Crossing Points: Stan Wolfgramm, History is Written by the Victor: the Pacific


Stan Wolfgramm MNZM
Chief Executive Officer of Drum Productions, Cook Islands

Kia Orana, Malo e lelei. My name is Stan Wolfgramm. I am a Tongan-Cook Islands-German, born and bred in New Zealand. I am presently working in Rarotonga, the largest Island of the South Pacific nation of the Cook Islands.

I grew up in New Zealand from the 1960s, during a time when Pacific Islanders had been encouraged to migrate, to support New Zealand’s post-WWII development. The majority of these new immigrants were working class. My family worked in forestry and hydro dam construction, and then moved to the city where my father was a boiler-maker and my mother a switchboard operator at the telephone exchange.

My schooling included almost nothing about the Pacific but much about the British Empire, from Captain Cook to Queen Elizabeth. Great things were taught about colonial history, and nothing much about mine. So here is where my consciousness began to stir as I became aware of my difference, and where I became somewhat of an observer in someone else’s world.

Today I create platforms for Pacific people to be heard. I started a Pacific theatre company over 25 years ago called Drum Productions, with the mission statement: ‘To provide for Pacific people a valued voice in their own backyard’.

My drive came from my desire to find my voice, my identity, my value, my place in a society that at that time did not recognise or celebrate it. I have been telling Pasifika stories in theatre, film, television, live events and festivals for most of my life.

Today I mainly produce my own initiatives and work alongside national, regional and global governments, corporates, non-governmental organisations and communities in partnerships. My work focuses on strategic communications and sustainable social economic development modelling and implementation. Over the 25 years of Drum Production’s work, our mission statement has never changed. In fact, it has become more relevant today than ever before, as a deafening clutter of global dialogue now reverberates across the Pacific.

What is this dialogue and what pressures does it bring to bear on the Pacific? What is the significance of the people of the Pacific in this dialogue? How do we shape it, and how do we make sure our opinions are heard?

Well this is where I lend my skills to help provide a Pasifika voice for Pasifika people. I believe it’s a priority to establish a precedence for that Pacific voice – where does it come from and what does it mean? – reminding others and ourselves that we are the direct descendants of the voyagers who first discovered and settled this ocean continent. We are the people of the Pacific.

New Zealand Māori have a term – Tūrangawaewae. Literally tūranga (standing place), waewae (feet), it is often translated as ‘a place to stand’. Tūrangawaewae are places where we feel especially empowered and connected. They are our foundation, our place in the world, our home. Understanding this embraces the spiritual right and responsibility that Pacific people have to take part in any dialogue regarding their place.

Again, supporting the importance of a Pacific voice: I had the opportunity to work with a wise man, David Simmons, ethnologist, historian, and writer on Māori and Pacific knowledge. I asked him, ‘Why do we need to understand our history, our artefacts?’ He replied, ‘They are posts in the ground that let you know where you are. Without them, you have no knowledge of where you have come from, or where you are going’.

My ancestors were the first open water ocean-going culture in the world. The first to voyage out of sight of land, 200 years ahead of other mariners who were still coastal traders hugging the coastline. Pacific way-finders used the elements to develop a celestial navigational science and a technology that produced the greatest ocean exploration vessels. I am the ocean, the ocean is  me.  What’s revealed in this statement is that conversations with Pacific people need to be regarded as a commitment from the past, to the present, to the future. We commit our lives, our families, our communities and future generations to this conversation. This is the consideration of legacy. Where others will come and go, we will never leave.

As people of the Pacific our unique sense of place and commitment allow a connection to something far greater than ourselves. And in seeing past ourselves we are afforded the opportunity to embrace the burden, and the honour to serve others.

I am drawn to the Pacific because I want to help my people have a voice in their own backyard. Today the Pacific is more topical in western history than ever before. More dialogue and foreign engagement exist, due especially to a global focus on climate change, marine resources, plastic pollution and security.

Today’s global dialogue in the Pacific is not only deafening, it is also defining. 

Is this pressure new? Not really. Mounting pressures have been an ongoing historical account for Pacific people, from colonial diseases, missionaries, cultural genocide, prison colonies, annexation, resource mining, blackbirding, nuclear testing, dumping everything and anything, overfishing, plastic pollution, climate change, sea-bed mining, border crimes, criminal repatriation, obesity, depopulation, cyber crimes, and so on.

We should consider the recent proposals for a fibre optic cable under the Pacific as both a development benefit and a threat. I see it as the second wave of colonisation for the Pacific via high speed internet. This platform creates pressures from others who post their thoughts and definitions of the Pacific to the world. I see identity as a cornerstone to our house of collective will. Who we are as Pacific people can be eroded if others define us. We cannot let the external noise of internet dialogue define us or assimilate us into a portfolio of stereotypes, undeveloped or developing. But the opportunity is bountiful if we are able to define our own digital identity and tell our own stories. We need to build capacity here.

What is new in the Pacific landscape is, firstly, a growing global consciousness of the Pacific’s environmental value to our planet. Here the pressures of conservation organisations, do-gooders, scientists, consultants, and NGOs is bringing a new industrial-sized storm of social developers into the Pacific.

Secondly, what’s new is the Pacific’s raised strategic and geopolitical value. Here governments seek security and political leverage. America wants clear access to Asia. All western Pacific nations want stable and complementary neighbours. China is expanding. Foreign policy tools employed for leverage are aid, trade relations, immigration policies, security monitoring, soft loans, scholarships, cultural exchanges, embassies, and so on.

So, let’s take stock. We’ve learnt that the Pacific voice has increased with a growing sense of a shared identity: ‘Walking backward into the future’– understanding the past to help give us direction into the future. In the past we were defined as small island states; today we call ourselves the Blue Continent.

Today’s Pacific community recognises the future lies in the coming together of individual nations to collectively make decisions for the future of the whole Pacific.

Yes, the Pacific faces more pressure than ever before from a plethora of engagements in the region, but the difference today is that the region has matured in the ways of the western world. A new generation of educated and experienced Pacific Islanders with the innate desire and capacity to serve their communities is sprouting up and engaging in the region’s conversations. Unfortunately, commonly standing in their way are old political, operational and class structures, as well as nepotism. Votes are cast for popularity rather than policies. Women are held back, young people are kept in their place: spoken for and not with.

But action is winning out over empty talk, and results are being preferred to rhetoric. It’s possible to develop an environment that is accepting of innovation and entrepreneurialism, and even new concepts of leadership and leaders.

Yet even today bureaucracy still stifles enthusiasm and true grassroots initiative.

Watching grassroots practitioners trying to interpret documents written by first-world nations’ governments can be a soul- destroying experience. Add a consultant and some form-filling, and the result is now unrecognisable to the farmer, the fisherman or the builder who began with a great idea.

As the saying goes, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. We can extend this to say, provide a place for him or her to call their own, to share knowledge and teach others sustainably, and they will protect the planet for generations to come.

Challenges or issues faced by developing nations in the Pacific, or for that matter developed nations, are not simple. We propose interested parties consider solutions that are multi-faceted to address not just end results but also contributing factors, to truly bring impact, promote change, and have a lasting effect.

To that end we have created a unique model of development titled Te Ara – Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise as a working example. (Te Ara in Cook Islands language means the path, the way the journey). It is a cultural incubator that serves as a hub for education, social and economic development. It is self-funded and economically self-sustaining via sustainable tourism as well as the delivery of national, regional and global outreach programs. Te Ara operates as a social private enterprise supported by a dedicated not-for-profit charitable trust, the Te Ara Charitable Trust.

Our Objectives are:

  • To bring together the communities of the Pacific to enhance business, trade and business knowledge-sharing for greater economic self- determination.
  • To establish a cultural business incubator in the Cook Islands as a model of development. This will utilise the expertise of mentors 24/7 to educate local businesses and communities, using local resources to develop the trade of 100 per cent locally-made products.
  • To be a hub for environmental sustainability and renewable energy innovation and practice.
  • To develop local businesses, women (the main drivers of indigenous cultural industry), the elderly (the main holders of cultural knowledge), and youth (the future).
  • To develop a successful model of sustainable social and economic development that can be repeated in other Pacific and developing nations.

Lasting, relevant solutions are more viable if they can be supported either by partners, collectives or communities following correct precedence and supporting grassroots drivers. The key structure to do this is the Te Ara model we have created. It supports and promotes a hub where value-based practices and resources allow development to happen. Te Ara not only facilitates growth initiatives by others, but it also leads inclusive initiatives to final outcomes. It is motivated to ensure change, by having what we call ‘skin in the game’. Our success is dependent on the success of our community. We eat from the same table.

The noise in the Pacific is deafening. Is it a disruptive threat similar to the past? Not if we don’t let it be. Am I afraid? No, I’m frustrated. Will you give up? No – how can you give up who you are, and who your children will be?

The past was full of lopsided partnerships where the Pacific voice was disregarded. Today this fundamental of voice is where the greatest impact is being made, because a new generation is speaking out with a voice that grows louder and louder. It’s an educated and experienced voice, a voice with political will, with governance and global expertise, with an innate understanding and a past, present and future commitment to the Pacific.

What’s changed from those who have traditionally placed pressure on the Pacific are their replies to this new voice. Through necessity this dialogue is driving a new practice and a will to truly listen. That means a new era is upon us, with a capacity for opportunity that is far greater than ever before.