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Ngaa’s quest to reveal the past...

Monday November 06, 2017 Written by Published in Local
A precious bark cloth catalogued by Pureariki from a museum in Lille, France. 17102535 A precious bark cloth catalogued by Pureariki from a museum in Lille, France. 17102535

“Don’t go there! It’s a very bad place…”


That’s what the parents and the elders of Arutanga would say to a young and inquisitive Ngaakitai Pureariki whenever he wanted to visit a local ancient ceremonial site.

As with most boys, that scary warning only made him even more curious as to why visiting ancient marae on the island was considered taboo.

Fast forward nearly 40 years later and Pureariki’s continuing passion to understand his culture has led him on a lonely crusade across the globe discovering priceless artefacts taken from Aitutaki nearly 200 years ago.

Standing in the Hunterian museum in Germany recently, he inspected the remnants of what custodians thought was a carving taken from the stern of a canoe. According to Pureariki, it was in fact the remnants of a staff. And amazingly, the markings, chipped away hundreds of years ago, matched the tribal tattoo on his arm, making him a direct descendant of the warrior who once held it.

He says he is shocked and amazed every time he discovers a new artefact that has been hidden thousands of kilometres away from its homeland. From a precious high-priest bark cloth in Lille, France, to an enormous canoe paddle and elaborate pare atu chief’s hat in Germany, or a Tangaroa carving in the London museum.

Travelling to Europe the past two years, he’s teamed up with Professor Michaele Appel from Germany’s Five Continents Museum, and they’ve so far discovered a treasure trove of priceless cultural artefacts from Aitutaki in Scotland, England, France and Germany.

He says in Aitutaki there are around 200 known pieces, but they are discovering many more in Europe that no-one had any idea about.

Pureariki has traced the materials held in UK and European museums and has recorded and interpreted them for their curators and custodians. But, he says he can’t bring them home, as the Cook Islands does not have the required modern temperature controlled facilities they need to be preserved safely.

Appel is still regularly tracking down more artefacts from Aitutaki on his behalf, he says, holding up an email he received yesterday, with a picture of a beautiful chief’s pare kura (ceremonial hat).

Pureariki says many of the artefacts match up to descriptions hidden away in over 298 known ancient chants or pe’e.  Those chants resonate through the centuries, guiding Pureariki along the corridors of museum collections around the world and back home again.

In Aitutaki, Pureariki works as a culture guide. And a few times a week, he visits the very site he was warned about as a child. Pureariki came home from Australia in the early 2000s to reconnect with his culture and land, but his crusade was sparked by a Sunday sermon a few years later.

“It was the things they were saying in church - pray, give up 10 per cent of your wages, then God will give you what you need. There was nothing about the people or the environment. It made me go the other way, to find out who we - the people of this island - are.”

He now animatedly shares his knowledge of the ceremonial site where warriors met before and after battle, held sacred feasts and coming-of-age ceremonies, and where human sacrifice also took place.

Strewn with large obelisk-like stones, carbon dating samples reveal that Arangi-rea Marae was established around 1000AD, Pureariki says.

Although he wears his funny trademark “Ngaa’s Advanced Cultural Tour” cliché T-shirt - with a missionary being cooked in a pot, watched over by a ‘native’ holding a spear, he is deeply serious about his peoples’ history.

Everything on the island changed after missionary John Williams arrived on October 26,1821 and set about converting Pureariki’s ancestors.

He says the people and the culture on the island were never the same again.

Williams ordered the burning of marae structures that were present on the island, including are-atua, “god houses” where idols were stored. However, Williams had been very selective in what was destroyed and took a shipload of cultural materials back with him to England.

Pureariki’s aim today could be described as a “Da Vinci Code” like quest to bring hidden cultural truths to light.

Undertaking archaeological excavations on Aitutaki, he has also discovered the marae where Christianity was first welcomed on William’s arrival.

“From when I was a child it was never spoken about where the marae was when the missionaries arrived in Aitutaki.

“It’s been hidden for a long time, but now we know where it is”, he says pointing out stone steps leading up the hill opposite Arutanga harbour.

He says the missionaries were keen to cover up the past, having built their reverend’s lodgings over part of the original marae site. Gravel foundations discovered under the terrain’s surface are the only evidence left.

Apart from geo-physics testing and GPS mapping that he has completed on site with the help of visiting archaeologists, he has also verified his findings with museums he has visited in Europe.

He says: “This is actually Vaikuriri (marae), as per from historical Christian database references, and we’ve learnt about what was happening here prior to Christianity arriving in Aitutaki.

 “Little do we know on the island, but there is a lot more in Europe.”

Today’s flamboyant island night style shows, of colourful costumes and rhythmic dancing to multiple drums, and fire dancers is no reflection of the past cultural heritage of his ancestors, says Pureariki.

He says, in 1821 dancing was much more reserved, and there was only one type of drum that they found – a bongo-type instrument, for chants. “It’s in the British museum.”

Pureariki is driven by a desire to preserve his culture, gain a deeper understanding of where he has come from, and pass that on to the next generation.

He says; “It’s a personal achievement, because it’s about knowing who you are… You don’t hesitate to speak because you have all the proven facts, so you can share it with all the people.

“ I had to force myself, I had to force people to come here to assist with the archaeological findings.”

He says he wanted to know the truth of his forbearers, to better understand himself.  “How would you know your future if you don’t know your past?

 “Besides me, there is no-one wanting to renew and preserve the history of our island.”

Pureariki is also at odds with an education system that he says is completely slanted from a colonial and Christian standpoint.

Some rudimentary historical references frustrate him, such as Captain Cook “discovering” the Cook Islands.

He says shaking his head, “It was Alvaro de Mendana, a Spanish explorer who first spotted Pukapuka, part of the Northern Group in 1595.”

He’s been criticised by the church of today, for wanting to share the islands cultural roots prior to Christianity.

Pureariki does, however, believe in God and says he is very thankful for the talents he has been blessed with, especially his ability to illuminate his cultural past. He simply wants to share the truth about his ancestors.

“They thought of us as warriors, cannibals, eating people, and people question, so how did we change so fast into a European way of life -  accepting religion?”

Pureariki says the people of Aitutaki were quick to embrace Christianity because they believed it was the way to a better future, but questions at what cost to their culture. And he doesn’t understand how Williams and friends convinced his ancestors to give up their precious cultural materials.

People don’t reflect on the good of the culture, prior to Christianity, he says.

“Christianity may reflect on the spirituality side of things, but (it) doesn’t apply to humans connecting with nature and their environment around them, as in ancient culture.”

And looking at the current state of the world and the direction humanity is heading, he says, “The next generation must live alongside nature…”

This is what he wants to impart with the youth of today through his cultural heritage.

Pureariki’s next project includes extending his cultural education centre on Aitutaki to include an authentic cultural show, with costume changes through the ages, and introducing the drums along the way. And he will encourage locals to get involved, including children.

He’s meticulously researched his facts through hard-to-come-by historical references and has even acquired a copy of Bly’s diary from the London museum.

He says he’s going to be receiving funds to build the centre from “Travellers Teachers,” a European non-government organisation, and its foundations will be laid in mid-2018. 

 “I’m a self-taught person who loves culture. I don’t have a degree, but I’ve done a lot of work, and I love turning nothing into something.”

He’s now passing that knowledge on to other potential tour guides in Mangaia and Atiu, to help the outer islands start similar cultural centres, with the ultimate goal of passing onto the next generation a clear cultural identity.       

For more information - see the Punarua Heritage Trust page on Facebook.


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