The 14 members of Maori singing and dancing group Rangimarie walked about 100 feet from their arrival gate Wednesday at Juneau Airport, before they had their first experience with Alaska Natives.
About 15 dancers from Southeast and beyond were waiting to greet them, just inside the airport welcoming lobby. For group member and co-founder Pania Papa, it was a chance to see the similarities between her culture and clans in Southeast.
"Maori are well-known for songs with actions, and a lot of our actions are very similar to some of the dances that we saw on our arrival here," Papa said. "The shaking of the hand shows our vibrant life force. And our eyes go big, and it shows that we are in a state of readiness for whatever lies ahead of us."
"I'm sure that we share a lot of similarities in terms of our relationship with Mother Nature, our spiritual connection to the land and to the sea and our relationship to each other," she said. "We hope to find out what those similarities are and what differences there might be and learn from that."
Rangimarie, Maori for "peace and harmony," is the special guest for Celebration 2004.
At Celebration, the group will be featured at 1 p.m. today at ANB Hall, and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 5, at Centennial Hall.
The group will also perform 7:30 p.m. tonight at Juneau-Douglas High School auditorium in a show co-sponsored by the Juneau Arts and Humanities Council. Tickets are available at Hearthside and Rainy Day Books and the JAHC office at 206 North Franklin Street. Call 586-2787 for more information.
Rangimarie will also march third in Saturday's 8 a.m. parade, right behind the Sitka Kaagwaantaan.
"We share a very similar history, in terms of them being a very proud self-sustaining group of people," said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. "They went through the same kind of history of colonialism, suppression of their culture and demoralization of their culture and their people."
"They have been the model for the restoration of Native language and culture. And they can teach us a lot of things about being strong people, warriors, but at the same time maintaining spirituality and peace and harmony. In our culture, balance is really important. Our whole culture is built on the idea of balance. We have to have social and spiritual balance, and the Maori are showing to us that it's possible to do that in a modern world."
Tom Okleasik, the treasurer of the Nome Arts Council, arranged the group's 24-day exchange in Alaska. They leave Juneau for Anchorage on June 8, head to Kenai on June 11, and arrive in Nome on June 14. Once in Nome, Rangimarie will travel to Cape Wooley, Teller, Nuuk and Solomon. They depart Alaska on June 20, spending a night in Los Angeles before continuing to Auckland.
"I think they will have a different impact in different places, but I think everyone is hoping for some of the same inspiration through cultural and language revitalization," Okleasik said. "We're looking to them for some of the strength that they exhibit in their culture. And we're wondering not necessarily how we can duplicate that, but how we can also find our own strength as Native people."
Rangimarie's performances will include a repertoire of traditional and contemporary songs and dance. Parts of the shows will include traditional war, or posture dances. There will also be work with sticks and short clubs, implements traditionally used as weapons.
Papa and her husband, fellow group member Puka Moeau, formed this incarnation of Rangimarie in 1996. The group has been performing in competitions in New Zealand since then. With the exception of elder Lewis Moeau, most of Rangimarie is in its 20s and 30s. The group's performance are steeped in tradition, but are also heavily influenced by the contemporary styles of the younger generation.
"Harmony and peace is the underlying foundation of everything we try to do," Papa said. "We're trying to get like-minded people who are committed to sharing a certain peace and harmony with families and communities. And through trips like this one to Alaska, we share harmony and peace with other tribal peoples of the world."
In Juneau, Papa said, that will include watching the other 46 dance groups scheduled to perform at Celebration.
"We feel with the heart to gauge the spirit of the group that's performing to us," Papa said. "It's much more of a spiritual sharing than a performance, and we watch other clans to see if they're similar to ourselves."
Okleasik was one of 12 Alaska ambassadors with Americans for Indian Opportunities, a group that visited New Zealand in spring 2002 for a cultural exchange and stayed with the members of Rangimarie.
"We were there to understand what their purpose is, and see how powerful they are as a people," Okleasik said. "And there was connection on a personal friendship level, but also a spiritual level. We had a chance to do some deep exchanges and talk about our own culture as well as theirs. It created a bond over 12 days that seemed like it was a lifetime. They have a pride in their culture and their language and they have a willingness to carry it out in modern terms. They have a real powerful presence that really reaches out. They stand for global peace and harmony and they're very genuine about it."
Okleasik was surprised to see many similarities between the Maori people and Alaska Natives in Southeast.
"They have a strong sense of protocol, just like Alaska Natives," Okleasik said. "They have an oratory about them, just like people here. And they do a lot of carvings. They have a lot of house posts and longhouses in their culture. There's so many similarities, maybe not in how they structure themselves in their clan and moiety system, but in how they express their heritage in a way that is very similar to Southeast Alaska culture."
Okleasik also hopes Rangimarie will be an inspiration in terms of the way the Maori have struggled, and then dealt, with the loss of their language. English and Maori are now the official languages of New Zealand.
"The Maori came up with strategies and implemented them and got the support of their national government," he said. "Now their national government supports their efforts to save their language and school system. They have a lot of inspiration that we in Alaska could really learn from and use to revitalize our language."
Korry Keeker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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