[Story and photos by Mike Foley, originally published in PCC’s Imua Polenesia newsletter, August 2005]
In the summer of 1963 the late Wendell B. Mendenhall, president of all LDS labor missionaries in the Pacific, asked 148 New Zealand Maori to help get the Polynesian Cultural Center ready for its opening on October 12th that year. The group, all volunteers who paid their own expenses, stayed for six weeks and not only put the finishing touches on the Center, but also dominated the PCC’s first night show with their lively action songs and beautiful harmony. They also put on concerts in California and Utah before returning home.
On Aug. 5, 2005, 48 surviving members returned to PCC for the first time as a group to participate in the Whakataetae festival. In accordance with Maori custom, PCC villagers and Maori community members welcomed them and the other Whakataetae visitors with chants, a wero challenge, speeches, songs and hongi [nose pressing] greetings.
Members of the Te Aroha Nui group and others enter the marae
at the Polynesian Cultural Center
Te Aroha Nu’s welcome also included protocol seldom seen outside of New Zealand. Seamus Fitzgerald explained, “In our culture, we call it kawe mate: In New Zealand, whenever someone passes away, you take the photos to their marae [tribal center] and they’re normally hung with their ancestral carvings.” He indicated Te Aroha Nui’s photos will be hung in one of the Maori village houses.
Hoki Purcell, one of the group’s current leaders along with her husband, Owen Purcell, said most of the surviving Te Aroha Nui members were “extremely emotional” during this visit, “because many of them have lost their partners. They were originally here as husbands and wives; but the memories of yesteryear and seeing what it looks like today are worth everything we did.”
Like other members of the group, Purcell has since visited the PCC at various times, “but for most of them it’s been 42 years. It’s been very touching.”
Apikara Hemi said coming with her husband and the group back then was “wonderful,” even though she was pregnant with her third child. Today she said the Center is “absolutely beautiful.”
Hannah Smith, one of those who came back in 1979 with her husband, the late Cleo Smith, to serve as Maori island managers, recalled her job in 1963 was to “cut out the paua [abalone] shell eyes for the carvings. Other people raked and cleaned, and cleaned toilets and helped plant banana trees and other things. President Mendenhall told us to sing while we worked and lift the spirits of the other volunteers. We did.”
Today, she added, “I can still feel the aroha [aloha] and the Center is absolutely beautiful.”
Mane Neho, who now lives in Hastings, New Zealand, said when they came in 1963 they stayed in the CCH dorms. “It was hot. We left in New Zealand’s winter.” He quickly added, “Coming back is like coming home.”
George Kaka, another group member, first returned in 1981 to attend BYU-Hawaii. After graduating in ’85 and going back home for 10 years, he has since returned again and is now assistant to “Uncle” Colin Karewa Shelford — PCC’s current Maori islands manager. He said coming to Laie the first time was “like a dream come true. We were absolutely excited to support the opening of the Polynesian Cultural Center.”
Valetta Nepia Jeremiah is another group member who returned to attend Church College of Hawaii in 1964 and has lived in the area ever since. She remembered helping place coral around some of the village houses and weaving Samoan coconut leaf pola (mats and blinds) with other community members. Today she is a Maori cultural artisan at the PCC.
[NOTE: The Polynesian Cultural Center is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2013. For more information…]