last week.

Tavioni said he had a discussion about the incident with Emile Kairua, Secretary for Cultural Development.

“At the end of it, he asked if I had time to go and check on the Cook Islands

boys doing the paddle so Thursday and Friday was back at Bishop to

help the boys like I was asked,” he said.

“Awhitia never went back to Bishop after the incident on the Monday.”

Perez clarified that they do not discriminate against women carvers.

“We just have our space and our protocol when we set up our space. That’s our protocol … we’re upholding that and if we don’t follow protocols or a kapu then might as well be a free for all and for me if that’s the case I’ll probably shouldn’t carve, I’ll just burn my chisels.”

Tavioni said he was invited to a meeting with Hawaiian carvers Perez, Lionel Grant, and Sam Ka’ai on Friday at Bishop Museum.

“In our meeting they wanted to talk about what people are saying and how could we resolve that. All I said was our history – mine and Awhitia in Hawaii.

We were pono and we agreed then that everything was okay – no

need to do anything more. No issues and I thought that was it all

done with,” Tavioni said.

“Then after our meeting Andre came to me and said I could finish the

paddle I started. So I carved the other half of the paddle myself. Then

I left it and went back to my accommodation and Awhitia.”

Perez claims they resolved the issue amicably and that Tavioni apologised for his misunderstanding.

He said they had a group hug and a hongi “and as far as I’m concerned the issue has been laid to rest”.

However, Tavioni claimed before he left the meeting, Perez said to him “are we

still enemies?”

“It took me aback to be asked this question by him. It took me a while to answer him but what I said was this ‘I never thought we are enemies. How can that be?’

“I stood up, walked to the door and said ‘I will not divorce you. You are still my brothers in the Pacific cultural arts space’ – then I walked out.”

Editor’s note – The Bishop Museum did not host the carving and tattoo village during the 13th Festival of Pacific Arts and Culture (FestPAC) held from June 6 to 16 in Honolulu. Hawai’i. The 2024 FestPAC organisers hosted the carving and tattoo village. The Museum only provided the space to FestPAC. Dee Jay Mailer, president and CEO of Bishop Museum, told Cook Islands News: “We opened that entire space at the Museum for FestPAC use. FestPAC decided to have the carving and tattoo village there. The Museum did not have a role in shaping the experience or the practitioners’ work or practices. FestPAC is also responsible for the disposition of the carvings, which have already been removed from the Museum. We, at the Museum, do sincerely hope that these relationships are mended. Such disputes are best healed by those involved.”