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Velo o te Moana: Spear of the Ocean

Monday August 11, 2014 Written by Published in Return to Pukapuka
Hauling the vaka down the beach at Yato. 14081018 Hauling the vaka down the beach at Yato. 14081018

The young men stood on the beach not sure their first vaka would float. “No one thought we could complete her,” said Marurai Marurai, Pukapukan master vaka carver and teacher.

Curator for Cook Islands Museum Jean Mason, who first expressed enthusiasm in purchasing this unique Pukapukan vaka said, “make sure they take it out for a ride. We are a living museum and believe in functional items.”

Pakele stepped in the three-man vaka first and paddled far out into the blue lagoon while the rest of the boys gave a “whoop, whoop,” from the shore. The vaka has three paddles (woe), one of wetau, one of puapua and one of wakanava. “The boys thought the paddles would just be used for decoration at first,” said Marurai Marurai. Pukapukan paddles are unique in that they have a knob at the end to protect the blade and to make a short sharp ringing sound when hitting the water to attract fish.

The singing of the paddles could be heard from shore as everyone took turns paddling out the 18-foot long and 8-foot wide wetau, puapua, wakanava, pukama and sennit (kawa malo titi) beauty. For the first time in some 30 years this kind of vaka sailed through the turquoise lagoon.

Compared to the simpler poti pukama (single-piece dugout canoe) used for fishing inside and outside the reef, this vaka tui tua is distinguished by its kaukau mua vaka and kaukau muli vaka or a long tail at the front and back. “My favorite part of making the vaka with the boys was the tail,” said Marurai Marurai, “because of the challenge, the measurement, the long diamond shape and the rarity.”

These kind of vakas were said to be modeled on the shapes of the whale and a species of shark.  Pukapuka has three-men, four-men, six-men vakas, racing vakas, vakas with sails and double-hull vakas. “My father told me that the vaka is the flower of the ocean and now I finally understand what he meant,” said Marurai Marurai, “without the vaka, we have no flower at sea.” For the lopa, this vaka represented a flower, or as some preferred, a spear, of the ocean.

The lopa plan to build a poti pukama next. It often takes learning on four potis or vakas before someone can then make their very own.

Traditionally, the only woman allowed on the open-sea voyaging vaka would be the mayakitanga, or sacred maid. A virgin, she represented a holy gift and helped protect the vaka on open-sea voyages. According to the Ethnology of Pukapuka (Beaglehole, 1938), “Having given permission for the mayakitanga to go in the canoe, the god of the lineage was honor bound to protect her from danger, and thus also the crews of the canoes. She was the symbol of the power and dignity of the lineage, and the protection accorded her also embraced the men of her lineage,” (p.239).

The voyaging vaka, Hokule’a in 1976 with an all male crew represented one of the first flowers to reconnect the seas. This week Hokule’a and Hikianalia are sailing around the world to protect the seas with a mixed, international crew. Arriving from Tahiti to Rarotonga with Faafaite, the Tahitian vaka, she paid homage to the Cook Islands and Marumaru Atua, under the protection of God.

Next on her way to Samoa, she was meant to stop in Pukapuka to pay respects to the voyaging ancestors who came to Pukapuka, as a kind of Timbuktu of the Pacific, an atoll whose location and language connected Eastern and Western Polynesia and from whence many voyages to and from Hawaii were made as confirmed by linguistic links between Tuvalu, Tokelau, Pukapuka and Hawaii.

There is less reason to voyage today although cargo sailing vakas still present a low-impact solution for the Pacific. Hokule’a and Hikianalia will not be going straight to Samoa via Suwarrow because of the fear of the reef, from whence contemporary sailors named her “danger island.”

Even without her visit, it’s important to call forward Pukapuka’s place in voyaging history and the protection of the Northern Cook Island fishing seas.

For the last three months Marurai Marurai sat patiently under the coconut tree at Niua carving. “Since we started making the vaka, my father Papa Puia Tiere has been coming to me in my dreams,” he said, “making this vaka has made him come alive again.” Sometimes 20 lopa or young men would come and then other days only three. Sometimes they would arrive hungover, sometimes they would leave before the work was done. A handful worked faithfully until the end. When I asked the young men to akamaloiloi or become strong Marurai said “don’t worry, we will finish.” With respect and patience, they did learn to grind, carve and lash the sennit.  One of the most faithful included Tumatini Lukualo, a ‘village fool and wanderer’ who kept pestering them all about making sure to not forget the seats. “Everyday he asked me about the seats,” laughed Marurai, “so I let him make them.” Pita Lavalua, Ponex Apiuta, Malu Marukore, Harris Katoa, Pakele Walemaki, Kuo Marurai, Johne Mataio, Tumatini Lukualo, Palamu Inapa, Mozela Manila, Taute Tinokula, and Teaomua Anker included some of the hardest vaka observers and workers. Teaomua Anker who came daily and carved the designs onto the vaka said, “my favorite part was when we finished because it was so beautiful and I am so proud.”

The Native Pukapukan woodworking programme started with the support and initiative of the Ministry of Education, Cook Islands Tertiary Training Institute with the establishment of the Te Ulu o Te Watu Training Institute.

Last year, the villages of Ngake, Yato and Loto rotated through learning how to carve kumete, small paddles and small model vakas. They gifted many of these items to Niua School. Pakele Walemaki, a school-leaver said, “it was good to have somewhere to go when I left school. I learned how to make the small model vakas so it made the big one easier. My favorite part for this was lashing the sennit because I had never done it before.”

With the initial seed support from the Ministry of Education, the woodworking programme will now run independently as a small local business for the youth offering on-island employment, skill, culture and another of many reasons for the Cook Islands to support the village working youth to stay on-island, protect, and promote Pukapuka.

In Pukapuka, Te Kau Wowolo or Council of Elders declared the annual vainga, the opening of the motus (ecological reserves) ending the lauwi or protected time. With the motus open, the youth of Ngake Village will take the woodworking programme to Motu Ko and work on the islet where the wood lies. During Cyclone Percy in 2006, much of the old wood on all the motus got destroyed, including the precious wetau or mahogany.

Lopa Malu Marukore expressed concern about the supply of ancient wood – “its precious and we will have to make and sell smaller model vakas too.” “Even though there isn’t much wood,” said Ngake Secretary Movingi Maia, “we want to help uplift our youth.” After Ngake finishes, Marurai Marurai will go to Motu Kotawa where Yato village will allow the Yato youth to use some of their reserve wood. When Yato finishes, the Loto youth will then learn as well. The plan is for the programme to continue in the villages as wood and interested buyers allow. And for more master Pukapukan vaka carvers like Rimapeni Paani and Beniamina Williams to come forward and pass their knowledge on.

“I’ve seen Rimapeni making sennit,” said Teaomua Anker, “and I want to learn how to make the sennit this time too.” “I think about the knowledge passed to my son,” said Marurai Marurai, “he has my fishing knowledge but not this.” His son Kuo Marurai shared, “this time I want to be there from the beginning and really learn. We want to show the world that the youth of Pukapuka are doing something and that we have something to offer the world.”

The Cook Islands Library & Museum in Avarua, Rarotonga wanted this very first Pukapukan vaka because of its story and their ability to preserve it as a seed project for cultural preservation and promotion. Bill Dougherty of Landholdings, a local businessman with a big heart, generously offered to purchase her on behalf of the museum. Tapi Taio Shipping donated the freight to bring her down from Pukapuka to Rarotonga since she isn’t apt to make the voyage on the open sea.

Museums, local and international buyers interested in ordering and purchasing future vakas should contact Marurai Marurai at 71055 and Romani Katoa at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Women’s crafts, mats, hats and smaller woodworking items from Pukapuka may also be made available.

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