We climb into the back of a jungle-worn truck and, before we can sit down, Ngaa throws it into gear. Peering from beneath the hat of dried kikau (coconut fibre) he wears on his head, his eyes search for ours in the rearview mirror. They find their target, and Ngaa launches abruptly into a powerful discourse.
“You think this is Aitutaki? You think this is what Aitutaki is like?” he ventures, his voice loud with passion. “No way. It’s not. You don’t know. Most of us don’t even know.” And so begins our journey: to a plateau of land overlooking the turquoise lagoon, and simultaneously through the ancient history of Aitutaki.
Ngaakaara Kita Taria Pureariki is a zealously curious student of the Polynesian past who has painstakingly and voluntarily constructed a cultural village on this plateau, which is his wife’s family land.
Ngaa is a researcher, archaeologist, and cultural pundit who is vocal about the need for Aitutaki to rediscover its ancient traditions that disappeared when Christianity arrived in the early 1820s. He has made it his life’s mission to uncover the secrets of this island’s history, and he wants to share them with both tourists and local children. Punarei is the culmination of Ngaa’s research – a space for showcasing the ancient knowledge he has accrued.
“Punarei is the land,” Ngaa says, referring to the name of this section. “It’s perfect for what I’m doing. Puna is a tribe. Rei is trap. You get trapped inside the tribe. It makes sense for cultural preservation. “I’d like people who come here to understand the way our ancestors lived. I want them to be remembered.”
Here, on this plateau, Ngaa built thatched huts and manicured a landscape of ti trees, tiare bushes, and coconut palms. Each plant fits into a pattern resembling the female anatomy – a metaphor, he says, for the land’s fertility.
“The female seduces herself to the male, which is the water, and they come together and make life,” Ngaa says. “The sea and the land become life. That’s what the pattern’s all about. It’s how all the villages on Aitutaki used to be built. Those people really understood nature.” That all-encompassing respect for, and reliance, on nature underpins the Punarei experience.
A warrior in traditional costume greets visitors to Punarei, welcoming them to stand on a basalt rock. By accepting, they agree to enter the land in peace.
They learn to make traditional crafts of kikau and play traditional games – one uses a coconut as a ball – and then they prepare and eat a traditional feast of chicken and fish (wrapped in banana leaves and cooked underground in an umu), ripe fruit, and fresh vegetables.
Ngaa then takes his tour further inland to Paengariki, a marae (traditional meeting place) that he helped to excavate in 2006 as part of a team led by archaeologist Mark Eddowes. Among the exciting discoveries that team made was a tattooing comb made from human jawbone.
Visitors come to Punarei to experience this cultural village, weave coconut fibre baskets, and feast on island food, but above all, they come to learn from Ngaa. And he comes here to teach. Throughout the tour, he never stops talking, spilling cultural secrets with waxing enthusiasm.
He talks about how females in ancient Aitutaki chose their partners, rather than the other way around. The only exception was in the case of a chief, who had enough power to choose his own suitors. He talks about Tangaroa, the god of the sea; Rongo, the god of the land and fertility; ancient discipline practices; drumming; tattooing; the “blue laws” imposed by the missionaries.
And always he returns, with childlike wonder, to the ingenuity of his ancestors. “They knew everything,” he says. “They knew the wind, they knew which times to travel, they knew how many miles away other islands were.”
He looks at the horizon, thinks awhile, and breaks into a smile. “Wow, everything they did was unbelievable.”
Ngaa stops here, and points to my cousin’s foot. “What made you put your tattoo on your foot?” he asks her, his eyes boring into hers. Before she can answer, he’s telling her something about her own heritage she’s never heard. “Let me explain to you about that. That’s the place Aitutaki females put tatau. That’s the place that would get them to the next life,” he says. “Your life depends on your foot. You step on Aitutaki and that’s your next life. It’s your foot, not your brain,” he continues, visibly excited.
“Your brain is thinking, but your foot will take you. Life begins with a footstep. It’s a way of seducing yourself to the land, and the land will give you life.”
He uses this as a segue to talk about the prominence of tatau in Polynesian culture. “The tattoo is all about us,” he says. “Tatau means read. That’s what it means – you read your life. It’s reading your identity.” This is what Ngaa has committed his life to: reading his identity.
In his 20s, Ngaa attended school in Melbourne. Proud of his Cook Islands roots, he would often talk of home. Before long, it dawned on him that he couldn’t articulate to outsiders what it was that made him proud.
“I wanted to know who I was and I want to know who we are as Aitutaki people,” he said.
“I came back in 1997 to finish my house, but that time, at night I did not have any sleep,” he said. “I wanted to ask people about who we were, but they all came back to Christianity. I realized that they didn’t know about the culture. I wanted to ask people, but their [responses] always came back to Christianity. It just hit me: ‘You have to find out who you are.’”
Ngaa’s research is not restricted only to books. He undertakes physical excavations and studies oral history – chants and songs in the local language. He feels the presence of his ancestors and tries, always, to perceive the world the way they did.
“I get so much energy from my research,” he says, his eyes wide with intensity. “For me, researching my culture is the highlight of my life. I can physically see what they ate, what they carved. It’s there; the evidence is there.”
Ngaa is using proceeds from Punarei Culture Village to fund future excavations and expensive research equipment, and to enable him to bring groups of local schoolchildren to Punarei to learn about their own roots. He has ruffled several feathers in a community that revolves around the Cook Islands Christian Church – but he is unfazed by the backlash. “I’m really confident in what I’m doing because I know who I am,” he says.
“I’m not doing this for money. I want to make sure that when visitors come here, they think of Aitutaki as having a rich culture, not just a beautiful lagoon. I want people to know who we are as a nation, as Polynesians, as Aitutakians. And I also want us, to know who we are.”