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Taoga Festival Niue

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The past week has been  a busy one for Huanaki and Fao’s little atoll.

First, our women through their Council had invited their Atu Luga cousins to come and share in a workshop on tivaivai [tivaevae in Atu Luga].

Then there was the annual show for Hikutavake, the northern most village on the lower terrace.  The Millennium Hall of the Ekalesia Kerisiano Niue reverberated to the different sounds of the Sunday School Easter Rally.  At Matavai the real movers and shakers in the field of education in the region – the heads of the departments and ministries of education – gathered for a talk-fest. Later in the week was the Anzac commemoration.  

And then in a gesture which says ‘we’re here for the duration’ the New Zealand High Commission opened their impressive brand new chancery.  Topping the list of this array of activities would have to be the arts and culture festival – a biennial event that has become the focal point of highlighting those things that gives us our identity and reminds us that without these attributes we’re no more than just another face in the Polynesian crowd…that is the sentiment but the reality maybe just a tad different. But first things first.

Good turnout at the Taoga Festival Niue – pic B Vakaafi.

Leading up to the festival, there was quiet anticipation that the event would bring a new awakening to what hitherto had been a somewhat lethargic reaction by a good number of local residents.  So why the lethargy or, indeed if it comes to that, why a Festival at all?

The first that local residents became aware that things may not be quite right was when comments started appearing on social media with reference ‘to a few disgruntled people’.  Some put this down to no more than pre-festival nervousness – it is after all an event that requires a great deal of effort. Not only was there the need to organise and schedule events, more importantly,  the real challenge was to mobilise and motivate the local residents. Despite these rumblings there was nevertheless quiet anticipation that the festival would bring a new awakening to what had become a somewhat lethargic reaction by a good number of local residents.  

 On Friday evening 19 April, local residents, Niue expats and a handful of tourists braved the cool and windy weather to attend the official opening of the festival which was to run until the following Thursday.  Originally dubbed the Niue Arts and Cultural Festival / Taonaga Tufuga Niue when it first started in 2009, the latest offering is now the Taoga Festival – Niue Arts and Culture.  For the first time we see the use of ‘Taoga’, a word that has become synonymous with the traditions, the language, the history and the culture of Niue.

To understand the reason for the Festival requires some page-flicking in our history book. In October 2004 a special meeting, the Taoga Niue Fono, brought together an impressive collection of Niue’s most knowledgeable experts in language and culture.  Instrumental in conceptualising Taoga Niue in 2003 together with Terry Chapman was the current Premier Sir Toke Talagi.

Group from Tuapa Uhomotu showcasing their talents – pic B Vakaafi.

The meeting was held to coincide with an official visit by the then NZ Prime Minister Hon Helen Clark on the occasion of celebrating 30 years of self-government.  Helen Clark and one of her former ministers Mark Gosche had flagged with the Niue Government their concern over the vulnerability of the island’s Vagahau and culture. The Taoga Niue Fono was to be the culmination of two years of work by the the Taoga Niue Advisory Committee headed by the island’s first secretary to government Terry Chapman.   

In her keynote address at the opening of the Taoga Niue Fono, Prime Minister Clark assured the then Premier Young Vivian and the people that her government would look favourably at any effort that would assist in retaining the culture and language. She suggested mobilising the Niue diaspora; Terry Chapman and his Committee had made the same recommendation. Even more than that, the Committee at the behest of then minister of Cabinet Va’aiga Tukuitoga had put forward a recommendation to stage a regular festival of arts and culture where all people of Niue can take part.

When all the posturing and rhetoric were done it was accepted by those at the Fono that Niue was going to need the resources of all Niueans to retain the language and culture. There must be a bridge to allow interaction between Niue and the Niue diaspora. In the politics of pre and post-self-government, this was a significant milestone. In the period leading up to self-government there was no denying the animosity that existed between those who had decided to make Niue their home and those who chose to live elsewhere. There were calls for all Niueans to decide the future for the island; the local residents, it was argued, were ill equipped to make the decision on their own, let alone run the country.  That suggestion was received with derision and contempt by the local residents. “You have voted with your feet”, was the local catch-cry.

In subsequent years while the relationship between Niue and the Niue diaspora remain cordial there was little sign of any meaningful interaction, that is, until the Taoga Niue Fono.

However following the Taoga Niue Fono, with the island’s resources devoted mainly to the recovery after Cyclone Heta, culture and language was placed on the back burner; while it was not exactly forgotten, there were other more pressing issues for the government and its various agencies to tackle.

Ina, Glenn, Leki and their group showing off their moves – pic B Vakaafi.

It was not until Dr Colin Tukuitoga organised a visit by a group of successful NZ-based Niue-business owners that a suggestion was made to hold a regular festival that would bring together all Niueans.  With a hint that there could be funding available, for a resource strapped embryonic Taoga Niue Office, the suggestion was welcomed. It was also welcomed by the Niue Tourism Office who saw the potential of promoting the island to those who identify as Niueans but know little of the language, culture and history. There was also a potential market for other tourists.  And so five years after the Taoga Niue Fono the first Arts and Culture Festival was held on the island. The mythical troll guarding the bridge and preventing its use had been, if not totally removed, pushed to one side.

That first gathering in 2009, while successful in terms of the numbers attending particular events, questions were being asked over what is and what is not Niue arts and culture, a clear reference to the propensity of our people to readily adopt other people’s culture. [When next you attend a village show day, take note of the cultural items being performed]. But this was all part and parcel of the process of fine tuning any event.  The result was that in the festivals following, the emphasis was more on Niue and things Niuean – the making of the Umu Ti, creative writing using Vagahau, Niuean artists were encouraged to display their work, and so on.  The festival became an important event on the biennial calendar for both Taoga Niue Office and Niue Tourism.

Lo Leki and Mele T getting into it – pic Vakaafi.

And so to the lastest festival and the rumblings referred to earlier. The first tangible hint of variance was when a new title and subtitle appeared: Taoga Festival – Niue Arts and Culture. This was a significant change from the original Niue Arts and Cultural Festival – Taonaga Tufuga Niue.

Talaniue has learnt that through a disagreement in the timing of the festival, Taoga Niue, the cornerstone of the island’s culture, language, traditions and history was pushed to one side.  The director of Taoga Niue Office Moira Enetama, had asked for a postponement of the festival until next year and to use that as a prelude to Niue’s participation in the Pacific Arts and Cultural Festival to be held in Hawaii.

This was not accepted by the Premier. And so Glen Jackson, a young fireball of modern Niue and Niue pop culture was brought in to lead the charge as the events manager. Other Organising Committee members were Ida Hekesi  owner of Stone Villas and a former director of tourism, Angela Tuhipa from the government’s Project Management Unit, Peleni Talagi the Acting Secretary to Government and Zora Feilo, NZ-based writer.

With timing now critical, the new team quickly launched a webpage, created a new facebook page and released a programme of events and activities.

Dr Colin Tukuitoga, Minister Talagi and Glenn – pic B Vakaafi.

The new team listed as new activities, hiapo and tattoo design, live puppetry theatre, kifaga moui, takalo and ta me and to ulu niu. An informal survey by Talaniue of those who attended these events gave their approval of the hiapo and tattoo exhibits. 

The art exhibitions in general were a particular favourtie, starting with Hikulagi, the work on display at Pacific Way, John Pule exhibition, Cora-Allen hiapo and Lina Marsh’s murals. Live theatre puppetry was a good learning experience and Kifaga Moui was good slap-stick entertainment.  The umu night, bucket drumming and open-mike at Tuapa was enjoyed by those who attended.

What did not eventuate in the manner intended was the Yam Blessing Ceremony, the singing of Traditional Niue Hymns and the Takalo and Ta Me. In fact there was a distinctive lack of performances that people have come to expect not only with the singing and dancing but in the creative use of the language. The irony, when it comes to the language, was that as part of the Taoga Festival Niue, one day was devoted to a discussion on Vagahau.  

For a great number of people, both local residents and visitors, the value of this festival was in alerting those, who hitherto had not appreciated the real threat that Vagahau is facing.

Tupumaiaga Youth reps from NZ – pic B Vakaafi.

To sum up, the comment that the festival was a reflection of the organisers, is a little unkind given that they appear to be a last minute replacement. However there was nothing to indicate that previous organisers were not prepared to offer their assistance.

The use of the word “Taoga” may have been presumptuous – the word has become synonymous with anything that is authentically of Niuean origin.  For the time being the use of electronic and social media is not the best way of engaging local residents to be part of the Taoga Festival Niue, particularly the older generation, for it is they who are the last depository of our Taoga.

A living community requires a living culture and language . . . but not without reference to the original building blocks.

[In our next instalment we will bring more on the Vagahau Niue Fono]

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