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.