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Wednesday, 20 March 2019 12:55 pm

Māori learn about their culture in Hawaii

KAWIKA Fitzgerald runs at the manuhiri (visitors) crowded at the marae entrance. Taiaha in hand, eyes like daggers, he is the strongest warrior sent to determine friend or foe.

The designated chief of the manuhiri cautiously approaches the meeting house, as dozens of tourists from all over the world lining the approaches to the marae eagerly snap photos like paparazzi, filling the tense air with the sound of shutter.

The scene could be a tourist marae in New Zealand, except it is over 7000km away on the other side of the Pacific, and it takes place every day.

Nestled in Laie on the north shore of O’ahu, Hawaii, is a little piece of Aotearoa.

But this is not some fake tourist gimmick – each year Māori who come here to study say they learn more about their culture than growing up in New Zealand.

The Polynesian Cultural Centre is home to a traditional Māori village, which has been showcasing Māori culture and its people for more than 50 years.

The centre was the brainchild of David O. McKay and Matthew Cowley, leaders of the Church of Christ and the Latter Day Saints.

During a missionary trip to New Zealand around 1921, Mr Cowley developed a love for Māori and other Polynesian people, and worried about the erosion of these cultures.

In a speech given in Honolulu he said he hoped “…to see the day when my Māori people down there in New Zealand will have a little village there at Laie with a beautiful carved house”.

Mr Cowley died before his vision was realised, but in 1963 six different Polynesian villages were built at the centre, including ‘Aoteoroa’.

Standing in a sea of tropical green, three white buildings decorated with ornate red wooden carvings tell stories of tribal history and the gods.

There are currently 25 Māori working at the centre, which pays for their housing, food and tuition to attend Brigham Young University next door.

Seamus Fitzgerald stands in front of a plaque honouring those who have worked at the Aotearoa Village over the years

A LONG HISTORY: Seamus Fitzgerald stands in front of a plaque honouring those who have worked at the Aotearoa Village over the years.

Director of the islands and village manager Seamus Fitzgerald (42), father of Kawika, is originally from Turangi.

He says the students learn a lot about themselves and their culture while working at the village.

Mr Fitzgerald runs a te reo class at the university with 15 students from New Zealand, only one of whom took te reo back home.

When he first came to the centre five years ago even he got more involved in all forms of Māori performing arts.

He had performed the haka since he was eight, but as he got older it wasn’t as “cool” to be seen doing Māori performing arts or be identified as Māori.

“My mother’s Ngāti Kahungunu Ki Wairarapa and my father’s full blooded Irish from Ireland, but I was born and raised in Turangi under the shadow of Tongariro, Tūwharetoa area,” he says.

He married a native Hawaiian, an ancestor of Kekuaokalani, and is proud to say he has six ‘hakahula’ kids.

His son Kawika (18), who grew up in both New Zealand and Hawaii, says working in the village allows him to connect with his Māori heritage.

“It gives me an opportunity to go over what I learnt growing up in New Zealand.”

He encourages other Māori to take the opportunity work at the centre because it gives them a chance to enjoy and embrace being Māori.

“Why not have a job where all you have to do is just be who you were born,” he says.

Earthy tones inside the meeting house of the carvings decorating the walls are warm and inviting for visitors. Giggles break out as they attempt their first Māori greeting – hongi. They are clearly out of their comfort zone touching their nose and forehead against their neighbours.

Performances, including, tītī tōrea (stick games), haka, and poi, give visitors the opportunity to try some of the games and activities themselves.

Sheralee Phillips (24), is waiting for tourists at the whare taonga, also known as the museum. Her moko (tattoo) may be confronting for some, but the warmth of her smile easily draws people in.

She has worked at the village for a year while majoring in Pacific Island studies at the university next door.

Miss Phillips says it is ironic she came to Hawaii to learn about who she was as a Māori and where she fits into the Māori world.

“I’ve learnt more about myself and about my culture from being here in Hawaii than actually living and being in New Zealand. This is the most Māori I have ever been in my life,” she says.

While she traces her whakapapa to Ngāpuhi and Ngātiwai iwi, she was raised in Auckland but having not been brought up on a marae meant she didn’t did not have the opportunity to learn the language, protocol, songs, and dances.

“Being here, and being able to work here in this village I’ve learnt how to be a leader, which is what my role is now. I understand what my role is, I understand why I wear the tattoo, I understand where my ancestors are from, I know who my ancestors are, I know a lot about my whakapapa, about where I was from, and it’s who I am,” she says.

Miss Phillips says knowing ancestral roots is important to Māori so they know who they are and where they are from in order to know where they are going.

“We’re constantly walking backwards, always keeping our minds, our heart and our vision on our ancestors, paying tribute to them because without them we have no purpose,” she says.

In addition to learning about their own heritage those who work at the village have come to realise the similarities between the Hawaiian and Māori cultures.

Kawika Fitzgerald stands in front of the meeting house at the Aotearoa Village at the Polynesian Cultural Centre

STANDING TALL: Kawika Fitzgerald stands in front of the meeting house ‘Hawaikiroa’ at Hawaii’s Aotearoa Village where he works full-time.

Kawika Fitzgerald says he see particular similarities between the two cultures in their beliefs and language.

“Hawaiian language is a lot older than Māori but it’s very much the same, the only difference I really see is the letters.”

He says an example is “aloha” in Hawaiian and “aroha” in Māori, which both mean “love”.

Sheralee Phillips says the similarities in words breaks down the language barrier.

“A Māori could be speaking fluent Māori to a Hawaiian and a Hawaiian could be speaking Hawaiian to a Māori and they can pick up certain words that a very similar to their respective languages,” she says.

The songs and chanting are also similar – in Hawaii they have the oli and Māori have the moteatea, which is a monotone chant.

The centre also hosts the annual Te Manahua festival every August, showcasing Māori performing arts outside of the tourist scene.

Mr Fitzgerald says many Māori are born in Hawaii as a result of parents who stayed on after building the village. The festival is an opportunity for these young Māori to learn.

“We started a festival as a way to preserve culture away from tourism,” he says.

However, Mr Fitzgerald says the village experience is kept as authentic as possible from performances to the buildings and carvings.

The village took master carver Hone Taiapa two years to construct in Hamilton, New Zealand, before being transported and assembled in Hawaii.

The meeting house known as Hawaikiroa is a replica of Kahangunu, which stands in Nuhaka, in northern Hawke’s Bay, but it also takes elements from Hau Ki Turanga, which sits in Te Papa.

However the meeting house’s main point of difference is that all waka and tribes are represented.

“We wanted each and every Māori who walked in here to be able to find a link because Hawaikiroa is one of our ancestors but he’s also the man who found Hawaii. So each tribal territory is represented in this house,” he says.

Mr Fitzgerald says a huge part of maintaining the authenticity and accuracy of the village is never losing contact with home.

“All of us take trips back to New Zealand every year and make sure there’s a connection to the source. And making sure too that us as individuals don’t lose sight of what we’re trying to do here, which is to give people a glimpse at our culture and at ancestry and our history.”

The students’ work hard to represent their families to the best of their ability.

Pikitia Wikaira (18), of Tainui and Ngāpuhi iwi, has just arrived and says she is proud to represent her culture at the centre.

“It’s a culture that brought us to New Zealand. It really is about bringing back old memories back into action and sharing them with other cultures,” she says.

The centre averages around 700,000 visitors from around the world each year, Seamus Fitzgerald he says it is a good place to showcase Māori and other Polynesian cultures.

“It’s the tourist mecca in the Pacific, it’s a good place to showcase and educate people on the Polynesian cultures,” he says.

Following the afternoon demonstration in the meeting house, tourist Samantha Osborne, from Nevada, is inspired to visit the real New Zealand.

“First of all, I didn’t know they didn’t use drums, I thought that was really interesting that they used the guitar and basically dancing and making their own rhythm,” she says.

She has always wanted to go to New Zealand but after visiting the village would definitely be making plans to travel there in the future.

The marae even draws Kiwi tourists.

Lynn Twigley, from Napier, enjoyed the opportunity to play titi torea which was reminiscent of her primary school days.

Sheralee Phillips smiling in front of the whare taonga at Aotearoa Village at the Polynesian Cultural Centre

GREETING WITH A SMILE: Sheralee Phillips ready to greet visitors outside the whare taonga at Aotearoa Village.

Sheralee Phillips says she loves the opportunity to teach those who come to the centre, many of whom know very little about New Zealand.

“When we’re about to teach people about the culture and carvings and the art and the performing arts, they are just blown away,” she says.

Although the students say they enjoy the opportunity of working at the centre, and the Aloha spirit of Hawaii, New Zealand still holds a special place in the hearts.

“I miss my home, my mountains, my lake, my river, where I grew up,” Kawika Fitzgerald says.


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