There are only a few people left who can recall the stories of the maunga (mountains) which echo the lost knowledge of ancient traditional practices.
These traditions include, kaitiaki, which is the respectful guardianship of our resources.
This year Liam Kokaua has studied indigenous knowledge across Polynesia and in particular how people used and continue to use traditional knowledge to manage our natural resources.
He studied practices such as ra’ui areas to protect the environment and how this knowledge was traditionally passed down from elders in the kopu tangata (family to children.)
Kokaua wondered why these practices of transmitting indigenous knowledge are being lost today.
“Traditionally in Polynesia your connection to your maunga is an important part of your identity, as much as knowing what your name was, your tribe, and your tupuna,” says Kokaua.
“Now many of us live in the shadow of a maunga, but can’t tell you a single story about it, have never visited it, and do not know the meaning of its name.”
In many of our old pe’e and tākiato (proverbs), our maunga are often featured, says Kokaua.
“This reveals to us the importance our tupuna placed on knowing our maunga. In Aotearoa, you cannot introduce yourself without stating your maunga and your awa or river. For us it was our maunga and our ava (reef passage) where our tupuna accessed the ocean for fishing or voyaging purposes.”
Kokaua’s interest in indigenous knowledge led to the establishment of an organisation called ‘Te Mekameka o te Pa Mauga’ which is dedicated to the documentation of the mountains, their paths and their stories.
He has been conducting educational hikes up some Rarotonga’s most well-known points such as Raemaru, the flat topped mountain in Arorangi.
He was inspired by Mauna Kea, a sacred site and very important place to the Kanaka Maoli, the native Hawaiian people.
It is the highest mountain on Hawai’i at 4207 metres and is desired by western scientists from around the world for a site to build a thirty-metre-high telescope, which is claimed to enable humans to see more stars than any other telescope on the planet.
In Kanaka Maoli spirituality, Mauna Kea is also the home of the sky father Wākea. The full name of the mountain is “Mauna-a-Wākea” – Wākea's mountain.
Wākea is commonly known across most of Polynesia, by names of Ranginui or Rangitatea in Aotearoa and as Ātea or Te Tumu in the Cook Islands.
There are already many telescopes on the mountain and the native Hawaiians have taken these constructions as huge actions of disrespect and desecration to them as the place is considered a sacred. The constructions have gone ahead all for the sake of science.
Kokaua also witnessed the Ihumātao protest, the area which has many historic sites including burial grounds. The site is known to be one of the first areas where our Māori tupuna from the tropics settled in the Auckland area, and their gardening skills are still very clearly shown in the landscape of the area.
In this case, a private construction company aims to clear a large area at Ihumātao to be used as a housing development, despite the land originally being confiscated from Māori during the land wars.
“This provided inspiration for me as it showed where our Māori and Maoli Teina/Tuakana were defiantly standing up as indigenous peoples, in order to protect sites which are of great significance to both them and their tupuna,” says Kokaua.
He reflected on some of the events in Rarotonga where many maraes (historical sites) have been destroyed or damaged, including he says, the most recent threats to one of the important marae, Vaerota in Ngatangiia at Avana Point.
The difference, he says, between Rarotonga, Mauna Kea and Ihumātao is that here, it’s the people who are responsible for the destruction of their historic and tapu sites.
“While we may not be facing-off against a large European/papa’a community on our lands like in Aotearoa and Hawai’i, many of our own people have been colonised in their minds and would happily bulldoze a historic site for the sake of profits.”
And so Kokaua’s project really came about as a way to raise awareness of Cook Islands’ own indigenous ways of perceiving the land and sacred sites.
He wants to focus on the mountains as this is the largest part of the island and he says “yet our people are so disconnected from their maunga, compared to other parts of Polynesia where their maunga is interwoven with their identity”.
For Kokaua, two historical sites that resonate with him is Te rereʻanga Vaerua (Tuoro) and Maunga Taputarangi behind Tereora.
Sadly, these identity markers of certain Ngāti (tribes), is damaged and modified for development, particularly the summit.
Other environmental challenges include the numerous invasive vine species which smother the remaining parts of the native forest, and threats to the water quality of the rivers.