Fifteen-year-old Taitia Wilihana spends much of his free time painting black designs on his face and sticking his tongue out at tourists. He does it in the name of entertainment and in an effort to educate people about his native culture. Taitia is a Maori, a descendent of the first people to inhabit his native New Zealand. He lives in Queenstown, a beautiful city on the southern tip of the south island; and because of its picturesque setting on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, it is a tourist mecca with plenty of interest in the Maori culture. Half of the youth in the Queenstown Branch—Rachel Ruru, 14, and Taitia—are Maori; and Taitia performs traditional songs and dances nightly at the town’s Maori cultural center, owned and run by Rachel’s parents.
Every night except Sunday and sometimes Monday, you’ll find Taitia on stage singing and dancing, while hordes of tourists watch and eat the traditional Maori hangi, food steamed underground. Taitia and his group have even performed for the prime minister of New Zealand. The cultural center is a sort of branch gathering place during the week. Branch members and missionaries often mingle with the audience and are asked questions about their heritage. Missionary-minded performers take advantage of this opportunity to mention the Church and its emphasis on family unity and family history. It’s all very subtle, but it leaves a strong impression.
“There are so many tourists coming and going, there aren’t very many permanent members,” explains Angelina Giles, 15, half of the branch Young Women’s group. “When the missionaries make contacts and get referrals, they’re usually with people from other parts of the world.
“There are so few of us here, and we have such different standards, that we really stand out,” she continues. “We’re all very close and we stick together.”
In Sundays the branch meets in a hotel conference room. Deacon Ashley Giles, 12, and Taitia, being the branch’s only Aaronic Priesthood holders, always pass the sacrament. Angelina is the ward chorister. Rachel helps in the Young Women program. During the week, the three oldest attend early-morning seminary, held alternately at Taitia’s house and at Angelina’s. All four have unwavering testimonies of the gospel and realize they’re blessed to have it in their lives.
“I’m adopted,” Taitia explains. “I’m the youngest of eight children now. My real mother is a relative of the family that adopted me. My adoptive mother used to look after her when she was little. I’m lucky though, because my family now has the gospel. My other one didn’t.”
“We’re all lucky to be members of the Church here,” explains Ashley, referring to the fact that since most people in Queenstown are there on holiday, many have a party attitude. The gospel, he explains, helps them remember the important things in life.
“If you can stay away from Satan’s temptations here, you’ll probably be good anywhere else,” agrees Taitia.
And they all plan to try their hands elsewhere. Ashley, at 12, isn’t quite sure yet where he wants to go or what he wants to do, but Angelina will spend a year or two at the LDS church college on the north island, then perhaps go on to study law. Taitia wants to go on a mission, then become a physical therapist, and Rachel thinks she’d like to study graphic design. This will require them all to leave their homes and families in Queenstown, although Taitia and Rachel will have family and a place to stay almost anywhere in the country because of their heritage. “It’s the Maori way,” says Taitia.
In the meantime, they realize that the tourism that seems to be almost everywhere in their town isn’t all bad. It provides them with a living.
“All our parents are involved in it somehow,” says Angelina. “Our dad works in the city of Dunedin, and takes people on yacht charters during the day. At night he does hotel work. To help support our older brother, who’s on a mission, our family delivers advertising flyers.”
You get the feeling that all four of the LDS youth in Queenstown have a sense of purpose. Through the gospel they have found normalcy and stability in a city teeming with adventure-seeking tourists.
“It’s a good way to grow up, and a good place to grow up in,” says Angelina. “We can never forget we’re children of a Heavenly Father who loves us.”