Social Context and the Limits on Symbolic Meanings

Copyright 1995 Wenonah Lyon
Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing
Eliot College
University of Kent at Canterbury

The vaka served as a central symbol of the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts held in Rarotonga, The Cook Islands, during October 1992. The vaka is a kind of a boat, the initial means of settling sections of the South Pacific, an item from a Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian material culture inventory. Its visual representation provided a logo for the Festival. In addition, actual vaka were sailed from different islands taking part in the Festival to Rarotonga. Interpretation of the meaning of the symbol vaka in specific contexts was determined by its prior importance and areas of use in The Cook Islands combined with its immediate use during the Festival. This prior use set up a range of possible interpretations for its use a symbol. From this possible set of interpretations, one or more could be arbitrarily selected as contextually applicable.

Saussure stated the classical distinction between symbol and sign: the relationship between signifier and signified in the sign is arbitrary; the symbol is a particular kind of sign, in which the relationship is not arbitrary. (Saussure, 1959:66-67). Turner follows this usage: "In symbols there is always some kind of likeness (metaphoric-metonymic) posited by the framing culture between signifier (symbol-vehicle) and signified(s); in signs there need be no likeness." (Turner, 1977: 77). Representation thus consists of three parts: the signifier, the signified and the nature of the relationship between the two. The nature of the tie between the signifier and signified constrains the way in which representation is used. If the relationship between signified and signifier is not arbitrary, then use of the signifier is restricted. The vaka can, for example, represent Cook Islanders but not the Native Peoples of Australia or Great Britain because of its traditional use in the Cook Islands. If the relationship between signified and signifier is arbitrary, it can signify anything intended: the Festival logo, with its picture of a vaka, signifies all participants in the Festival, including Australians of British and Arrunta descent. What was signified was arbitrarily assigned at the cost of evoking a continuity of time and tradition. This broader signification continues, however, to underlie use of the vaka as symbol despite its new use.

The vaka (and maritime transportation) have a symbolic significance in The Cook Islands (and, indeed, in the rest of the South Pacific) in addition to its importance as a means of transportation. During the Festival, at its most complex use, it symbolizes social structure and group membership. This is the role it appears to play in the building of the vaka of Atiu, one of the islands belonging to the Cook Islands. At its most simple, it represents past seafaring generations by evoking their means of transportation. Its most common use during the Festival was to identify past generations of seafaring sailors with present participants in the Festival by common use of the vaka as a means of transportation. This was possible because society is atemporal, persisting through time, and as members of the same society an identification of past with present generations made. Simple use derives power from the possibility of evoking its fuller signification.

This dual use of the vaka as sign and symbol, arbitrarily and naturally linked, allowed different groups in the Cook Islands to present different representations of the past and present. In this paper, I argue that the central, public symbols of a culture derive their power from their identification with a range of possible signifieds, and their use evokes the full range of possible meanings while allowing tacit restrictions to be placed on what is signified.

The Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are composed of fifteen islands spread over the South Pacific. They are separated into two groups, the northern group, coral atolls, and the larger and more populated southern group, composed of islands of volcanic origin or raised coral. Rarotonga, the largest island, and one of the southern group, is the administrative and political capital. In a 1992 publication, Crocombe gives basic facts about The Cook Islands: a population of 17,000, mainly Polynesians, a land area of 240 sq. km. The economy is based on tourism, international finance, pearling, agriculture, aid, mainly from New Zealand, and remittances from Cook Islanders abroad. GNP per person is about NZ$4,000. (Crocombe, 1992, 237.)

The Cook Islands is a parliamentary democracy, with an elected parliament of 24 members. Each island also has an Island council which provides local government. A second political body, the House of Ariki , composed of 21 hereditary chiefs, has primarily ceremonial powers. The Cook Islands is an sovereign country that has an Associated State relationship with New Zealand, which handles its foreign policy and defence. Cook Islands citizens are allowed free entry into New Zealand as a result of this relationship. Lack of employment in The Cook Islands makes this a highly valued relationship. More Cook Islanders live outside the Cook Islands (primarily in New Zealand) than in the Cooks. More than half the resident population live in Rarotonga.

Rarotonga is remote: 1,600 miles east of Auckland, New Zealand, 600 miles west of Tahiti, (its nearest neighbour), 800 miles east of Apia, Samoa. Rarotonga is a small island (67.2 sq. km.) of volcanic origin, surrounded by a coral reef broken by freshwater streams. It has a moderate, tropical climate, with maximum and minimum temperatures of 80 degrees F. and 70 degrees F. throughout the year. Rainfall averages 80 inches a year, distributed over 200 days. Hurricanes occur periodically, sometimes with great damage to property. Water supply on the island depends on rainfall, and this is adequate for current use but not for any large scale tourist or industrial development. Much of the land on the island is not suitable for agricultural purposes, and there are no mineral resources. The Government is encouraging tourism as a source of employment for the island--which certainly seems reasonable, since the primary assets of the island are scenery, friendly people, and a good climate. Rarotonga is quite beautiful, with its ocean sunsets and sheer peaks. An indifferent photographer can go home with photographs that look like picture postcards.

Christianity was introduced to Rarotonga in 1823. Gilson describes social organization on the island at that time: political and military authority was vested in a hierarchy of chiefs, the highest called ariki. The island was divided into three districts, Takitumu, Avarua and Arorangi. Although there was no central authority on the island, the three districts co-operated on some ceremonial occasions. Each of the districts was divided into narrow subdivisions, tapere, which ran from the mountainous interior to the coral reef, and were occupied by a descent group, ngati, headed, under the ariki, by a subdistrict chief, mataiapo. The ngati consisted of related households, and most households were made of a single extended family. (Gilson, 1980, 6-7.) Beaglehole,writing in 1957, says that while the Cook Island political system appeared to conform to a Polynesian pattern of chiefly status and feudalism the small populations, which continually intermarried, resulted in a group with "patterns of functioning equality." Beaglehole goes on to quote an article published by Moss in 1894: "but intercourse between persons of all classes was, and still is, marked by the most perfect freedom." (Beaglehole, 1957: 170).

Lineages, according to Gilson, were "ambilateral descent groups with a strong patrilineal emphasis." (Gilson, 1980, 7.) Chiefly authority and primary land rights were inherited from one's father, although secondary land rights were held in the mother's lineage. (Gilson, 1980, 7-8). Currently, land is inalienable and can be acquired only though inheritance. All heirs (male and female) share equally in land. This land can be leased, but not sold, and this has resulted in widespread fragmentation of land holdings. (Historical and current land rights are described by Crocombe, 1987.)

I asked an informant (the granddaughter of an Ariki) the difference between the Ariki and ordinary people. She said, "There is no difference. What is important is whether you inherit land." Inheritance gives title to land, and land is more important that what is done with it. Cook Islanders are more aware than any outsider of the economic disadvantages of small scattered parcels of land. They mention this in discussion, but, equally, agree that land reform is impossible. No one, including themselves, would sacrifice inheritance rights to land. Genealogies are of practical importance, and are carefully maintained within families. The ancestors, then, have a direct importance to people on Rarotonga.

Currently, people in Rarotonga belong to political parties, church, village, and other voluntary groups as well those based on kinship--the family and ngati. Both historically and currently, village (and sometimes island-wide) work groups have contributed labour for public projects. (Beaglehole, 1957: 149-152). All of these play an important role in the provision of education and social services, and were crucial to the successful hosting of the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts. Preparations for the Festival were dependent on donated labour from a number of groups on the island.

One of the major venues of the Festival, The craft village, Te Punanga Nui, was constructed with the assistance of the Rarotonga Christian Centre (Assembly of God church), the Mitiaro [one of the other islands] community, the Matavera Youth Group and the Arorangi Golden Oldies. (Festival, October 1992, p.4).

Another work party was organized on Atiu to donate Atiu timbers sent for the Cultural Centre--used for 18 friezes decorating the auditorium. "Hauling the logs has not been easy, and blood has been spilt." One person was hospitalized--the logs are from the "extremely sharp interior of the Atiu Makatea." (Cook Islands News, 8 June 1992, p. 4)

Immediately before the Festival, the Government appealed to people in Rarotonga to bring plants to landscape the Culture Centre and Te Punanga Nui. Government officer workers spent a half day off work cleaning up the beaches. Schools were closed to provide housing for participants from other countries. Churches, youth groups and neighbourhood associations collected money.

And, for over a year in advance, people were building their vaka. Five islands of the Southern Group of the Cook Islands built vaka for the Festival: Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, Mangaia and Aitutaki each constructed double hulled carved-log vaka. Finding suitably large trees was a problem for some of the islands. Aitutaki imported albizzia logs from Hawaii. The other islands managed to find native timber suitable for the purpose. Atiu and Mauke used mahogany, which is traditional timber for canoes. Mitiaro used mango trees, and Mangaia used albizzia. (Festival 1: 2). The sails were woven from pandanas, and sennit, wooden nails and breadfruit sap to plug gaps were used. Each of the islands carved a figure head: Atiu used a legendary yellow shark, Mauke and Aitutaki bird figures, and Mitiaro used a male and female image. (Festival 1: 2).

The first five Festivals were held in larger nations of the South Pacific: Fiji, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Tahiti and Australia. Rarotonga, The Cook Islands, was the smallest venue in which the Festival was held. People in the Cooks, despite their enthusiasm, were aware of the possibility of failure: in January, one informant, gloomily, feared they were setting themselves up as the laughing stock of the Pacific. Another wondered how he could face relatives in New Zealand if it went badly. During the Festival, a constant question from friends (and strangers) was how I thought the Festival was going. The Festival was successful, and became not a symbol but a demonstration of the competence and ability of the people of the Cook Islands.

The Pacific Arts Festival

In 1965, The South Pacific Commission discussed the establishment of a Pacific Arts Festival to encourage and preserve traditional arts. The first Festival was held in Fiji in 1972. A Report on the Second Festival of Pacific Arts made more explicit the aims of the Festival: "first, that a festival involving all the islands; would prove a great incentive to the conservation and the development of various art forms; second, that there was a danger of South Pacific island countries losing their traditional arts or having them submerged by other cultural influences; and third, that a festival would provide an occasion for the various peoples of the region to mix in a friendly atmosphere." (Tausie, 1980: 43.) The Festival of Pacific Arts was to be a celebration of the creativity of its members, past and present. While successive Festivals have always presented modern developments in the arts (such as the work of modern dance groups from New Zealand and New Caledonia in the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts) it was also to provide a venue for traditional arts. These artistic traditions were important not simply because of their value as art but also because they provide continuity with the past, which was seen as valuable and to be encouraged in itself.

Vilsoni Tausi reflected this view in his assessment of the first festival: "The first South Pacific Festival of Arts marked a very important turning point in the feelings of the peoples of the South Pacific. For years the islands had been dominated and undermined by colonial powers. Their cultures and way of life had been frowned upon, suppressed in many cases or totally forbidden by over-zealous missionaries.. With independence and self-government, it became necessary for island governments to look for some sort of national identity. The past suddenly became important, and there was a resurgence, a cultural revival, a searching into the past, in an attempt to find this identity. (Tausie, 1980: 44 -45)

Prime Minister Henry, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands during the Sixth Festival, offered reasons why a celebration of the past is important: knowledge of cultural heritage contributes to a sense of identity, it contributes to faith in oneself, pride in one's heritage leads to a feeling of being individually valuable. He says that "culture is not just the past. It is the present and future. It is what we once were but it is, also, what we hope to be." (Henry, 1992.)

A fairly conventional view of culture is presented: that which is unique to a people, their history and customs. A selection from history and custom is made: items must be acceptable to people today. While t-shirt salespeople on Rarotonga can offer "Cannibal Cafe" t-shirts, governments do not celebrate such traditions. Still less do they mention colonialism, neo-colonialism, slavery, genocide, mass starvation or any of the other unpleasant parts of a people's past. Who would want to celebrate such things? Governments are quite right to ignore them in public festivities. They are not what we want to be, but what we regret has been.

Francis Bugotu, a Solomon Islands artist, and Secretary General of the South Pacific Commission from 1982 to 1986 criticized the first Arts Festival. He said that "all it will show will be some technical aspects of some Pacific cultures--it will not show that we Melanesians are transforming our culture, quickly and painfully, to take over our own destinies, or that Tongan culture is strangling its people politically, or Gilbertese culture is acting as a dead weight on economic progress, or Fijian culture giving the Indians a clear field in commercial enterprise." (Crocombe, 1987: 99.)

The painful present as well as the painful past are precluded. It would be not only painful to consider such things, but politically inept and inappropriate. It is much better to concentrate, as PM Henry does in his speech, on the things which "makes us all special peoples...lilting chants and graceful dancing of Hawaii, fearsome New Zealand Maori Haka, haunting bamboo orchestra of the Solomon Islands..." That which makes us unique is divisive as well as a matter of celebration. Some culture, past and present, can threaten. When governments talk of tradition, it is much safer to talk of material culture, pictures and pots, songs and dances and drums.

And, of course, boats. The theme of the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts was the Seafaring Islanders. The vaka is an obvious symbol of such a theme. The vaka was important in the past of Melanesians, Polynesians and Microneseans. The indigenous peoples of Australia were the only group participating in the Festival that did not have a history of magnificent ocean voyages.[ ]The Pacific Ocean, its distance and its depth, has been a major factor in the form culture in Oceania has taken. The vaka was a material artifact created in response to that factor. During the Festival, Vaka reproduced ancient voyages. Some of these voyages reinforced current alliances: Tahiti to Rarotonga, New Zealand to Rarotonga.

During the Festival, the vaka was used to contrast social groups at different levels of organization: Oceania versus the rest of the world, nations participating in the Festival, the different islands of the Cook Islands which built and sent vaka, one of the clans on Rarotonga.

Finally, the vaka is not just a sign or a symbol but an object. It is a boat, and it is in the nature of boats to sink. Imagine an object: a small and possibly ill made craft in the middle of a vast, ill-tempered sea. It is a dangerous signifier, that boat, and that added to its power as well as its appeal during the Festival. Anxious days were spent watching for overdue vaka.

The Mangaia vaka caused considerable excitement. Mangaia, the southmost island of the Cooks group, had argued that they did not need an accompanying ship and were, apparently, irritated by the pressure put on them by Rarotonga to do things in a way considered appropriate by the Government. The Mangaian vaka left Mangaia without its captain and without its escort vessel. There was anxiety in Rarotonga, and some anger. (One government official was reported to have said "They're out there having a ball and we're worried sick.") The Government threatened to charge the vaka crew members for the expense of searching for them.

The Cook Island News reported the final story with the headline, "No Vaka Charges":

"One of the coordinators of the search and rescue operation for the vaka, Superintendent Goldie yesterday said the police were satisfied that there had been no political motivation nor any arguments involved with the canoe's premature departure. The Mangaian vaka Te-Rungi-Ma-Toru left Mangaia on Thursday morning without two crew members including the captain, without their radio and without the intended escort vessel, Te Kukupa.... Superintendent Goldie said the crew had gone out for a final run and had found out they could not head back because of strong winds. As the elements were in their favour they decided to keep going. Although the crew went past Rarotonga about 20 to 30 miles, on Saturday they were spotted from land heading toward Rarotonga. Te Kukupa went out and gave them a helping hand." ( Cook Island News, 24 October, 1992. 1.)

No one believed the official explanation. In the same day's paper, the television columnist "Cyclops" urged readers: "Hear the conjecture about the Mangaian Vaka "mutiny" when it sailed from Mangaia to Rarotonga without its captain and one crew member. Hear the navigator's explanation in Te Rongo Vega's Maori segment as to why it happened. Still the conjecture remains." (Cook Islands News, 24 October, 1992 . 13). There were a number of possible explanations volunteered, all more interesting than the official one. They were not necessarily any more true, however.

The signification of actions involving the vaka were based, in part, on prior knowledge of other elements that comprised the action. Mangaia had always maintained its independence. They had repelled the warriors of Atiu, the explorer Cook, the missionary John Williams, traders and British Residents. (Scott, 1991). They had been involved in on-going arguments over regulations concerning sailing the vaka from Mangaia to Rarotonga. If the vaka from Aitutaki or Mauke had sailed in the same circumstances, the same conclusions would not, I think, have been drawn. The sailing can represent an inability to observe regulations or a refusal to observe regulations. Given prior conceptions of Mangaia people, the second is possible, and more interesting and fun for every one but the government (who would have to react to the challenge) and the crew (who would have to pay a large bill for search procedures). One interpretation is offered and accepted officially, while the second is popularly entertained and entertaining. Any interpretation of the early sailing of the vaka involves a selection from a body of information, including information about the effect of a particular interpretation.

The Vaka in the Cook Islands

Our vaka is a fully loaded vessel, and the Festival only its last port of call. Throughout the Festival, the vaka as presented interacted with an earlier symbolic vaka. In the Cook Islands, the first meaning given in a Cook Islands Maori dictionary for the term vaka is "canoe." A second meaning is "tribe". The House of Ariki (a literal house, where the Ariki meet) store official documents concerning the Ariki of the Cook Islands. In one typed and untitled document, the structure and customs of the Ariki are detailed. One definition given is that of Vaka Tangata - "the vaka are all the people in the tribe, consisting of Ariki, Ui Mataiapo, Ui Rangatira, Kiato, Komono, and unga." [Unga are common people]. An informant described a tribe as "people who came in the same canoe." The vaka is identified with the social group.

In The Cooks, the magnificent large craft of the past are no longer made or used. However, individuals make small vaka (or pay specialists on the island to build them) which one or two individuals use for ocean fishing. A restricted version of the vaka remains a current item in the inventory of material culture.

Marine shipping and transportation are of immediate, acknowledged concern in The Cooks. Most of the islands that are part of the Cook Islands are accessible by air. (The exception is Pukapuka.) The aircraft have limited freight capacity, and all of the islands, including Rarotonga, are dependent on ship-transported goods. Shelves in the grocery stores of Rarotonga reflect the shipping schedule from Auckland: pasta or rice or sugar or tinned corned beef are sometimes unavailable. The prices paid for imports and exports reflects shipping charges, and historically, demands for an island controlled shipping company have been important. Boats matter--economically, socially, politically. In 1895, the people of Atiu purchased a ship for the transportation of copra and passengers to Tahiti. The following song was composed, which suggests something of the significance of independent transportation in the Islands:

Atiu men, Atiu women, we now own a ship,
We are like a millionaire who lives in Germany.
With English money and Chilean money, a two masted ship was bought.
By the command of the Ariki, we won a great victory.
Arise, O young people, invoke our ancestors.
We must exalt it for bringing in passengers;
We must exalt it for conveying our copra to Tahiti;
We must exalt it for conveying our copra to Tahiti, Ai..i..ea! (Kautai, 1989, 188.)

The Symbol-Vaka in Use

Edward Gudgeon, Resident in charge of The Cooks between 1898 and 1909, made a speech using the vaka as symbol: "...your gallant ancestors who were in all things better men than you are. Could you have brought the old canoes from Hawaiki to these islands? My friends, I think you could not have done that." (quoted in Scott, 1991: 91.)

From Scott's description of Gudgeon, he was quite willing to insult Islanders without cause. This speech, however, was part of a plan to restrict trading licences and shipping to Europeans. He stated that "the independent a nuisance to the Islands." (Scott, 1991, 90.) Moss, the previous Resident, had left a successful Maori-owned and operated shipping company. Island shipping, under the rule of Gudgeon came to an end in 1903.

In his address at the opening of the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts, the Honourable Sir Geoffrey Henry, KBE, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, reflected this view of the Festival: "For these eleven days, we will honour the crafts, styles and skills of our ancestors who have gifted all this and so much more to us...And, of course, with that awesome assemblage of traditional canoes, we are re-living history."

Both the officer and the prime minister compare past and present generations of Islanders. Both select an item from an inventory of past material culture, the vaka, to represent the abilities of past generations of Cook Islanders. Both present the ancestors as having done marvellous things, represented by traditional voyages and canoes. Gudgeon points out that current Islanders do not repeat these voyages, are not worthy successors to the ancestors, and capable of very little.

Henry points to the traditional canoes in the harbour, and says "we are re-living history." The history that is being re-lived is mythic history, a restricted bit of linear history that that is superimposed over current affairs. The vaka is an obvious symbol of an Oceanic past, the history of a people an obvious symbol of their capabilities. But the elements of that past, and the elements of the present, are quite arbitrarily selected by both Gudgeon and Henry to make assertions about present day Cook Islanders. In both these speeches, the vaka is used as a sign: in the first, to demonstrate the incapability of present Cook Islanders, in the second, to demonstrate their abilities. Both carefully avoid any fuller comparison with current time.

Any use of the Glorious Ancestors, whether by Britons remembering Empire or Rarotongans remembering the voyages of exploration can lead to the jibe of Gudgeon: if we are the equal of these people, where is our current claim to glory? Equally, Gudgeon can be challenged: we have a magnificent history. It is under your domination that we have failed to perform as our ancestors did. The vaka is used arbitrarily, as a sign, to signify the ability of modern Cook Islanders. It gains its force by representing the mythic traditions of Oceanic peoples, which, in turn, are credible because mythic time is a selection of linear time: people did sail and explore, this was, indeed, dangerous and impressive.

During March, 1992, I was in Atiu and an Atiun told me enthusiastically about the vaka that Atiu was building and planning to sail to Rarotonga, "just like the ancestors".

I commented on how dangerous sailing such a long way would be.

"Oh, they'll have the survey boat with them," he said.

"Isn't that kind of cheating?" I asked.

"Don't be silly," he said. "If the ancestors had had a survey boat they would have used it. The ancestors weren't fools.."

What is emphasized here is time, and the ancestors, but linear time and technological advantage. The ancestors are men who lived a long time ago, from whom we are descended, and who are of great interest and worthy of respect. While people are pretty much the same, boats have improved considerably over time: for actual transport, the survey boat is better than any vaka built. A man who fishes in a home-made vaka and whose friends and relatives intend to sail the Atiu vaka to Rarotonga should be expected, I think, to consider these points. The vaka was important in Atiu, tremendously important, but what it signified was not the same thing that was signified in Prime Minister Henry's speech.

The Atiu Vaka

Upokoina Teiotu, the principal of Atiu School and co-ordinator of the Atiu Islands Canoe Project, wrote an article for Search describing the construction of the Atiu vaka. The following information is a summary of Mr. Teiotu's most informative article.

The building of the vaka began by calling a meeting of the Island Council, which supported the proposal to build a vaka to sail to Rarotonga during the Festival. On 22 October, 1990, a meeting of all the "able bodied men and women on Atiu" was called. They decided to seek the permission of all the landowners on Atiu to seek out suitable timber to build the vaka, and "all land owners signed the consent document without hesitation." (Teiotu, 1991, 9)

Next, the committee wanted plans for the vaka. "Visits were then made to the elderly papa's of Atiu interviewing them in their experience of making of a Vaka Moana of Atiu design. Unfortunately, they had only the skill of making the small fishing outrigger canoe, which is still practised today." (Teiotu, 1991, 9) The committee obtained plans from an illustration of the Atiu Vaka Model which is kept in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh. The Cook Islands Museum photocopied the picture of the Atiu Vaka from a book. (Teiotu, 1991, 9).

More meetings were held. A search party to find trees was arranged, two people were nominated for a navigation course in Rarotonga. "The search party went out on 24 January and 6, 7, and 12 February. A further meeting was called on 22 March to confirm the date for cutting of trees. 8 April was confirmed for the cutting." (Teiotu, 1991, 9.) Further meetings were held.

"At dawn on Monday 8 April, the Atiu Nui Hall was packed with men and women attending the Prayer Service to start the work on the Vaka. This was conducted by the Religious Advisor Committee. It started at 6:00 AM....The Secretary Jon Jonassen [from Rarotonga] presented two chain saws to the people of Atiu. Rongomatane Ada Ariki received then on behalf of the Atiu people. The CAO Koronui thanked everyone and asked the mamas to make poi for the men when they returned from the Makateo." (Teiotu, 1991, 10).

The men returned home to get their working gear while the women planned the meal to be prepared. "At Tetuaroa the men cleared the track and cut some logs to be used as rollers. By 9:00 AM the track was done. Next was the call to Rongo and Tane, the gods of the land and forest, to allow the tree to be cut. This was performed by the Taunga [traditional religious leader] Ina Teiotu the co-ordinator of the project. He was chosen as he was next in line to his father who was then in Rarotonga." (Teiotu, 1991, 10).

After cutting the tree, the men drug it over sharp coral for over a thousand meters. A truck towed it another hundred meters, and it was finally loaded on to another truck to be taken to the Te-Anaunau-Parua's Marae where it was to be carved. The men had the lunch prepared by the women, and then went back into the forest to cut more logs. Four logs were cut in all, and the men named them: Pui, Onu, Pui, and Papaka. Work closed with a prayer. (Teiotu, 1991, 10)

On the second day, men transported the three other logs back to the Marae. Encouraging speeches were made, and the day ended with a prayer. The five villages of Atiu in turn hollowed out the logs. The old papas plaited sennit, the Taunga joined the sideboard hull. Carvers cut breadfruit logs for oars, and did the fine chipping of the two hulls to determine thickness. Teiotu said that as of Monday, 19 August, the men had worked for eighty nine working days on the Vaka He said, "The people of Atiu can certainly feel proud of this major achievement." (Teiotu, 1991, 11).

Now this is a Durkheimian rather than a Turneresque vaka: the demonstration, the presentation and the activation of society, the vaka as tribe, what we were and what we are. Let us look at some of the opposing elements that construction of the vaka involved presented in Table 1.

In constructing the vaka, social participation alternates between Atiu as a whole and the different sections of society. The continuity of past and present is demonstrated by traditional and modern leadership, traditional and modern Gods. Traditional and Christian religion are both recognized, men and women play their parts, the generations are involved, the Island Council and the people of Atiu as a whole. Even non-Atiuan society is accepted as a part of the construction of the vaka.

Past and present are brought together, as Gudgeon and Henry did, but in quiet a different way. The past is very much like the present, and the ancestors are people very like ourselves. What the two have in common is not Gloriousness or the lack of it, but society. Past and present generations can be seen as much the same, because society is not bound by time. This vaka signifies something like society, the whole containing all its parts. Society is composed of individuals, and these individuals working together build something to be proud of.

Christianity is extremely important in the Islands, and I was rather surprised that an official function would invoke Rongo and Tane. But society, social organization, is a constant for the living and the dead. Christianity is the religion of the present, but the religion of the past is also a part of society. The taunga and the minister both represent religion in society, despite Christianity being very much the religion of modern day Cook Islanders.

The vaka as society, as social organization, is a symbol which evokes considerably more than the vaka as the ancestors. The vaka as society represents the ancestors and modern Atiuans because both are members of the same society. Society exists independently of biological time, so Henry can identify modern Cook Islanders with the navigators that settled Rarotonga, New Zealand, and all the rest of Polynesia.

In his celebration of the building of the vaka, Teiotu ignores one important factor. There is a cost: money, time, most importantly, the constraints on individual action that society itself imposes. (Did every individual on Atiu want to spend eighty-nine days in work? Would some have preferred working in their gardens? fishing? drinking beer?) Mr. Teiotu does not discuss cost in his long article.

What is signified by these vaka is a selection from the whole jumble of knowledge that Cook Islanders have about vaka and the past and present. The vaka works as a symbol because of this jumble, everything the vaka represents in the Cook Islands. The vaka is most elaborated as a symbol in the Atiu example. The signifier, vaka, as used by Gudgeon and Henry can be mapped on to the signified of the Atiu vaka but only a small range of connotations are actively invoked. The Atiu signifier, vaka, uses a much wider range of possible signified, but pretends to ignore the most important of all: the cost. "Pretends to ignore" because value is, in this case, measured by cost: if building vaka had been cheap and easy, it would not have been important.

Prime Minister Henry made another speech at the conclusion of the Festival, "For a thousand years or more our ancestors roamed the Pacific--with a purpose." He said Pacific people had developed the skills necessary to travel across and settle the entire region "while my Scottish ancestors were still living in caves.."

Again, an item of a mythic past is selected to make a statement about both the ancestors and modern day Cook Islanders. Rarotongans objected very strongly to this speech. "Ancestors" is a symbol of the direct biological tie of a people to their past. Henry restricts "ancestors", first to Polynesian ancestors, then to their activity as ship builders and sailors. Rarotongans refused to accept Henry's restriction of the range of what is signified.

One informant disapproved of the prime minister's disrespect for his ancestors: "You should show respect for all the ancestors." (Most Rarotongans have European as well as Polynesian ancestry, and even-handedly like them all.) Others criticized what they saw as the purpose of the speech: "You can't build yourself up by tearing others down."

Letters to the editor in the Cook Island News repeated the same comments. One correspondent suggested a different perspective: "I write of my ancestors who were proud and successful seafarers, maybe Mr. Henry speaks truthfully if his own ancestors did occupy a lowly place in Scottish history be it in caves or on trees.". (Cook Island News, October 23, 1992, 5)

There were discussions of the comment in the Smoke Signals, a column in the Cook Island News: "One smokie has taken offence at a speech-surprise!- by the PM at Wednesday's Vaka pageant. the PM's quip about his Scottish ancestors living in caves during Polynesian migrations the response is "Rubbish!'. The Vikings were ancestors of the Scots and Irish and were `pretty good shipbuilders, explorers and colonists themselves more than 1,000 years ago.' (Cook Island News, October 23, 1992, 4).

The Cook Islands is a lively democracy, and some of the comments were undoubtedly part of a much enjoyed and actively pursued political partisanship. But I think that much of the disapproval was non-political.

We may select from the past what accords with our knowledge of the present, but not in an unrestricted way. Idealized versions of the past cannot conflict with popularly remembered versions of the past that are seen as factual. This operates at the level of the purely personal, for example, if we remember a Scottish grandfather and a Maori grandfather fondly, we object to insults about both. It operates at a more general level as well: it is fine to celebrate Polynesian sailors, but in point of fact (popularly known fact) the Vikings were pretty good, too. PM Henry concretized his comparison by talking of his Scottish and Polynesian ancestors. The statement thus signified on two levels, the ideal and the actual. The response was an evocation of real ancestors as opposed to mythic ones, and real historical sea voyages as opposed to voyages as myth.


The Festival is a celebration of "tradition." Tradition, as presented by the elite, appears very closely identified with material culture. When people talk about tradition, and the loss of traditions that they regret, they talk about social organization and social relationships. They attach little sentimental regard to material culture. In Rarotonga, they trade grass roofs, which leak and harbour vermin, for tin roofs with no regret at all. In point of fact, plastic containers store food much better than brass--and the villagers I knew in Pakistan threw out the brass. In England, they remember nostalgically a war where every one worked together, and an East End where you knew your neighbours and could count on neighbourly help. They still prefer central heating to coal fires. Few people in hot climates avoid air conditioning. People like technical advances, as long as it doesn't cost them their jobs, their homes and their relatives. People talk in terms of maintaining social relationships and morality, not material culture.

The whole notion of an elite Festival to preserve tradition and culture involves a very narrow selection of what these terms signify, as Francis Bugotu points out. Such a restriction is not always successful. If the restriction conflicts with prior signification of a symbol, and if the conflict is see as important, it is challenged. If the signification is novel but within a range perceived as congruent, or if it is unimportant, it is accepted. For example, ordinary islanders and the elite of the islands see dance as a symbol of tradition. Cook Islands dancing involves many things--music, steps, the people dancing. When I asked Cook Islanders during the Festival if the dances we saw were "traditional", several people mentioned non-traditional elements: the costumes showed the thighs of the dancers, which would never have been done, and the dance troupes consisted only of young people. In the old days, I was told, dancers would have been old, middle-aged and young. The dancing was accepted, and enjoyed, as traditional Cook Islands dance despite these reservations.

Socially significant symbols are embedded in other forms of knowledge rather than having arbitrarily negotiated or imposed meaning. It is this embedded quality that allows the " unification of disparate meanings in a single symbolic formation" which Turner offers as one of the empirical properties of symbols. (Turner, 1967: 30 ) But, as Sperber points out, "...the most pointed kind of cultural symbolism cannot elicit a standard response. Evocation is an individually creative use of memory and can be manipulated to some extent only in its direction, not in its actual content." (Sperber, 1980: 42.) The symbol offers maximum evocability, but at the cost of variability in response.

As a sign, the signifier is used to signify other forms of socially significant items or actions. The item of representation is divorced from meaning, while meaning is, instead, assigned by the act of representation. In these instances, its meaning is arbitrarily negotiated or imposed. Evocability is sacrificed to control.

In use, the tie between signifier and signified can be treated ambivalently. The user attempts to impose and restrict the signified while at the same time taking advantage of the evocative response to the signifier, in effect, treating the representation as both sign and symbol.

During the Sixth Festival of Pacific Arts held in Rarotonga, The Cook Islands, the vaka was variously offered as symbol of the Festival, of Oceania, of seafaring ancestors, of a Glorious past, of modern society, of timeless social organization. Old meanings were selected, and new meanings introduced. The creation of what the vaka symbolized was a social creation, not an individual one. This social creation operated within constraints, constrained imposed by the past and the present. The constraints are the total of all possible evocations of the symbol, and this leads to both its variability and its restrictions. Because of its multiplicity of evocation, it allowed a multiplicity of signification.

There has been a considerable debate about traditions, their authentic or invented features and the implications for authority in their creation and use. (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983; Jolly and Thomas, 1992.) Researchers have noted that practices indigenously presented as traditional are apparently either invented altogether (Larcom 1982; Borofski 1987), re-invented (Keesing and Tonkinson, 1982), are based on `foreign' influences (Thomas 1991), or are based on the reports of ethnographers (Jolly and Thomas 1992). Examining specific practice and establishing a historical precedent seems, to me, less useful than examining the criteria for accepting that practice as "traditional." This kind of "Tradition" seems comparable to "mythic time" and to the arbitrary restriction of meaning that I discuss in this paper as occurring in use of the symbol. The signification assigned to the label tradition, or the past, or the vaka is very broad. These are labels with great evocative power, and if the arbitrarily assigned signification for the label is in conformation with the broadest signification possible in use of that label, it will be accepted as an appropriate use of the label. If a tradition is perceived as an approximation of past custom as perceived in the present, it is acceptable as tradition. If some elements of lineal time can be mapped onto mythic time, it is seen as historically acceptable. The perceptions of the past, both as custom and as history, maintained in the present allow for the selection and combination of elements. This same perception leads to the rejection of certain elements. In the very restricted sense that people can judge if a sentence is well or ill-formed, they make use of judgements which are equivalent to grammatical judgements--that it, a tradition or a view or the past or the use of a symbol such as vaka can be accepted or rejected.

It is very unlikely that a grammar of symbols can ever be written. Language and the use of symbols both involve social processes as well as formal rules and classifications. Grammar, in the strictest sense of the term, involves a description of rules and classifications and not social process. It is in social processes of use that it becomes possible to add and alter signification of symbols. An investigation of the pragmatics of symbols, however, offers important information about how, and for what purposes, people think on the world around them.


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