Aitutaki tries to revive lost heritage

17:00, Jul 26 2014
cook land
CULTURAL CRUSADER: Ngaa Kitai Taria at Aitutaki's largest marae site, once a place of learning and coming-of-age rituals.

The fire dancer spins in the light, wrists flicking faster and faster, until the stick in his hands is a whirling wheel of flame.

A bit of a showman, he has taken centre stage in several routines during this evening's "island night".

Now he's out there alone, and this is his moment. Lying on his back in the sandy grass, he balances the flaming stick on his bare feet and mimes applause at the holidaymakers seated and stuffed, post-buffet, in the open-sided restaurant, just steps away from the sand at Tamanu Beach resort.

PLACE OF WORSHIP: Cook Islands Christian Church, Aitutaki, was originally named the London Missionary Church.

This is one of the better shows served up in the resorts on Aitutaki, I'm told.

Tonight, young women dance in modest coconut-shell bras and hula skirts. Their hands and arms flow like gently cascading water, while their hips roll in a rhythmic frenzy. It is intricate and exhausting, but their strangely fixed smiles rarely slip.

Only the "warriors" in the troupe get to play with fire.


The showman is back on his feet, turning faster and faster, rending bigger and bigger holes in the night. As he spins inside the circle of light, the plump performer is transformed by his creation, and in that moment he is beautiful.

It's mesmerising, but I'm left wondering about the authenticity of such shows performed for tourists, and about Aitutaki's cultural history.

As with many if its neighbours, the biggest economic driver here is tourism. The island's beguiling natural beauty - the luminous blue lagoon, the postcard-worthy beaches - has long been a drawcard for honeymooners and holidaymakers.

But a campaign to ban incoming flights on "the Lord's day", and the stark white crosses that stud the roadsides, point to another story playing out on this speck in the sea. It is the old, quiet war of culture versus religion.

As in most South Pacific island nations, Christianity still holds great sway in the Cooks, at odds with the beliefs that arrived before it.

This story, of a rising longing to reclaim what is lost, is unfolding in indigenous communities throughout the world. Such quests for cultural identity can come at a cost.

What's bubbling under the surface of Aitutaki isn't unique, but it is happening in our back yard.

Polynesian migration through the Cooks is believed to have begun around the 5th century AD.

Aitutaki, 230 kilometres north of Rarotonga, was the first of the 15 islands in the Cook group to be visited by missionaries.

In 1821, when Reverend John Williams from the London Missionary Society came to Aitutaki, he found 6000 indigenous Cook Islanders steeped in paganism. Their spiritual beliefs were anchored in the natural world, the elements - sky, earth, ocean - represented by 71 supreme gods.

With the missionaries came promises, threats and chickenpox. They moved to stamp out idol worship (along with human sacrifice, polygamy and infanticide).

They introduced education and technology, in the form of writing tools - until then, there was no written language; knowledge was passed on through tattoos and oral traditions such as chanting.

When God came to Aitutaki, tattooing was banned, but history was held on to through chanting.

Many locals, including the ariki, or tribal chiefs, were quick and eager converts.

"The maraes of Aitutaki were demolished, the great idols burnt," Marsden recorded in his journal.

The ariki continued to govern and the traditional inheritance of land also remained.

Today, the chiefs of Aitutaki's eight villages are all church ministers, and their flocks mostly shun what was once the largest and most sacred marae on the island. It's tapu, they reckon.

Set in the jungle and strewn with obelisk-shaped boulders, the marae was a pre-Christian seat of learning. Young males underwent coming-of-age rituals here, circumcision and tattoos marking them as men, as warriors.

The driving force behind excavating this, and several other ancient ceremonial sites on Aitutaki, is trainee archaeologist Ngaa Kitai Taria.

"We are digging our culture and identity back," he says.

A controversial figure, Ngaa is one of a handful of people on a mission to engage the locals in learning about the pre-Christian traditions of their ancestors.

The art of making tapa, or bark cloth, has been lost on Aitutaki, he says, and half the 1500-strong population doesn't have basic weaving skills.

"But we're not here to put religion down. It's a very sensitive issue." It's certainly a subject locals are reluctant to discuss with an outsider.

A cultural crusader with a whiff of missionary zeal about him, Ngaa seems to relish his perceived outlaw status.

"We are the most hated people on the island because the churches believe we are worshipping pagan gods."

According to Ngaa, the churches once halted a major marae excavation project being undertaken by a team of experts from overseas universities, and have actively discouraged school visits to the ancient sites.

As a child, Ngaa recalls, his grandparents warned him to stay away from the marae. "We were forbidden from going on them in case something happened. Now some people on the island are curious, others are offended."

Ngaa believes the current generation's minds are set against his cause but hopes - despite Aitutaki's pre-Christian history not being taught in its schools - that its tech-savvy youth will do some research and make up their own minds.

"That's the generation we are hoping will embrace and accept their heritage."

He dreams of the day the roadside crosses are joined by signs of the culture he identifies with. "That will come."


Beyond the open windows of Aitutaki's Cook Islands Christian Church, two young boys laugh as they leap from one gleaming white tomb to the next.

Inside on this steamy Sunday morning, a smattering of tourists in shorts and T-shirts join the parishioners to fill a third of the airy whitewashed building.

Initially named the London Missionary Church, this was the first Christian place of worship to be built in the Cook Islands. Freshly painted, it vibrates with tropical shades of green, yellow, blue and red.

As the regulars nab prime spots next to the windows to catch the ocean breeze, a parishioner nods at my handbag, open on the pew. "Always keep your bag closed. You never know."

In a raised pulpit festooned with strands of tiny shells, the vast minister nests among vases of fresh flowers, dwarfed by a cross decorated with light bulbs. About half the bulbs have blown.

The elderly deacon is resplendent in a white safari suit with significant flares and matching funky shoes.

The service is in Cook Islands Maori and English; during the hymns, the women call and the men's voices rise to meet them. It's a glorious, uplifting sound - there's so much heart in it.

The minister's sermon is impassioned. "This lady," he cries, pointing out a parishioner said to be the oldest woman on Aitutaki, "she always says ‘it's because of God that I am 102'."

The woman, immaculate in a cream dress and a hat adorned with tropical flowers, stands and gives a regal wave to the congregation.

"Sunday is a special day for our people," continues the minister, addressing the tourists. "It's the time we are happy to have an almighty God and because of him, we love you like a brother . . . the day the missionary came was a happy day for the people."

The Lord, the minister again reminds us, is coming.

"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is what is best for you."

The writer travelled courtesy of Cook Islands Tourism and Air New Zealand.

GETTING THERE Fly to Rarotonga with Air New Zealand, and from there to Aitutaki with Air Rarotonga. See and

STAYING THERE Family-owned Tamanu Beach resort, on the western coast of Aitutaki, has five bungalow accommodation options, including self-contained studios and one-bedroom lagoon-view rooms.

Large verandahs, day beds, and the sand just steps away are among the casually luxurious charms of the spacious one-bedroom lagoon view bungalows.

From $395 per room per night, including airport transfers and breakfast for two, during August. See Being there Punarei Cultural Tours offer an opportunity to learn about the history, traditions and legends of Aitutaki.

Small group tours with knowledgeable guides, including trainee archeologist Ngaa Kitai Taria, include a visit to an ancient marae site plus activities and lunch at a "cultural village" which replicates traditional designs and customs. Adults, $75, children, $40. See 

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