Keeping tradition alive: nine vaka completed by Cook Islanders

Vaka builders walk down the canoes that they spent four months building into the ocean. Photo: Melina Etches/Cook Islands News

The art of making vaka is being preserved in the Cook Islands after nine canoes built entirely of traditional materials set sail to the sound of drums in Avarua harbour recently.

The project by Cook Islands Voyaging Society and master carver Ta’unga Mike Tavioni involved more than 50 people over the course of the four-month build.

Tavioni said the goal was to have as many people as possible learn how to make the canoes.

“There is nothing else that ties us more strongly to our culture than the canoe,” he said.

“Without the canoe we could not have discovered these islands. Without the canoes we could not feed our people – our people are nourished from the ocean, the lagoon reef and ocean, not from the land.”

He said all vaka “were traditionally done”.

“Except for the tools, the tools are metal and all that, but in my mind, if the ancestors 300 years ago had a chainsaw, they would be stupid to use a stone axe.”

The vaka are blessed before setting sail.

The vaka are blessed before setting sail. Photo: Melina Etches/Cook Islands News

As part of the building process, around 300 coconuts were husked then buried in the high tide mark where they rotted for three months. They were then dug up and made into rope, or kaha.

One of the builders, Oliver Oolders, said the kaha was used to lash everything on the canoes.

He said solely using the traditional materials was an “eye-opening” experience.

“If you compare the papa’a rope to the kaha, it’s obviously way stronger, but you still have that good strength in the kaha that we made.

“It’s all the strength that you need to have the canoes successfully float and be stable out in the ocean.”

As a novice vaka builder, Oolders said he had didn’t always understand the process.

“But as you do, you put the trust in your teacher, just doing what you’re told and as you progress you see it all coming together.

“Then to finally see it out in the ocean and seeing how the vaka moved was a really special day.”

The vaka build at master carver, Ta’unga Mike Tavioni’s gallery.

The vaka build at master carver, Ta’unga Mike Tavioni’s gallery. Photo: Gina Tavioni Bamber

At the sailing ceremony, Evangelene Daniela-Wong from Cook Islands Voyaging society said the project was about ensuring the tradition and art form continues.

“If we don’t preserve it, we are going to lose it because there are very few people doing this now and by doing this we ensure that things continue,” Dr Daniela-Wong told the crowd.

She said people are now using indigenous forms of knowledge, but suggests one of the biggest lessons “our old knowledge teaches us is skills like perseverance”.

“Commitment, grit, working when you’ve got nothing, working in the hot sun and actually being able to get through many different things.”

Tavioni said although he was “very happy with the project” he wants the vaka to be used to catch fish.

“I don’t really see the point in making the canoes if we don’t use it to actually demonstrate the value,” Tavioni said.

“Just the art of making canoes and teaching the kids to sail them is not, as far as I’m concerned, the real benefit.

“The real benefit is to show and demonstrate its ability to get food to sustain family.”

With raising prices, Tavioni said he wants Cook Islanders to use the canoes to be self-sufficient.

“Right now a head of broccoli here is $35 and smoked corn beef costs more than what we earn in an hour. It’s unnecessary to be paying high prices when we have our own resources.”

The next step is to use the canoes for a traditional fishing competition, Tavioni said.

He also said he would always have one canoe in progress being made, so anybody could have a go.

Photo: Gina Tavioni Bamber

Source: RNZ