Te Mana O Te Vaka Project 2022

Photography By
Cook Islands Tourism

For the first time in generations, a fleet of traditional canoes, known in Māori as vaka, is being constructed in the Cook Islands. Visitors are invited to observe and even participate in the historic months-long project, which highlights the value of preserving indigenous culture – the antithesis of modern scourges such as pollution, climate change, and ill health. 

“The project is about the perpetuation of vaka culture,” says Mike Tavioni, the leader of the project, who has been carving since he was a boy and studying the history of vaka for nearly as long. “The value of the vaka needs to be demonstrated but the vaka culture is not only about the vaka. It’s about migration. It’s about discovery. It’s about our history, the origin of where we come from. And it’s about survival. It’s not just about the vaka. The vaka is the catalyst of all those things.”

Indeed, the story of the Cook Islands begins with vaka.

These were the sturdy, all-weather vehicles that enabled intrepid travellers to follow the stars across oceans. The vaka delivered people, pigs, and crops to islands half a world away from the homes they left behind.

For thousands of years after these islands were settled, vaka remained star players in the story of our little paradise. They were, and on some islands they remain, a means of travel to work, as essential as the car or bus that transports a breadwinner to an office job. 

While vaka are still used by some fishers in outer islands and by sailors throughout the Cook Islands, the practice of canoe-building began dying a long time ago. Fishers on Rarotonga and in outer islands use aluminum boats powered not by sails and paddles but by outboard motors. On some islands, a traditional fishing vaka hasn’t been carved in a century. 

The precarity of the practice motivated Tavioni and members of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society to design a project called Te Mana O Te Vaka, which translates as the power and prestige of the canoe. The project, largely funded by the Institute of Marine Resources at the University of the South Pacific, involves a team of people making six vaka using natural materials – tree trunks, coconut husk fiber, and pandanus leaves. They are making not only canoes but also sails, paddles, bailers, and sennit for rope, as well as fishing hooks, lines, and lures. 

Each element requires significant amounts of time and energy. 

“We talk a lot about sustainability but you can’t be sustainable if you’re only using throwaway stuff,” says Evangelene Wong, vice president of the Cook Islands Voyaging Society. “So this is about really recognising the value of things.”

Te Mana O Te Vaka began with Tavioni selecting experts and carvers to work alongside him. Two months before the project’s launch, a team of volunteers began collecting resources from around Rarotonga. They beat the husks of 100 coconuts and buried them in the sand for a month. They selected and cut down suitable trees. They hung pandanus leaves to dry in the sun.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade sponsored the cost of travel for artists based overseas – weavers, a carver, and two of Tavioni’s former apprentices, who began learning to carve when they were 12 and 13 years old – who flew to Rarotonga to share their knowledge with the project.

Te Mana O Te Vaka began in a ceremony on Friday, 16 September, and carving and weaving began the following Monday. The team has been working from 9 am to 4:30 pm on weekdays since then. 

Beginning in November, the vaka will be on display at Gallery Tavioni & Vananga. Toward the end of November, the vaka will be used in a fishing competition organised into five categories: deep-sea fish, flying fish, soldierfish, and fishing with a locally made hook. Tavioni is currently seeking donations for a prize purse to incentivise fishers to enter.

In December, the vaka will be used to impart teachings about moon phases, seasons, tides, winds, and navigation. Ultimately, they will be gifted to fishers in outer islands where economic opportunities are limited.

“The whole project is about canoe building and canoe using,” Wong says. “So we’re not building these to go in museums. We’re building them to be used.”

The project is open to anyone interested in being part of it. Visitors are encouraged to come by after midday in order for the team to maximise their working hours in the mornings. Group bookings can be arranged in advance through Facebook (Te Mana O Te Vaka) or by sending an email to [email protected] with TMOTV as the subject.