LAIE, Hawaii — Forty-eight members of Te Aroha Nui Maori Company — 148 Polynesian labor missionaries from New Zealand who helped put the finishing touches on the Polynesian Cultural Center before it opened in 1963 — revisited the Church-affiliated attraction on Aug. 5-6 for the first time as a group.
Forty-two years ago, under the direction of Pacific labor mission president Wendell B. Mendenhall, the group spent six weeks helping at the center. Because of the size and exceptional performing skills of the group, they were also the stars of the Polynesian Cultural Center's very first night show and, before returning to New Zealand, they gave performances in California and Utah.
Te Aroha Nui returned last month to participate in the Cultural Center's sixth annual Maori Whakataetae song and dance competition. Following a centuries-old Maori protocol that includes a challenge, chants, speeches, songs, and the traditional hongi or pressing of noses, the cultural center villagers welcomed the manuhiri or visitors.
In an unusual protocol outside of New Zealand, however, the Maori group also presented several pictures of departed family members. Seamus Fitzgerald, the center's ambassador of Maori culture, 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 the pictures are normally hung with their ancestral carvings." The gift photos will be hung in one of the Maori village houses.
During the rest of the Whakataetae festival, the New Zealand saints who are now in their 60s and 70s clearly demonstrated they can still sing beautifully. They also danced to their traditional action songs, twirled poi balls, and demonstrated pukana — intimidating faces with rolling eyes and extended tongues.
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 here originally 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, the Purcells have since visited the cultural center at various times, "but for most of them it's been 42 years," Sister Purcell said. "It's been very touching."
She added that the first time around it was "extra special to be a member of the group, because it was led by the priesthood. There were disciplines in place that were in line with gospel principles. There was modesty and sweetness of the voices." Indeed, the group recorded an album, one of the first of New Zealand Maori music.
George Kaka recalled first coming to Laie was "like a dream come true. We were absolutely excited to support the opening of the Polynesian Cultural Center. Performing here and seeing the vision of the prophet David O. McKay and also Matthew Cowley all come to pass, in our minds we were part of that."