Kava drinking club - cool or cultural appropriation?

From Checkpoint, 6:24 pm on 25 July 2017

A social kava-drinking club in Auckland has come under fire from some Pacific people accussing it of appropriating a Pacific tradition - stripping kava of its cultural roots.

The multi-cultural group meets up for a drink each week, and is part of a trend that has seen kava go beyond its Pacific roots, but the Kava Society has got some social media users hot under the collar. 

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Photo: RNZI / Daniela Maoate-Cox

But one of its founding members, Zbigniew Dumieński, said the group didn't pretend to follow any rituals or ceremonies and thinks it would be bad, culturally, if they did. 

He said his initial interest in kava was sparked while he was in the Cook Islands and Niue for research. 

"These are the only two countries in the South Pacific where kava was basically eradicated by the missionaries and paradoxically that's where I learned about kava. I was really interested to learn more about the reasons why it was eradicated [and] why it no longer exists in the culture."

He said he mixed with some kava drinkers overseas and brought some kava back to drink with friends. 

The group started a website and focused more on the biological side of the plant, not so much the cultural aspects.

The group was made up of a mix of enthusiasts, he said.

"We have a few people from Europe, a few Kiwis, a couple of people from Tonga, sometimes an occassional person from Fiji or Vanuatu, we have a few people from Latin America. So it's a very diverse group."

Mr Dumienski said they sampled kava from different islands from across the Pacific.

"Each variety of it has different effects and flavours. We drink a lot of Hawaiian kava, which we really like, and sometimes we get kava from Vanuatu, Tonga, and some other places."

One person who took offence to the group was Fijian teacher Emmaline Matagi. She said she was angry because kava sits so deeply in Fijian culture and tradition.

"Just to see people drinking out of protein shakers and passing it around like it's water, or a protein shake they'd have before the gym, was really offensive in my eyes."

It was a world away from how it was done in Fiji where it's grown, dried, pounded and then mixed in a tanoa - or kava bowl. It would then be consumed as part of a ceremony with high chiefs and people of high status, she said.

"There's also the smaller version of those ceremonies where just families drink it. But even those ceremonies are quite traditional in the sense that there are special words that are used. There are special ways to present the kava, you give it to the oldest person first... [the Kava Society] was problematic to watch."

Ms Matagi acknowledged that Kava Society may have researched the plant, but said there were better ways to try it respectfully.

"Why not approach someone from the Pacific Islands who does it, that has the contacts to do it. And then go and join them and let them lead it, let them be the expert in that field." 

Auckland University of Technology PhD student Edmond Fehoko completed his Masters on kava ceremonies for New-Zealand born Tongan men.

He said although Tongan traditions were still practiced here, there had been a move towards more informal sessions - a format the Kava Society followed.

He didn't think the group was much different to other modern ones around the country.

"They do the same thing that we do. We don't go in and do a ritual, heck no. We go in like everyone else and just sit there and drink, talk, share, offload our stories, offload our experiences, stuff we can't share with our wives, partners, and families - can do that in the kava circle. 

"Pretty sure that's what the club was doing. So I honestly think they do the same thing we do, it's just the colour of the skin that was the big difference."

But Ms Matagi said there needed to be a realisation that kava was spiritual. She said people should try it if they wanted to, but recognise its place in Pacific cultures.