One man is on a lonely mission to revive knowledge of the old ways, writes Peter de Graaf.

You have to hand it to the missionaries who arrived on Aitutaki in the Cook Islands in the early 1800s. They did a remarkably thorough job.

John Williams, of the London Missionary Society, wrote this account in his journal in 1821:

"Our friend from Aitutaki was so full of zeal for the conversion of his brother chieftain, that, as soon as he reached the deck, he led him away from us, and commenced his work by informing him that the maraes of Aitutaki were demolished, the great idols burnt, and the smaller ones were on board the ship, to be conveyed to Raiatea, the island from which the teachers came who had instructed him."

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If you ride a scooter around Aitutaki today you'll see churches of every denomination, the oldest built of white-washed coral and surrounded by graveyards of stone crosses. If you arrive on a Sunday you'll see villagers walking to church wearing their finest clothes and brightly coloured 'ei (flower garlands) around their heads. Your flight may even be met by locals protesting against desecration of the Lord's Day.

What you won't see, however, are the huge carved figures for which Aitutaki was once known. The ancient marae are hidden in the bush, overgrown and avoided, their stones toppled. The Polynesian art of tattooing survives, but is condemned in Sunday sermons.

Cultural tour guide Ngaakitai Pureariki and nephews among the standing stones at Arangirea Marae. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Cultural tour guide Ngaakitai Pureariki and nephews among the standing stones at Arangirea Marae. Photo / Peter de Graaf

One man is trying to revive knowledge of the old ways but, in a devoutly Christian country like the Cook Islands, it's a lonely battle.

Ngaakitai Pureariki (Ngaa for short) came home from Australia in the early 2000s to reconnect with his culture and land, but his crusade was sparked by a Sunday sermon a few years later.

"It was the things they were saying in church - pray, give up 10 per cent of your wages, then God will give you what you need. There was nothing about the people or the environment. It made me go the other way, to find out who we - the people of this island - are."

The people of Aitutaki were quick to embrace Christianity because they believed it was the way to a better future, Ngaa says.

The missionaries saw carvings as false idols and had them burnt or shipped off the island. They banned the hongi - ironically because it helped spread diseases brought by Europeans - and, less successfully, tried to ban tattooing.

"Church leaders say we shouldn't mark our bodies but this is about knowing who you are. Our people didn't write, they tattooed to identify themselves, using patterns passed down through generations."

Ngaa, who runs tours of the island's pre-Christian sites, has no guests booked on the day I visit but agrees to take me to Arangirea Marae, one of eight sacred sites on the island.
He has cleared some of the bush from the stones and carried out an archaeological dig, uncovering adze flakes, sling stones and skulls.

Ngaa points out five avenues marked by rocks leading to different ritual areas, while one of his young nephews shows me the stone seat where ta'unga (priests, or tohunga in New Zealand Maori) marked a boy's coming of age by carrying out a superincision (a cut in the foreskin rather than a full circumcision).

"The churches speak rubbish about the marae. People are told, 'Don't go there, it's a bad place'. But I love it, it has so much mystery, so much that's unknown ... it's a puzzle waiting to be completed."

Another puzzle Ngaa is working on is the location of the 32 carved "god figures" recorded on the island before they were removed, possibly ending up in faraway museums and private collections.

He wants to find them and link them to the surviving chants on the island, which tell of Aitutaki's history and were committed to memory in the time before writing.

Ngaa has become an expert in traditional Aitutakian arts and now travels to European museums to identify artefacts in their collections. He has been to museums in Germany, England and Spain; this year he has been invited to France and to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow.

The marae is intriguing but the mosquitoes are ferocious so, with a bunch of nieces and nephews in tow, we head to a replica village Ngaa is building on family land overlooking the lagoon.

Three days a week he leads a tour around Punarei Village illustrating traditional life on the island, which includes a chance to cook in an umu using only leaves and other traditional materials. You won't find any tin foil here, he says.

Cultural tour guide Ngaakitai Pureariki and nephews among the standing stones at Arangirea Marae. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Cultural tour guide Ngaakitai Pureariki and nephews among the standing stones at Arangirea Marae. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Long-term he plans to build an education centre where local children can learn about their history; he also wants to hold regular culture nights as an antidote to the "fire-dancing rubbish" passed off as Cook Islands culture at the island's resorts.

Ngaa knows his mission makes him unpopular with God-fearing Aitutakians, even his family.

"If you ask me, do Aitutakians know their own culture, I say no, and that's a shame.

"Our people have always been religious. They believed in the land and the sea that gives them life. Now people think that's a heathen thing.

"Religion in ancient cultures was about the environment, about being caretakers of what's around us."

It is tourists who come to see the marae he has freed from the bush, but his real target is his own people.

"If you don't know yourself or your past, you won't know the way to the future. You will be a lost person."

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Three nights in Aitutaki (including flights) can be added to a helloworld Rarotonga holiday for $949 pp, twin share.

Details
Punarei Culture Tours are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.