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Aotearoa spirit.

The invitation came, quite unexpected, in November 2010 while I was in Ontario visiting with family. My niece was turning 30 and we were attending the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

Toi Maori, a national arts association which supports, promotes and funds Maori arts of all disciplines would host me and coordinate a literary tour throughout venues in Wellington and Auckland, New Zealand during February 2011. Two weeks prior to flying out, I was fulfilling a busy schedule with the 10th annual Talking Stick Festival in Vancouver. Flu season this past winter was intense, long lasting and I was not immune. The flu transformed to a severe head cold and I boarded the plane at the height of this ailment. Needless to say, I did not win the most popular passenger award on the 13.5 hour flight. I landed in Gisborne where the Toi Maori crew and I would spend the weekend at the Ta Matatini Festival as VIP guests. However, Creator had other plans and saw to it that my illness hung on a little bit longer. Sometimes, Mom's ability to send distant reiki trumps Creator's plans to keep me down and I was back on my feet in a record two days after my arrival.


The festival was medicine in itself: 49 teams of Maori groups efficiently performed their best traditional songs and dances. The thick sounds of Maori harmonies stayed with me long after the competition ended and through the long 8-hour drive from Gisborne to Wellington. I was teaching a writing class at the Whitireia College in Porirua. Three quarters of the way through the class a young women politely interrupted our writing exercise to say she just received a text saying there was an earthquake in Christchurch, three times worse than the one they just had in September. The energy and mood fell to the floor with a thud. We took a break and I let the teachers direct us from there. The island of New Zealand is not a large land mass comparatively, as such, many people in the class were either related to or knew someone in Christchurch and an investigation of their well-being went into over-drive.

Wellington is known to get tremors all the time so the mood within the city was one of concern, but not utter panic. Business went on as usual for the most part. My visit continued with trips to the local Maori radio station, a presentation to Huia Publishers and the beginning of the extensive reading schedule. I phoned home (Ontario) and let my niece know I was alright, not to worry. While getting ready to read at the Ta Papa, the national museum in Wellington, I saw foam mattresses being hauled in and found make-shift communal sleeping quarters in the green room behind the stage. The hotels in Wellington were all but full and we were starting to see signs of "refugees" moving up-island to safety. The domestic flights were being re-routed to pick up passengers in Christchurch and deliver them to friends and relatives in safer territories. Naval ships were making steady trips back and forth from Wellington Harbour to Christchurch to deliver supplies. The newspaper headlines screamed with new death tolls every day.

My hosts and I went on to Auckland, where I was performing and collaborating with a talented father and son team, Troy and Luther Hunt. They are musicians, and together we produced two new poetry/music songs which we performed throughout the Auckland Arts Festival. To welcome new comers to the island is a complete ceremony. Ceremonies with songs, formal words of welcome and, of course, feasting. The local marae hosted a welcoming day for all the international performers of the Auckland Arts Festival. At this marae I learned of some heavy political history. In the mid 1970's, the very land where we stood was under threat of take over and development. The Maori people rallied, first as a very small group, and later a total of 1,500 joined the cause. Our host and ex-Victoria British Columbia resident Alec Hawke walked us through the story.


It was Alec and his immediate family who stood their ground and would not let developers on site. He explained, "It was a just a few of us and our elders camping out here. Then someone wanted a tea, so we brought a stove on site and when the weather turned poorly, we built a more substantial structure. Before you knew it, we were occupying the space and more and more families joined in." They eventually won title over the land through the courts and with the support of Maori and non-Maori alike. The land of which we speak is a green field stretched across from the marae. This site hosts only one thing: a memorial stone structure in the shape of a tear with a plaque dedicated to Alec Hawke's young daughter who perished in a fire on site started by an unattended propane stove. The victory for Alec is bitter-sweet. The land itself is both beautiful and powerful.

With the festival in full swing, we carried on with one day holding more creative wonder than the last. One of the highlights for me, and there were many, came when I met Witi Ihimaera, the author of Whale Rider. The Auckland Festival had commissioned a collection of songs to be written by various New Zealand musicians using and/or inspired by Witi's lyrics. Witi's celebrity is well deserved and the concert of songs dedicated to him was nothing short of a musical marvel. Maoris have the music in them, to be sure. And when I play the CD of music from the concert now, I am transported back to the event and my time in Aotearoa, with warm memories of the many truly beautiful people I had the privilege of meeting. True sisters, true comradeship among artists and honest supporters of the arts. What a blessed time in my life.

Coming home took as long as it did going out. I braced for the excruciating flight back, feeling exhausted and packing a full spirit home. I wasn't back for one hour before the phone call came. My mom told me my niece had passed away. She was in a horrible cycle of drugs and depression and just like that, she was gone. As you can imagine, the weeks after my return balanced the highs from my visit to New Zealand. And honestly, if it wasn't for experiencing the strength of the land, the people and the culture, if it wasn't for making pure heart connections with the brothers and sisters down there, I don't think I could have managed the difficult event of losing my only niece at such a young age. Her death is tragic, but not sad. We did all we could, as much as she would allow us to, and in the end, it is part of her journey. We connect, we embrace, and we let go. Kia Ora Aotearoa.
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Author:Rogers, Janet Marie
Publication:Tok Blong Pasifik
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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