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Fashion designer Paul Hagai (Aree) just completed his Masters of Applied Indigenous Knowledge.

Fashion designer Paul Hagai (Aree) just completed his Masters of Applied Indigenous Knowledge.


Language & Culture

‘We need to connect to heritage first’: A new framework for Cook Islands identity reclamation

An academic fashion designer’s new approach to people’s relationship with their heritage.

Atutahi Potaka-Dewes
Atutahi Potaka-Dewes
28 November 2023, 4:46pm
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Kia Atui, Kia Apii, Kia Akararangi - to connect, to develop, to elevate.

These are the values of a new framework called Ei katu, created to encourage the Cook Islands diaspora to understand their true heritage through fashion.

Master's in Applied Indigenous Knowledge recipient Paul Hagai (Rarotonga, Pukapuka) displayed Kuki ‘Airani identity in an exhibition showcasing indigenous crafts marking the success of his studies.

Hagai says his Ei katu model is about reclaiming and recreating indigeneity as New Zealand-born Cook Islanders and hopes it helps to be a conduit of reconnection.

“We already have issues around the multiple languages of the Cook Islands and the multiple dialects and although we try and champion the navigation of our language … as a creative I built a fashion show that helps connect our people to their heritage first.

“Now we can talk about language but I believe that we need to connect them to their heritage first before they start navigating language, dancing, culture, ‘akono’anga (tradition), all those other elements to who we are as indigenous people.”

Hagai graduated with his Master's degree at the weekend through Te Wananga o Aotearoa - He Hiringa Waka.

Prior to undertaking his degree, Hagai had to deal with the loss of his elder sister, Helen. He says her memory, and that of his late mother who passed eight years prior, were a driving force for this work.

“I was trying to look at, as a father to my daughter, how I was going to preserve my language and my culture … this was an opportunity for me to really enhance the continuation of the knowledge left behind by my mother and my sister and … prepare my daughter.”

During his two years of studying grief struck twice more for Hagai, as he also lost his brother-in-law and a nephew.

“The navigation of that really drove the hunger to solidify the passion to preserve indigeneity in Cook Islands people.”

Hagai says with prominent aspects of Kuki ‘Airani culture like tā’okota’i’anga (unity) and akangāteitei (respect), often conversations about dealing with grief and hurt are obscured.

“We talk about all these elements and yes they are all true and correct but we never really centralise some of the issues by acknowledging some of the areas that we suffer.

“When Cook Islands kids are brought up in a system where they no longer live with both Cook Islands parents, and they live in a system in Aotearoa, who’s gonna teach them at home?”

He says it is up to metua (parental figures) whether they're blood relatives or not to feed, prosper and sustain the future of Cook Islands people.

Watch the full interview with Paul Hagai on 531pi PMN Cook Islands below.

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