MY ANCESTORS BURNT CHURCHES – A STORY OF OPPRESSION & REBELLION (2019) is a poster made by interdisciplinary Cook Islands artist Tokerau Wilson, for the Vunilagi Vou exhibition, Finding Emory – A Poster Show (2019) inspired by Emory Douglas’ iconic aesthetic and important contribution to the art of revolution.
MY ANCESTORS BURNT CHURCHES – A STORY OF OPPRESSION & REBELLION
I recently met my long lost Rarotongan brother. He told me with great sadness that Cook Islanders had once had Marae, but they were lost. We spoke about many Pacific cultures still having theirs and lamented our dislocated sense of grief. I spent a long time researching this topic and wondered what the carvings and construction of Cook Island Marae may have looked like. I learnt that Cook Islanders were made to burn their Marae. The erasure of sacred cultural ways via missionary work is a common story heard all over the world. In the spirit of artist Emory Douglas, I sought to explore and expose this hidden history. MY ANCESTORS BURNT CHURCHES provides entry into a new narrative. I focus on how my people actually fought back against early colonisation efforts. I celebrate how they exercised their right to protest and question the new colonial narrative that was being forced upon them.
Missionaries came via Tahiti and began their work on the island of Aitutaki. They preached to Cook Islanders, insisting that they burn their Marae. They asked we relinquish all idols and Gods, such as carved figures and staff gods (long carved poles wrapped with thick layers of Tapa). These confiscations were then taken as symbols of successful mission work. In one instance the Rev. John Williams attached them all to the ship front and sides as trophies. The book ‘Social change in the South Pacific’ by Ernest Beaglehole points out that Cook Islanders were made to rely completely on Christianity, especially once their own Gods and Marae were disposed of. Policing began. Church police or “Roki” would carry out fines, interrogation, forced confessions, and meted out punishments at will, including jail time. They enforced marriage to only one partner, full length English winter clothing in the height of summer and attending church. On each island was a web of various church spies. At one stage, Rarotonga had one spy for every twenty people and the smaller islands had one to every twelve. Even visiting missionaries were to have said that the high levels of punishment and surveillance ‘equated to ecclesiastic tyranny’.
This eventually led to violent resistance from Cook Islanders, who started to burn churches and the homes of church leaders. Opposers to the new rule also burnt the prison and threatened to take the lives of those in power.
To me, the recent decision by the Cook Island Government under pressure from the Church to punish same sex partners (deeming their existence illegal) seems completely linked to this history. Our people were fluid around gender and sexuality before the installation of Christianity, and western viewpoints.
In making this artwork MY ANCESTORS BURNT CHURCHES I wish to raise the visibility of the Cook Island peoples and our historic acts of defiance in the face of oppression. I am in no way condoning the use of incendiary force (arson) as a protest measure as I follow the path of peaceful protest in my own kaupapa and respect differing ideologies. But we must unpack the cultural erasure, colonisation and installation of power structures that have wantonly abused our freedom and sovereignty as Pacific people. Western systems were enforced. Marae were burnt. Many taonga and symbols of our Gods were stolen. Some of these still exist in museums and in private collections all over the world, including some here in Aotearoa.