The theme for this year’s ‘Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani – Cook Islands Language Week is ‘Ātuitui’ia au ki te Oneone o tōku ‘Ui Tupuna which means connect me to the soil of my ancestors. To mark the week Curator Pacific Cultures Rachel Yates has a taratara with current staff member Kate Ngatokorua about her experiences as Miss Cook Islands.
In 2017, Te Papa acquired Te Mana o te Ura, a garment made up of several components and worn by Kate in the ‘Traditional Wear’ category of the 2012 Miss South Pacific pageant.
“Te Mana o te Ura is the name of the garment and is inspired by the mānā‘ura, a taro grown and eaten in Mangaia. Put together as Te Mana o te Ura it can be translated to mean ‘the sacredness of dance’. In Mangaia, mana has the dual meaning of story, so the translation I carry with me is ‘the story of dance’.” (Kate Ngatokorua).
The traditional wear segment is often a highlight of Indigenous pageants throughout the Pacific. Local makers showcase their skills and challenge themselves to use a range of materials and techniques in innovative ways representative of their islands.
Te Mana o te Ura utilises organic materials sourced specifically from Mangaia, Rarotonga, and the Northern Group in the Cook Islands. It is the manifestation of community support for Kate; its name inspired by her passion of dance, and the variety of taro her Dad plants on their family plantation.
We revisit the pageant ten years later and highlight ways that the ensemble continues to have a life and purpose in Te Papa’s collections.
RY: Tell us about yourself and your journey to Miss South Pacific 2012.
KN: I come from Mangaia, the southernmost island of the Cook Islands group and one of the oldest islands in all of the Pacific. I am proud to say I was born and raised in Mangaia and was thrilled to represent the island as Miss Cook Islands at the age of 22.
After six weeks of preparation, with the support of Iaveta (Ivy) Pokia (costume maker), Jacqueline (Jackie) Tuara (designer/chaperone/choreographer), and my island Mangaia behind me; I travelled from Rarotonga – to Auckland – to Apia – to Pago Pago to participate in the Miss South Pacific Pageant 2012 hosted by American Samoa.
RY: For those that may not be familiar with Miss South Pacific, what is this event?
KN: Broadly speaking, the competition is a beauty pageant that features women contestants from across the Pacific. The event lasts for a week and includes activities such as interviews, participating in parades, and undertaking visits to the community.
On the main competition night, there are four judged categories: The Sarong Tie, a wearable garment made from folding and tying a sarong; Talent when we perform in traditional dance, song or art – for my piece I told the legend of creation in Mangaia through dance; the Traditional Wear section is all about modelling an Indigenous costume inspired by your country; and the fourth element, a Q + A, when contestants pick a random question related to a broader theme to answer on stage.
Deportment and how you present yourself throughout the competition is important, because if you win you will be an ambassador for the South Pacific. It was a really formative period of my life and rather than feel like a competition for a crown, what I treasure most is the friendships I made with the eight other contestants who, by the end of the week, had become my Pacific sisters rather than my adversaries.
RY: Let’s talk about the garment in Te Papa’s collections – Te Mana o te Ura. Can you share your memories and take us back to the moment you wore it in the competition?
KN: I remember the final night well and being backstage in the changing rooms in my designated area. Like all the contestants, we had an allocated table to place our materials and costumes on for the evening. My backstage crew were Ivy and Jackie and when we started to dress for Traditional Wear I was a ball of nerves. I was thinking about the Q + A coming up with the host, and I had yet to wear the complete creation.
I stood there silently watching Jackie and Ivy put my costume together. A lot of thought had gone into how the costume would travel to the pageant and how pieces needed to be put together. The skirt alone had 6 parts! They wrapped, zipped, pinned, tied, and adjusted each piece with great care. Each element was carefully thought out for its visual effect, the way it would work on my body, but importantly how this reflected my community.
RY: Can you share more about the various pieces and their design?
KN: The headpiece was made to look similar to a head ei katu or tārae (headband). Instead of flowers, there were shells and pieces of kaka (fibre from the coconut tree) and long kikau (coconut midrib) pieces with flowing rito (young coconut leaves, cooked and dyed to make a long white strand that is used in weaving and costumes).
My hair was in a low side bun and adorned with floral motifs made from tapa, rito, pata apuka (a small dark brow seed from the Puka tree, these were the ‘marbles’ I played with as a kid), and pupu (small snail-like shells) pinned to flow down and rest on my shoulder. Resting around my neck were three ariri shells at different lengths.
A special element was the tapa bodice. This was made from the banyan tree, made and gifted by Nancy Moeauri from Mangaia. The bodice was stitched by Eunice Vaikai in Rarotonga, and featured the pupu shells that had been gathered and gifted by mamas from my community. The pupu hung on fishing line and gave the illusion that they were floating.
Larger leaf-like kaka pieces wrapped around my hips and were joined to dark brown dyed kiriau (fibre used for dance skirts made for the layer under the bark of the Au tree). Different lengths of strands of white pupu hung in front of my leg, a front feature that really popped against the browns of the skirt. Another bigger cluster of tapa and rito flowers, pata apuka and pupu was tucked in by my hip and hung down to the pupu strands.
RY: How did the garment make you feel overall?
KN: I was overcome with emotion as I stood in awe of everything I had on. I felt tears in my eyes as I thought of home. My family were so far away, my people had given me so much. Ivy and Jackie who had taken this journey with me stood by me and I was carrying their work of art.
I saw many faces in different parts of the costume. My sister had lovingly made the rito flowers, Aunty Elmah the tapa flowers, and the community of Mangaia had gifted tapa, kiriau and pupu. I had never worn anything like it. I missed home. I missed my family but I felt my people behind me.
Of course, this moment was followed by a walk to the stage and struggling with my headpiece to fit through the door frame. Ivy had to hold it back, all whilst whispering words of encouragement waiting for them to call Miss Cook Islands.
RY: What was the outcome of Miss South Pacific 2012?
KN: At the end of the night, I was Miss South Pacific 1st runner-up.
Nothing can compare to the nerves you feel as they start announcing the top four. I remember the butterflies and the joy when Pacific sister Miss Samoa was crowned. As the performers came on stage for the final number we all crowded around each other with pride, hugging and excited that we had finished the night. We didn’t even realise before we were supposed to be in our assigned spots and dancing. I remember my headpiece brushing a few dancers in the face when we spun!
RY: Thank you for sharing such rich memories and relationships that you had and continue to keep as part of the Miss South Pacific experience. Thinking of its importance, why did you want Te Papa to acquire this costume?
KN: Post pageant, I came to Wellington Aotearoa as a tertiary student. I had spent time in the Pacific Cultures collections at Te Papa and witnessed the wealth of stories within. Wary of the humidity and bugs of my home in Mangaia, the museum offered a solution to preserving the materials and structure of the garment.
Te Mana o te Ura is in safe hands with Te Papa and not only is the moment in time this beauty was created for preserved, but the names and memory of the many hands that made it.
Me kai koe to kou poke, e uri to aro ki manavaara.
This proverb from Mangaia reminds us that when you achieve anything in life, you should always remember those who help you get there.
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Join us this Sunday for Workshop: Pātē Tāmou – Cook Islands drumming | Te Papa or check out our language week resource online Cook Islands Language Week resource | Te Papa