A culture at stake
Born and raised on Niue with fifteen siblings, Robin Hekau worked as the Cultural Affairs Officer running the Niue Huanaki Cultural Centre and Museum for 23 years before taking the position as the Head of the National Disaster Management Office in 2015. Hekau is the chairman of the Alofi Toga Village Council, which is the local government and capital of Niue. As a majority of the population and all government infrastructures are situated in Alofi, and much of the Niue population comes into Alofi on a daily basis for work and school, Hekau’s office is responsible for the community’s safety and preparation and planning in the event of natural disasters.
Located in the heart of the Pacific lies a standalone island protected by steep limestone cliffs and vibrant coral formations. Its formidable geographical features, carved by massive volcanic upheavals millions of years ago, have earned Niue the nickname ‘The Rock of Polynesia’. In Niue, our isolated geography has long enabled us to keep alive the ancient cultural traditions that reflect the legacy of our ancestors. Our language is at the heart of our culture.
It is a piece of Niue that people carry with them when they leave the island, and it is what brings them back. But a significant shift is unfolding. Tens of thousands of Niueans now live abroad, having migrated to New Zealand and Australia for better job opportunities — leaving just 1,700 residents on our island. Though these expatriate families carry on some of our customs, the daily practice of our traditions is diminishing.
Our language, farming, fishing, and dancing are all traditions that can only be understood and appreciated to their full extent here in Niue. But the foundation of our cultural identity has sailed beyond our ocean — the island of Niue is no longer whole.
As Niuean children speak more English in school, they are beginning to lose the feeling of what it is like to speak in their native tongue. When I was at school, I too was not allowed to speak Niuean, encouraged by aunts and uncles not to use our country’s language, telling us that if we did, we would not be able to get jobs. But my friends and I spoke Niuean whenever we could. It was our language, and we felt most ourselves when we spoke Vagahau Niuean.
In my experience, there’s a specific advantage that speaking Niuean brings. When I studied in New Zealand and the United States, I would first translate information into Niuean to process it, before translating it back to English to answer the question. This allowed me to understand problems in my own cultural context and draw from my own experience. Words mean different things in different languages. Thinking and speaking in Vagahau Niue allows us to better communicate our understanding of the world.
Our language and culture are under severe threat due to extreme weather events. We have withstood several cyclones in the past, but as climate change escalates, the frequency and magnitude of storms increase. And with them, so does the decline of our cultural identity. Cyclone Heta hit us in 2004 and washed away homes and public buildings here in the Alofi South, the southern village of our capital city. The storm brought a series of crashing waves, some over 13 meters high, that swallowed the cliffs that normally shield us from the power of the sea.
When Heta hit Niue, I was running the Cultural Center & Museum. Prior to the storm, we put up shutters to guard the building. They were powerless against the tempest. The next day, everything was gone. The whole building was destroyed. The waves were too large, and we lost the battle. We lost 90 percent of our historical documents, records, and artifacts to the sea.
Before the 2000s, we would only see a couple of waves accompanying cyclones, flooding only a few houses. It has never been this bad. Many who experienced Cyclone Heta were wounded physically and emotionally. What they saw, what they felt, and, most crucially, what they lost, completely altered their way of life. It was devastating to a degree that no one else can ever fully understand. A lot of the folks affected stopped fishing in our ocean and on our reefs. They have lost their love for the ocean.
My main role as Head of the National Disaster Management Office is to prepare our ‘Rock of the Pacific’ for disasters like Cyclone Heta. It is my responsibility to ensure Niue lives up to its mighty name and stands firmly against the coming natural disasters. Since Heta, we established preparation plans for villages and an emergency operations center. It is forecasted that as the climate crisis worsens, Niue will experience storms with even greater capacity for destruction. We need to be ready. It is also my responsibility to ensure that our culture, language, and connection with the ocean is preserved. Our office has given funds to encourage young people to revive our legends, songs, and dances from villages that experienced disasters like Cyclone Heta. We have chants that speak of the sounds of the winds and birds that signal changes in the weather. These dances are our new records, memories of what happened and how we endured. They remind people that storms have happened before and will happen again, and that we persist and thrive in the aftermath.
The future of Niue is dotted with uncertainty, but I trust that the perseverance of our community will triumph over any treacherous waves or howling winds. Roads can be repaved. Houses can be rebuilt. Our children know: It is not money that is important, it is our culture and community, our words and our expressions, and our identity as Nuieans. In every Pacific island, these are the things we hold close to our hearts. These are the things that we remember. These are the things we pass on to our children.
Kia Monuina a Niue.
This column appears in ISSUE 33: VANISHING SHORES of Oceanographic Magazine
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