'It brings me closer to my culture' - Dunedin students learn to build vaka

Four Pacific students in Dunedin have embarked on a voyage of discovery by learning the art of building traditional vaka.

The Kings High School students are being taught by Papa Matapakia Taurarii, a local elder and ta’unga in vaka crafting who has built many canoes in the Cook Islands.

“For me, I’d like to share my knowledge because if I keep it to myself no one will know. For them, they can learn what their forefathers did and understand the work that was done” says Papa Mata.  

The students say learning about these traditional practices has brought them closer to their culture as well as other benefits.

“I’ve learnt about my heritage and how my ancestors traveled around the islands. We sail around the harbour, learning what our ancestors did,” says Asher Cockburn.

“It’s meant a lot for us being together, learning about our culture. It’s taught me to listen and focus. It brings me closer to my culture. I hope to share what we’ve learnt with other students and our community, and continue embracing our culture.”

The programme is funded by the Education Ministry and is run by the Pacific Trust Otago.

Papa Matapakia Taurarii and Kings High School students Taura Makanesi, Kobe Ria, Manaia Wereta, Asher Cockburn and Papa Bon Ria.

Project coordinator Stacey Kokaua says what drives the project is the belief that intergenerational dialogue is essential to the well-being of the youth to learn and elders to share their knowledge and see it live on.

“It provides pathways for indigenous knowledge to move through generations. We were also given funding to create a documentary that follows the student’s journey to demonstrate the benefits of their learnings."

She says opportunities like these are rare in Dunedin as the small population of Pacific means there are less people to facilitate projects like this. Adding the biggest takeaway is the confidence they have picked up in their Pacific identity.

“There’s been nothing like this in Dunedin for Pacific youth and having this space to work at something traditional and see it come to fruition is special for the boys. I’m hoping this is the start of a new movement for Pacific here”.

The vaka is expected to be finished in March next year where it will be launched into the harbour and the documentary will be presented to the local communities in April.