OPINION: Foreign values misunderstood, misrepresented as our own

Sunday 28 March 2021 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion


Mata kite Mata, kanohi kite kanohi – nothing comes as intimate or as powerful as the face to face meetings between, families, friends, or foes, and that moment when you greet. Be it a shaking of hands and pat on the back or high five hand slap, or the powerfully moving gesture of the hongi.

The hongi has come to symbolise so many things here in Aotearoa as it is a critical part of any high-level engagement especially between differing countries.

If there is a symbol that for us as Cook Islands Māori, symbolises how much we have lost through assimilating with Papa’a culture and colonisation - it is the hongi, or ongi, because its eradication and disappearance from our set of cultural norms whispers to us from the realm of the invisible, who are we and why have we let it go.

The powerful symbol this week of Prime Minister Mark Brown, being welcomed by the karanga and powhiri, culminating in that photo of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Brown engaged in a hongi holds to this idea that for Aotearoa Māori, the hongi has been retained where for us as Cook Islands Māori we have alienated ourselves from this cultural norm of the past and so much so, many I spoke with and taught at Tereora had no idea that the pressing of noses in greeting was a cultural norm of the Cook Islands as well. But of course it is, because we are the same people.

When he arrived in Atiu with Captain Cook still aboard Endeavour (as Cook did not actually step foot on Atiu), Lieutenant John Gore (a British-American sailor who sailed around the world four times with the Royal Navy in the 18th century and accompanied Captain Cook on his voyages in the Pacific), was met by the priest of Mokoero Kopukanga by pressing noses - ongi. All of Cook’s accounts through Eastern Polynesia from Tahiti to Hawai’I to what we now call the Cook Islands and Aotearoa, had accounts of when people met then greeted each other with an ongi. It is not a kiss as we now translate it, it is actually the breathing in and pressing of noses that was once our Pe’u Maori way of greeting and I ask our cultural Ta’unga, why did it stop, and why do we not reintroduce it along with other practices, or have we just become so comfortable with these four layers of clothing or Papa’a ways.

Our relationship with each other, with our culture and what that means is clearly not static and is instead moving all the time as costumes from the past to the present are impacted also by the style of the day. But our greeting that point of contact, that initial mata kite mata, should never have been allowed to regress to the English handshake, and in doing so almost frown and look down on Aotearoa Maori as they continue to hongi/ongi each other and manuiri.

Maybe in today’s world there are more pressing questions like when will our borders open, when will tourists arrive and how will we get our economy back on its feet again, and yet as I watched the dedication of the Pukeahau National War Memorial – Te Reo Hotonui O Te Moana nui a Kiwa, translated The Deep sigh of the Pacific – I couldn’t help but think about us as a people, whether it be here in Aotearoa or at home, and that we too have all taken a deep breath in this last 12 months, and from  the announcements this week we will soon breath out again.

And when we do, will we have learnt those critical lessons as we inhaled, or will we blow out again a breath still pungent from the lessons we have not yet learned and a breath that may not breathe life to our Oceans above and below, our waterways, our connections to our past, our culture and who we are in this post Covid, post lockdown, post travel bubble world. We are a resilient and adaptable people, it is how we survived Ocean travel, but we must be mindful, that like the Ongi, like Tapa, like tatau and so many other aspects of our culture past, that they do not reappear like the handshake, a practise of a foreign culture, and of foreign values, misunderstood and misrepresented as our own.