As a fresh arrival from the Cook Islands, the thought of immersing myself in my culture through performing arts was both thrilling and daunting. Little did I know that Polyfest, would become a transformative experience that would reshape my relationship with my heritage.

My last year of school in Rarotonga before moving to Aotearoa New Zealand

In 2019, I eagerly joined the school's Cook Islands cultural group, a decision that proved instrumental in easing my transition into a new environment. The late afternoon practices, filled with the rhythmic beats of the 'pate' and laughter of newfound friends, became a sanctuary – a familiar embrace amidst the unfamiliar. While I had never formally trained in Cook Islands dance or performing arts back home, diving into the world of 'ura pau' and drumming was an exhilarating adventure that came naturally. The nostalgic melodies of island drumming filled me with immense pride as we claimed first place in the Cook Islands category that year.

I deeply enjoyed the singing and drumming parts of the performance, but fumbled through the hip-swinging choreography, feeling a tinge of embarrassment when my family came to watch me at our schools 'Fiafia Night' performance. I joined the speech competition for the Cook Islands stage and found solace in learning more about my language. 'Te reo Maori Kuki Airani' – the rich language of my people – flowed from my lips with a natural ease, far surpassing my abilities on the dance floor.

Polyfest had become more than just a cultural celebration for me; it was a bridge connecting me to my roots while helping me forge a new path in Aotearoa. The live-in practices, where we slept over at school to rehearse late, fostered a camaraderie that extended far beyond the stage.

Polyfest 2020 cancellation amidst the Covid-19 pandemic.

The following year, 2020, brought unprecedented challenges as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted our preparations. With restrictions in place and a general lack of support within our predominantly white school community, it was a struggle to keep the Cook Islands group afloat. In a last-minute call for participants, I found myself thrust into the role of drummer – a position I was entirely unqualified for, having zero musical inclination.

Yet, in the spirit of preserving my culture, I took up the drums and gave it my best effort. It was heartening to see non-Cook Islanders embracing our traditions wholeheartedly, even as the looming pandemic eventually led to the cancellation of that year's Polyfest. While disappointed that I couldn't participate in the Cook Island Māori speech competition, a part of me also felt relieved, having poured my all into preparations amidst extraordinary circumstances.

In 2021, I briefly considered exploring other cultural groups but ultimately found myself drawn back to the roots that grounded me. Joined by a few friends, we once again took up the drums for the Cook Islands contingent. While our practices were marked by occasional leadership shifts, we persevered, eventually taking to the stage with a renewed sense of purpose.

This time, I embraced a more entertaining role, one that deviated from the traditional dance and speech domains. As I let loose and allowed my natural charisma to shine through, I couldn't help but chuckle at the thought of my family's teasing – and the prospect of a potentially embarrassing video circulating on social media. For me, this experience cemented my realization that the performing arts, particularly Cook Island 'ura,' might not be my forte.

Nonetheless, I am immensely grateful for having joined Polyfest, for it provided a vital bridge between my cultural roots and my new reality in Aotearoa. In a land scarce of the rich traditions I had grown up with, Polyfest offered a sanctuary where I could contribute to the preservation and celebration of my heritage.

While my experience was not without its challenges and moments of self-doubt, it ultimately helped me grow as an individual. Polyfest illuminated the areas within my culture where I could thrive and those where I might struggle – a valuable lesson in self-awareness and self-acceptance.

More importantly, it fostered a deeper appreciation for the multifaceted nature of my identity as a young Cook Islander navigating life in a new land. Through the vibrant dances, the pounding rhythms, and the shared camaraderie, I gained a renewed sense of pride in my heritage and a determination to honour it in whatever way I could.

Supporting my nieces in their cultural journeys is my way of imparting my knowledge and experience

Polyfest was a cultural awakening, a journey that allowed me to explore the nuances of my identity while forging lasting connections with my roots and my community. It was an experience that taught me the value of resilience, cultural preservation, and staying true to oneself – lessons that will forever guide me as I continue to navigate the rich tapestry of my Pacific heritage.

Memories of Polyfest

At the time this story was written ran a Polyfest competition across our social media and engagement platforms. We asked our users to tell us their stories, experiences and memories of Polyfest, here are a few that were shared on the website.

Watching from afar

By Amelia Hori-Elliot

My brother had the honor of performing at the Polyfest this year with his Kapa Haka group. Unfortunately, I am all the way down in Wellington and could not be there to support him live. My mother recorded his performance special for me - and I was only able to watch it the day after he had performed. It was especially impactful as I decided to watch it while studying in my university library - watching my brother perform his kapa haka had moved me to tears, they were dressed beautifully, with blue details on the costumes and my brother had all of the cultural patterns across his neck, shoulders, chest, and legs. I was later told his Kapa Haka had been up since 3am that morning to get all the kids hand painted and ready to perform. The fact that I wasn't there in person did hurt, but I could still feel the amount of mana and pride from my brother and my family there to support. The distance and time didn't matter - I was there in spirit, and my brother knew that. So these recordings of these events have a special place in my heart this year. I called him after I saw it to tell him how proud I was.

Polyfest a home away from home

By Gemma Matakeu

My brother is in this performance I remember back then we had just moved from the Cook Islands and that year he started at Otahuhu College and joined the Cook Island group as soon as he could. During the preparation for Polyfest from late Jan to mid March, I rarely saw him around this time till late in the afternoon as they would practice almost everyday but with this performance it’s great to see that the hardwork paid off and with this item it’s really encouraging to see that it will also live on.

Welcome and warm Pasifik greetings

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