ICH Pa-enua Supervisor, Cook Islands
The island nation of the Cook Islands comprises fifteen islands centered around Rarotonga in the South Pacific Ocean, and is in free association with New Zealand. Among a population of 8,128 (2022 estimate), over 80% is ethnically Cook Islands (or part) Māori; therefore, English and Cook Islands Māori (Rarotongan) are designated as official languages. Following this brief information about the country, I would like to share the story of heritage recognized through a recent workshop.
Funding was kindly given by UNESCO through the Tauranga Vananga – Ministry of Cultural Development (MoCD) to implement the safeguarding of ICH in the Cook Islands, focusing on the area of performing arts. This is an opportunity for which we are most grateful to UNESCO, in the knowledge that this is a way of protecting our cultural heritage for our future generations to access and learn from.
Since 7 February 2022, a total of three ICH capacity-building workshops/trainings have been held for successful applicants as a way of introducing and learning more about the significant role ICH plays in and with the communities.
The first training, delivered to a total of twelve participants, was held from 7 February to 2 March 2022 (due to some challenges) for six participants from Rarotonga in the three districts/villages of Te-au-o-tonga, Puaikura, and Takitumu. Five were from Southern group islands: one each from Mauke, Atiu, and Mitiaro, and two from Mangaia. One participant attended from the Northern group island of Manihiki.
The second training, held with three participants, took place from 26 to 29 April 2022 and involved two successful applicants from the Southern group island of Aitutaki and one from Nassau in the Northern group.
The third training was held from 16 to 20 May 2022, with two successful applicants coming from the Northern group island of Pukapuka. The participant from Nassau joined this training as well while he was waiting for transportation to become available to go back to his home island.
Due to the difficulties of bringing all participants together at one time, the workshop/training had to be repeated to cater for everyone, hence the reason three different ones were held. The final one is scheduled to be held in August for the islands of Manihiki and Tongareva. There have been a number of contributing factors to the complications including COVID-19, the availability of and delays to air and other transportation, timing and prolongation of the workshops and trainings. To date, a total of seventeen participants have been trained.
The workshops/trainings focused heavily on the participants’ knowledge and understanding of ICH and the project’s required outcomes. The aim of the workshops was to ensure that participants:
1. Would understand everything about ICH, its benefits, and safeguarding processes;
2. Were trained well in how to use the equipment donated by UNESCO;
3. Would know how to upload or download completed work for the project through the given ICH website.
Here in the Cook Islands, our ICH is constantly recreated or restored by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature, and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. Through these practices, we are able to transmit ICH from generation to generation. Consideration will be given solely to such ICH as being compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups, and individuals, and of sustainable development.
Safeguarding Our ICH
The Cook Islands ratified the UNESCO 2003 Convention in 2016; yet, no specific element is yet enlisted. The government have recognized twelve elements, but there is the possibility of more based on the different islands. The first stage addressed during the workshop was raising awareness of ICH among the communities or people concerned. We recognize the need to understand how important it is to safeguard such heritage. In one of our discussions, we looked at Imene Tuki (traditional hymn) — a unique type of singing mainly sung in Protestant churches, where male and female voices differentiate in tone, rhythm, and coordination. Young people today seem not to be interested in learning this fascinating style. The purpose of safeguarding is that while we are doing this project, we are able to capture the essence of our peu kuki airani maori (Cook Islands performing arts) for future access for or awareness among the generations to come.
The marker laid down with the workshop participants was drawing the definition of ICH in Cook Islands’ understanding: Peu Kite Pakari Akamou Korero O Te Ipukarea (Cultural Heritage of the country). Firstly, Peu (custom, manner, practice, fashion, evasion, a plea, game, extraordinary performance, a habit, a deed, conduct), Kite (knowledge, assured belief in that which is known, instruction, enlightenment, information, learning practical skill), and Pakari (wisdom) were noted. Although there is no specific individual word in our language to translate the word “intangible,” the meaning of the three words Peu Kite Pakari clearly incorporates every component to help identify the concept of intangible. The term Akamou Korero is the knowledge or the essence of our nation and our people. Our stories, our histories, our different cultures, and our true identity as Cook Islands people are incorporated to make us unique in our own way. Through this practice, we are able to witness and learn the many talents, skills, knowledge, and expertise—or Peu Kite Pakari—of our orators, composers, and so on that are relevant for our ICH. Therefore, I feel that the phrase “Peu Kite Pakari Akamou Korero” appropriately represents the term “intangible cultural heritage.” The word Ipukarea is added to represent our Cook Islands communities and individuals. The workshop participants expressed their knowledge and awareness of ICH in their different communities but felt that many who held on to such ICH have either passed on or barely remember the heritage elements due to their old age. It was highlighted that although some of the elements are being practiced by our people, the urgent need for safeguarding ICH is a priority for us here in the Cook Islands.
The technical part of the training was of high interest for the participants, especially the use of the DJ iPocket camera, which many were seeing or using for the very first time. Some participants were also new to the video-editing program, although it was perhaps surprising that the majority had advance knowledge already.
It was interesting to uncover that many of us did not take into consideration the importance of having one element connected to the community as one way of safeguarding or keeping that element alive. For example, drum dance (as an element) is practiced throughout the year at various venues, and the planting of trees (e.g. mahogany) is also important.
In order to ensure the continuity of performing arts elements such as ura (dance) and rutu (drumming) the community or society need to consider or plan the preservation of materials. In our Cook Islands culture, elements have different components that bear association with certain rituals, songs, and chants, or spaces in which they are enacted. For example, certain drumbeats can only be used at certain places or ceremonies or even by certain families.
The Role of Communities
One piece of positive feedback from participants was that, with them being ICH researchers, they have an advantage in terms of project delivery. They know their communities well, who to approach and when, making the engagement process easier. They feel confident that they can find the right people to help them develop an awareness program. This gives their communities a clear understanding of ICH, with the hope of a better result.
There are some key considerations in terms of the continuity of an element:
• The originality of a dance or pee, karakia, etc., must be captured before it dies.
• The drumming or dance comprise many elements requiring to be captured, from choreography to costume-making, or drum beating to material/equipment to the original tree used for accessories. Capturing everything involves a huge number of community members.
Overall, the trainings and workshops held so far have contributed a lot of knowledge on both sides. We, as authorized trainers, at the MoCD were able to share with our successful participants a wide knowledge and understanding of ICH, and how they can implement it.
Our participants, on the other hand, passed on their concerns stressed the need to support this ICH project. They have lived in their different communities for many years, have experienced and seen the decline of knowledge slowly disappearing. They feel concerned that if nothing is done now, the cultural and historical identity of our Cook Islands people may disappear forever.
Since the first workshop ended, the participants living in the Southern group islands have reported on their situation back on the islands. Most have managed to make arrangements with certain people, and collected and documented vital information.
All participants have had to reschedule interviews or visits twice or even three times. These instances are due mainly to the COVID-19 lockdown, which was enacted for the outer islands straight after the workshops. There were also those who had to reschedule interviews due to activities such as funerals, and land or church meetings.
One of the major challenges faced by participants living in the outer islands was unreliable internet connections. This is very difficult for them as they are not always able to upload video, audio, and image files to the ICH website.
The workshops and trainings have given a strong spirit of rich knowledge about ICH to all participants. Those who attended the sessions felt confident that their Cook Islands Māori culture and growth is being recognized through this ICH project. It is their intention to carry out this work to the end, which will represent something for them and their families to be proud of in the future.
Despite the challenges we all face, we are supportive of our participants, ensuring there are measures in place to help with individual problems on their islands or within their communities. Working in partnership with our people is what we can strive for in order to complete this project successfully. n