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Fresh pandandus leaves © MRS.Siwaporn/Shutterstock.com

Mataginifale Women’s Group: Safeguarding Cultural Heritage in Niue

Mataginifale Women’s Group (MWG) was established in Avatele in the 1980s. Originally named Avatele Women’s Group, its members decided to change its name in the 1990s to better reflect the unique status of women. Mataginifale was a female warrior from Avatele born around 700 CE and was a great weaver that created local tapa cloth called hiapo.

MWG has been active in and around Avatele over the last three decades. Its members fulfill various church obligations of the Avatele Fellowship of Christian Women and promote culture through language, crafts, traditions, and customs. They work in collaboration with the Avatele Village Council, the Ekalesia Kerisiano Avatele, and other youth groups.

MWG’s membership consists of MWG’s membership consists of ninety-four women and girls between ages one and eighty-two. Its executive members are elected every three years, and meetings are held quarterly to share ideas and receive updates on various events. MWG works to safeguard Taoga Niue (ICH of Niue). One element is made up of traditional knowledge, customs, traditions, and Avatele history, and the other is traditional food. Vagahau Niue, the official language of Niue, is what underpins them all and upholds Niuean society.

Avatele Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan

The Avatele community launched the Avatele Community Climate Change Adaptation Plan (ACCA Plan) in October 2016 because of their concern with the effects of climate change on the environment. The main goal of the plan is to show how the Avatele community works to develop resilience and adaptability through strategic planning and preparation.

MWG also engages in many activities through the ACCA Plan, including documenting and recording heritage sites; tangible and intangible heritage; and traditional knowledge about fishing, weaving, hunting, planting, and canoe making. Through the ACCA Plan, MWG ensures that Avatele has sufficient tradespeople working as builders, electricians, mechanics, nurses, plumbers, and other professions to make the community self-sufficient and able to use its own workforce for recovery from natural disasters or climate change issues.

Weaving the Life of Niue

Weaving constitutes a big part of Niuean life. Mataginifale women grow various plants and use them to make baskets, hats, wall hangings, tablemats, coasters, decorative ties, flowers, belts, and other items. This not only helps safeguard Avatele ICH but also responds to climate change as the newly planted trees absorb greenhouse gases, such as CO2.

Niue has long been known for its fine weaving, with Avatele having some of the finest weavers on the island. Many of them have passed away, but the art of weaving has been passed on to the current generations. And now, they are ready to teach their skills to the next generation.

Planting and Preparing Pandanus for Weaving

Planting and weaving Pandanus tectorius (pandanus) makes up a big part of Niuean life. Most families cultivate pandanus in their backyards, near their crop plantations, or on land in the seaside. Men usually prepare the land while women plant the shoots. Sometimes, they work in groups by regions to help one another. It takes two to three years to grow and be mature enough for harvest. They are generally just cut and processed. The women clean and prepare the leaves for weaving.

Traditional knowledge plays a large role in weaving with pandanus. For example, the trees are vulnerable to diseases. MWG members have been taught by their grandmothers and mothers how to chop a red leaf growing on clifftops into pieces and to put the pieces in a yellow-spotted pandanus tree to cure the disease.

MWG members often weave in caves as in old times because the cool moist air helps keep the pandanus soft. Some of them still use their family caves for weaving. However, climate change has led to gradual increases in temperature, which has also affected the growth of pandanus trees, making it difficult for the people of Avatele to sustain weaving traditions. But MWG members have employed their traditional knowledge to deal with this problem. For example, they use the bark of banana plants to keep pandanus strips soft.

The Annual Show Day of Avatele

Avatele hosts an annual show day on the first weekend of October. It is facilitated by the village council with contributions from MWG, the men’s group, and the youth group. MWG members usually meet at the end of the year to plan the theme of the next event. This helps them determine how much pandanus will be needed in the following year.

Every year, the people of Avatele make innovative handicrafts, distinctive from the previous year’s crafts. The annual show day motivates the village with prize incentives for the best and finest handicrafts. An additional incentive is that the show provides opportunities to sell goods at a premium. Avatele is outdoing itself in sustaining its cultural and traditional heritage in comparison to other villages where women stopped weaving due to low economic benefits.

Weaving for a Sustainable Community

MWG goes hand-in-hand with the future of Niue. Its mission lies in the 2016–2026 Niue National Strategic Plan, which explicitly states that “all residents and visitors embrace and respect Taoga Niue, the cultural heritage of Niue. Taoga Niue is integrated from family to national level and helps strengthen the cultural bridge between Niueans and those living abroad.”

MWG still needs to strengthen and recruit more members. Avatele women living in other villages must come together as one and continue to grow pandanus and other natural fibers for weaving. They must also document all indigenous knowledge not just for this generation but for the many future generations to come. Then, the Avatele that they dedicated themselves to will someday be a better place for all.

Birtha Togahai (Director, Department of Education)
Loseligipepe Siakimotu (Director, Mataginifale Women’s Group
)

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