Growing up, I was vaguely aware that there was a dual heritage in my blood, but I didn’t begin to understand how that identity might impact my life until I was 21.
At that point, I made the first timid steps to exploring my Cook Islands roots. I quickly learned the term “coconut,” slang for a person who is brown on the outside but white on the inside. “Coconut” is usually derogatory…but it’s also the best way to explain how I feel in the presence of other Pacific Islanders. The ones who know their culture.
The more young Pacific Islanders I meet, the more I realize that I am not alone in harboring the secret fear that I’ll never quite measure up.
I’ve also come to understand this is a ridiculous fear that holds too many of us back from embracing cultures we were born to inherit.
Our heritage is there if we choose to grasp it — there is no shame in being a coconut who is late to the cultural party (hey man, we were just running on Island Time!)
Finding a way in
With a little help from Google, I found my invitation to the table in the art of tivaevae. When images of the vibrant, meticulously hand sewn quilts popped onto the computer screen my jaw dropped.
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen tivaevae.
My family had been keeping three of the queen-sized blankets tucked away in closet for years. We just didn’t know what they were or why they were important.
After some prodding, my dad tells me he can remember being sent outside to play so his mum could use the living room floor to work on her tivaevae. But my dad is from a generation where it was better to leave the old ways. He does not speak the reo (language) or keep any of the traditions. And so he forgot.
Based on tradition, my nana should have been the first person I called to learn tivaevae. I imagine how excited she would be to have her distant American granddaughter want to learn an art that was important to her.
However, time has run against me. My nana has dementia now and that avenue of learning is closed. I wish I would have known to ask her about tivaevae nine years ago, the last time we spent time together.
There are still many living tivaevae artists, mamas with decades of knowledge and wisdom that will enrich the lives of many young women — if that knowledge is preserved.
Creating this documentary is a way to share the wisdom of the women who came before us, to preserve their stories and place in history for future generations.
It takes a village to make a film
As a community we can come together and build this film into something truly special. A film to inspire and motivate young Cook Islanders to take up the needles of our elders. A film to inspire my fellow islanders from other nations to learn their heritage. Perhaps even a film that will prompt other Pacific Islanders to pick up a camera and tell their own stories.
These are lofty goals, to be sure. But they are worth pursuing.
It takes a village to make a film. Will you join our village? Click here to lend your support by sharing our campaign with your friends and family, following our Seed&Spark page, or even by making a contribution.
P.S. All contributions are tax deductible through our fiscal sponsor From the Heart Productions.
Melodie is the director and producer of Spirit of Tivaevae. Born in New Zealand to a Cook Islander father and American mother, Melodie was raised in the United States. Her family background gives her a unique perspective on being a Pacific Islander raised outside the culture.