Glenn Jowitt

Strictly barefoot

Students compete in Auckland’s biggest Polynesian festival

Written by       Photographed by Glenn Jowitt

“Here’s who I am. Here’s where I come from. Here’s where I’m going to.”

Tumama Faumui, a Tongan student at Kelston Boys’ High School, sums up the meaning of his performance at this year’s Auckland Secondary Schools Maori and Pacific Islands Cultural Festival. Pride in yourself, pride in your culture—this is the spirit of the festival.

Backstage, Kelston’s Niuean team (previous pages) await their turn to face the crowd, each boy momentarily lost in a personal limbo. Within minutes their pensive mood will give way to the frenzy of a spear dance—a traditional warning to enemies to run away .. . or face death.

Captain James Cook called Niue “The Savage Islands” after a close brush with the islanders in 1774. For these young warriors, home is Auckland now, and the battles they will fight have an economic rather than a human face.

Started 18 years ago, the festival this year attracted crowds of over 100,000 spectators during its three days of performance in March, making it one of Auckland’s largest cultural events, and an appropriate statement for one of the largest Polynesian cities in the world.

In the case of some Pacific Islands, more of their people are living in Auckland than in the islands. More than 11,000 Niueans live in Auckland; only 2000 live on Niue. Some 22,000 Cook Islanders have made their home in Auckland, compared with around 17,000 in the Cooks themselves. In at least 27 Auckland schools, Pacific Islanders form more than 50 per cent of the roll.

In 1976, at the first festival, six school groups took part. This year there were 135 teams, representing six different races.

“Everyone gets a feel for each other’s culture here,” Tumama Faumui explains. “We learn what others respect, and what they expect.”


It is a tongan tradition for young unmarried women to have their bodies oiled before they dance. The coconut oil being applied to Mere Latu’s arms and shoulders has been sent here by her grandmother in Tonga. Perfumed with leaves from Tonga’s trees, the oil looks good and smells nice, but has a more practical purpose, too: bank notes stick to it. It is another Tongan tradition to give money in appreciation of a good performance, and in a recent church charity concert Mere was almost literally clothed in notes—$2500 in all—from the admiring audience.

Thirty minutes before her item for St Mary’s College, the attention Mere is receiving from her mother and aunt also helps to massage away stage jitters. With the fear of forgetting lines, fumbling complicated actions, letting team mates down, tension is high behind the scenes at the festival. It shows on the strained faces of the Indian team from Epsom Girls’ Grammar School (top), getting their stage directions just before they go on.

“Someone’s always crying because it’s their first time,” says A J Paul (above), being comforted by a hug from her Westlake Girls’ High School classmate Arnia Dolan.


When you’re transplanted to another country, you leave the flowers and trees and grasses of your home—the vital elements of your traditional food and clothing. Instead, you borrow from your new surroundings, sometimes with dramatic results.

The costume design is traditional, but the boldly coloured raffia materials of the St Paul’s College Tongan group (left) are unmistakably 1990s New Zealand.

More and more, however, festival costumes are returning to traditional roots, as Liston College’s Samoan team uniform shows (above). The costume of their fuataimi, or conductor, Kelly Seamanu, particularly echoes older times with its feathers, pearls and teeth of shark and wild pig.

Sonie of the other island groups fly in fresh flowers from the Pacific, at a huge cost in money and effort. On the eve of the festival their families must work through the night to assemble such perishable costumes.

The teams also display another form of cross-cultural borrowing. Billy Matakitoga (middle, left) is a Niuean in his school’s Tongan team, which also includes two Samoans and two Cook Islanders. Within each school, it’s not uncommon for the students to move from one group to another, or to belong to more than one. Their heritage is not the critical factor, their keenness is.

“This generation is the one which will lead the way to a better understanding between cultures in Auckland,” says one school principal.


If you can get the audience jumping to their feet, you’ve got it right. And if you can make the judges homesick, you’ve got it right, too.

To stir the heart is important, but judges also look for a vibrant performance, and for compositions which have real meaning. Although many items evoke nostalgia for an island life many of the New Zealand-born competitors have never experienced, others now speak of contemporary issues.

Mount Roskill Grammar’s Cook Islands group (below), born largely in New Zealand, tell the story of their parents’ journey to this country, and the challenges they have had to face in their new homeland.


“Winning is everything,” says Tristram Apikotoa, leader of the St Peter’s College Tongan group. His team took away the prizes for best boys’ group in the Tongan section, first in the sika (spear dance), first in the mako (military dance), and third overall Tongan group.

Wiremu Diamond, of host school Nga Tapuwae College, carries the Maori awards to the stage. The cups are tantalisingly close to his grasp, but the jubilation of victory at the festival is not that easily won. For the thousands of students who competed, it has meant six solid weeks of rigorous training, twice daily, six days a week.

For the last two years, Tristram’s team has come second in the Tongan boys’ section. This year, he feared the same result.

“De La Salle were good,” he said. “I thought they were going to beat us. But when I watched them perform, I saw they weren’t smiling, and I knew we’d won. If you want to win, you have to smile. That’s the secret.”

More by

More by Glenn Jowitt