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LETTER TO EDITOR: History and tradition: The ‘truth’ from the belief

Saturday 11 February 2023 | Written by Supplied | Published in Letters to the Editor, Opinion

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LETTER TO EDITOR: History and tradition:  The ‘truth’ from the belief

Dear Editor, The challenge of tradition and or the interpretation of history associated with tradition is that like beauty – it is in the eyes of the beholder (Vaka Paikea to get whale art as tribute to legendary Maori ancestor and his journey, February 9, 2023). All it takes is a misinterpretation of the original message and it soon becomes Chinese whispers which then takes on a life of its own to such an extent that the truth is not really the truth.

No matter how many people believe, without irrefutable evidence, it is still a belief, no matter how many zillions of people believe it. No matter how many songs are sung, stories told, or messages passed on. It is but an interpretation which is then jealously guarded by all who receive the interpretation and woe betides one if one has a different interpretation, because out comes the knives. Understandably when one is challenging the very legitimacy of what people believe in, it causes a defensiveness which attacks the very heart and soul of their belief system, that makes them who they are, from whom they descend, to whom they revere, so of course they get very uptight.

For example, we can see how Chinese whispers has affected the message that tells us that there was a Great Fleet which left the Cook Islands a thousand years ago. This myth persists to this very day. Why? Because those who have been told this story down through the generations have never challenged its veracity or truthfulness and have relied on the mana of the storyteller to provide them with a sense of belonging and a feel good as the story is being passed down over the generations.

This mythical story has taken on a life of its own to such an extent that in the face of an opposing view or evidence to the contrary, seemingly intelligent people can scarcely believe any alternative other than voyaging to Aotearoa except through or by this so-called Great Fleet.

If one combines the stories handed down along with the anthropological, archaeological, psychological, linguistic, ethnographical writings and cultural understanding regarding mana and how to get it and how to maintain it, then add to this the DNA footprint then one will have a better understanding that the Great Fleet could not have occurred as it has been promoted.

Yet it continues to be promoted at cultural events, education system, cultural entertainment, to this very day by so called cultural experts who have done very little additional research and self-examination other than to spout the accepted myth as truth. You will note that this interpretation is pervasive both here in the Cook Islands, in Aotearoa and online. It is seen through the eyes of modern people who compare their modern lives with no reference or understanding of the harsh reality of yesteryear. Why? because they live cosseted lives under western jurisprudence and the protections they have under this modern legal system.

Another example of Chinese whispers occurred when Takitumu, a sacred voyaging vaka which by the time it landed in Aotearoa, over the generations of its telling, has morphed into Takitimu. Each tribe has its own korero about Takitimu and the reality is that where you have different interpretations, they can be somewhat unreliable because it is about maintaining and embellishing mana over other tribes. “Ours is the right korero because we told you so and you don’t speak on our behalf about our tupuna”.

In addition, Kupe is another whose name was a distortion of Uke (told to me by a well-respected Maukean Oro Metua), and he has now taken on a mythical and legendary prominence in Aotearoa which any person from Ma-Uke worth their salt will tell you where he came from.

Of course, we come to Paikea who was born Kahutia-te-rangi (according to NZ Maori sources) and Kahui o te rangi or Kau’i o te rangi (according to Cook Islands sources) and here is where we have the great debate on who said what to whom and who are your references. If we can’t get the names accurately enough, how the heck are we to rely on the accuracy of the stories handed down the generations. The Cook Islands references to Paikea, and his life and origins differ slightly from the NZ Maori beliefs and hence the truth lays somewhere in the middle.

We are not going to agree on the story about Paikea and we are not going to agree about whose reference or reference material is the correct one. None of us were there when this all happened all those centuries ago, but we do know that the truth gets lost in the telling, either by embellishment or misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the message or on purpose to degrade the mana of the telling.

I stood on that promontory in Mauke in 2010 where Kea stood and looked forlornly out to sea as her main man disappeared over the horizon. I know what and how she felt because her presence was still there and caused the hairs on the back of my head to stand up. I felt a sense of loss and she still pines to this very day and if you have never been there then you should, because there is a monument to her, fitting I would venture to suggest.

Te Tuhi Kelly