In the heart of the South Pacific lies the Cook Islands – a nation of 15 small islands scattered across a vast ocean – where the people have lived closely with nature since their arrival thousands of years ago. Over the past few centuries, the process of colonialism has pushed a modern paradigm to replace traditional knowledge. Beaches have become increasingly occupied with villas and resorts, and the ocean scattered with commercial tours and charters. However, for the indigenous Māori, this is and has always been their land, sea, and home. The spirits of the ancestors are in their blood, bones, and breath, waiting to be rediscovered and celebrated fully.
Eleven boys are currently embarking on this journey of rediscovery with the guidance of Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau, a local NGO dedicated to connecting youth to their natural environment and Maori values through culture-based and scientific learning in a programme called ‘Ātui’anga ki te Tango. This programme has been running since 2019, and the newest intake, which commenced on 1 February 2021, targeted boys aged 15 to 22 who did not complete high school, do not have formal waged employment, and did not always have enough support at home. The young men have been participating in activities aimed at reconnecting them with their cultural identity and educating them about their island homeland and ways of life. Local marine biologist, Dr. Teina Rongo, has taught them about the reef and its importance, something they experienced firsthand on a guided swim through one of Rarotonga’s ocean passages. Local masters of paddling, sailing, and navigation are also involved, running classes to teach the boys the feel of the ocean, traditional navigation, and hands-on maintenance of the traditional voyaging canoe, Marumaru Atua. They are also participating in a ‘king banana’ reforestation project, clearing out non-native plants and replacing them with this banana species found useful by their ancestors for food security. These are some examples of activities so far, with more to come in the following months. Through understanding and appreciation, these boys will hopefully become well-prepared guardians of their sky, land, and sea – embracing this role with their heart and soul.
Rose Winters is a volunteer member of Nia Tero partner organization Kōrero o te 'Ōrau, an Indigenous-led NGO working on environmental issues by reconnecting Cook Islands youth with place and their indigenous Māori culture.