(SPC) The smallest delegation makes its mark at the opening of the Paci fic's biggest arts festival

Submitted by Editor on Tue, 27/07/2004 - 23:24

Koror, Palau, Thursday July 22: Nig Brown admits he's on a voyage of discovery into his own identity at the 9th Festival of Pacific Arts. Born 48 years ago on Pitcairn Island, a tiny community in the south-east of the Pacific, but now resident in Auckland, New Zealand, he admits that until quite recently he saw culture "as paintings hung on the wall".

Rosita Hoffmann
SPC - Press Releases

Lately, though, things have started bothering him a bit. Like how to answer the endless questions of his two children, aged 8 and 14, about their lineage, when he doesn't know much himself. So when an invitation came to represent Pitcairn at the festival, he jumped at the chance. And last night, he and the second Pitcairn representative, Leona Young, took part in the processions that were part of the festival's official opening at Palau's track and field facility.

Pitcairn is the festival's smallest delegation. The next biggest is Vanuatu with 14 people, and the largest is New Caledonia with 260.

An estimated 4000 cheering, clapping and jostling people crowded into the new grandstand and the spaces around it as country representatives filed past in their traditional dress, their order of appearance determined by the relative ranking of the Palauan states with which they have been twinned. (Wallis and Futuna was first: its "sister state" is Koror, the largest of Palau's 16 states.) It was a warm atmosphere - and not just because of the balmy temperatures.

Each delegation presented gifts symbolising their culture to two important Palauan women seated in elaborate cane chairs on a small stage: Bilung, the sister of Koror state's paramount chief Ibedul Yutaka Gibbons, and Ebilreklai, the aunt of Melekeok state's chief Reklai Raphael B Ngirmang. As Palau is a matrilineal and matriarchal culture, women occupy a special place.

The musical presentations to the enthusiastic crowd ranged from gentle chants accompanied by guitars to frenzied action songs backed by large traditional instruments. The action song by Papua New Guinea men, accompanied by drums made of long lengths of bamboo and pan pipes, was one of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night, if the decibel level in the stand was any guide.

Rain fell intermittently, but didn't stop the action.

As the evening drew to a close, Palau's president, Tommy E Remengesau, said the numbers of people converging on Koror was making the island sink "a little bit", but added "That's OK. Just feel free and be at home." High chief Ibedul told the visitors: "Everything we have, we want to share with you ... except our spouses!" And then came an unadvertised surprise: fireworks which filled Palau's sky with bursts of colour and sound.

After the event, Nig Brown said he was "buzzing with how every country is right by its culture and showing how important it is". He added, "I want to see how I can maybe preserve our culture as well." Pitcairn culture is rooted way back in 1790, when the crew of the English ship HMAS Bounty, annoyed at having been made to leave Tahiti, mutinied and set their captain, Lieutenant Bligh, adrift in a longboat. The British authorities then tried to catch the mutineers, forcing them and their Tahitian partners into a game of cat-and-mouse in the Pacific. Finally, they chose remote, subtropical Pitcairn as their hideout.

"It had everything they wanted," says Nig Brown. "It was in the middle of nowhere - and it was incorrectly charted." There are strong links between Pitcairn, south of Tahiti, and Norfolk Island, tucked between Australia and New Zealand. When Pitcairn, by then a British protectorate, became overcrowded in the 1800s, Queen Victoria made Norfolk Island available and the migration began.

Today, the native languages of the two islands are identical, a mixture of the archaic English of the mutineers' time and the basic Tahitian they used to communicate with their wives.

Both Nig Brown and Leona Young speak Pitcairn, and with a Norfolk delegation also attending the festival, they have been making good use of it.

But Pitcairn's population is just 52 souls, the greater proportion of them older.

The need for tertiary education pushes many people off the island in their late teens, and most stay away.

Nig Brown, who is married to a New Zealander, moved his family to Auckland 10 years ago and now works as a firefighter at the city's international airport. Leona Young left at 17 to further her education, and now works as a personal assistant in Wellington, New Zealand's capital.

Nig Brown says it was a trip with his family to Norfolk Island in June that opened his eyes.

His children were gripped by tales of their ancestors, and he was surprised how much detail they demanded.

After several days at the Festival, he says he is reflecting on what Pitcairn culture is and what it means to him - and what he can do to help nurture it after the festival ends.

For example, weaving is an important part of the small island's ancestral inheritance, according to Leona Young. She has been weaving intricate Polynesian-style patterns in flax and pandanus - a skill handed down from talented Tahitian foremothers - since she was nine. Leona Young learned to weave from her grandmother. "Over the years I've become more passionate about it", she says, and it's a skill she is determined to see survive. "I was back on the island last October," she says, "and there are now fewer than half a dozen women who weave any more. I feel that it's unique and it needs to be preserved." She hopes that her knowledge of weaving will contribute to others' experience of the festival: "If I can share that with others, that would make me very happy."

Both the Pitcairn Islanders say they are keen to learn in the festival's collaborative atmosphere.

"Even though we're the smallest delegation," says Leona Young, "I'm sure we're going to take back home ideas about how important it is for us to have our own culture."

They also feel that Pitcairn needs the morale boost delivered by participation in the festival: the island has been rocked in recent years by allegations of sexual abuse, and a court case has started. "It's really important for us to be seen to be standing proud," says Leona Young. "We have done nothing wrong and we need to show the world that we are a proud race. We've got a lot to celebrate and be thankful for." She pauses for a heartbeat and adds: "We're down but we're not dead."

For more information on Palau, see:
www.visit-palau.com or www.palaugov.net/links.html

For more information, please contact:
Rhonda Griffiths
Cultural Affairs Adviser,
Secretariat of the Pacific Community,
Mobile in Palau: + 00680 779 3612.

Alexander Merep,
Festival Director and Minister for Community and Cultural Affairs,
Tel: +00680 488 1126.

Background information

The 9th Pacific Festival of Pacific Arts, being held in the republic of Palau, takes place from July 22 to 31, with more than 2000 people from 27 Pacific Island nations taking part.

The festival was conceived as a way to combat the erosion of traditional customary practices, and every four years since 1972, Pacific peoples have come together to share and exchange their cultures. This is the first year that the festival has been held in the northern Pacific and also the first year in which every single member of the Council of Pacific Arts has been represented there.

The Pacific islands and nations taking part this year are: American Samoa, Australia, Cook Islands, Easter Island, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, French Polynesia, Guam, Hawaii, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Niue, Norfolk Island, Northern Mariana Islands, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Pitcairn Island, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.

The theme of this year's festival is Oltobed a Malt: Nurture, Regenerate, Celebrate.

The phrase, in the Palauan language, signifies that the process of promoting new growth to maintain the essence of a culture is dependant on the wisdom and endurance of the ancestors.

The physically-able youth power the canoe, while elders stabilise the country and navigate the course.

The young people have keen vision, to seek and select new and effective ideas to ensure a successful future.

The festival assures the protection of cultural heritage and supports the aspirations of young people.

The following activities will be demonstrated, conducted and exhibited during the 10-day festival: contemporary and traditional arts (body art, weaving, wood, bone and stone carving, tapa making, tattooing, jewellery, beadwork, shellwork and pottery); photographic arts, cinematography, costumes, and floral arts; traditional medicine and healing crafts; traditional canoe-building and navigational crafts, traditional culinary arts, philatelic arts, traditional moneys and literary arts; traditional and contemporary performing arts (oratory, storytelling, musical instruments, song, dance, drama, fire-walking, traditional sports, symposium, debates and workshops on issues such as legal protection of traditional knowledge, roles of traditional and elected leadership, natural resources as wealth, social change, and education).



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