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I was working my way through a stack of files this morning and was reminded of a recent visit of my distant colleague Dennis Kelly about which I meant to write last month. Unfortunately, the account is second-hand because I was out of town on business at the time. In fact, I had just left Auckland for DC as our visitor from DC was landing in Auckland.

Dennis is Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park in Washington, and he traveled to New Zealand to hand-deliver kiwi feathers to representatives of Ngati Whatua and the Department of Conservation. The transfer was conducted at the Auckland Zoo during a traditional Maori ceremony attended on my behalf by our Consul General Jim Donegan and his wife Sue.

Department of Conservation (DOC) Auckland Conservator Sean Goddard, Deputy Director General of MPI (Ministry for Primary Industries) Roger Smith, Ngati Whatua kaumatua Bob Hawke, Director of the Smithsonian's National Zoo Dennis Kelly, Taiaha Hawke and kuia Esther Davis.

At the ceremony, from left to right: Dept of Conservation Auckland Conservator Sean Goddard, Deputy Director General of the Ministry for Primary Industries Roger Smith, Ngati Whatua Kaumatua Bob Hawke, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo Dennis Kelly, Taiaha Hawke, Kuia Esther Davis, and Rob Fenwick.

Kiwi birds moult throughout the year, and their feathers are highly prized by traditional kairaranga who weave cloaks with them. As I first learned from director Dr. Eric Dorfman during a wonderful couple of hours exploring the vaults and basement at the Whanganui Regional Museum, the cloaks are cultural treasures passed down through many generations.

Our National Zoo began collecting kiwi feathers for “repatriation” only last year after noticing a visitor from New Zealand picking up feathers while visiting the kiwi exhibit. When the Zoo’s Kathy Brader learned from the visitor about the kairaranga, she decided to start collecting and saving the feathers so that they could be put to good use, rather than simply sweeping up and discarding them as in the past.

Kathy worked her way through all the GNZ bio-security hurdles with the help of friends at the New Zealand Embassy, and the first box of feathers arrived in Auckland in October 2011, during the Rugby World Cup (which probably meant not too many folks noticed). The feathers were received by Maori elders at the airplane and escorted through customs.

This year the Smithsonian gathered kiwi feathers from 12 other zoos around the world, and the shipment delivered to Auckland from Washington was thus an international mix of expat plumage. My understanding is that our National Zoo will continue to gather feathers from around the world and send a shipment home to Maori elders each year.

Chelsea and me.

My first encounter with a kiwi bird in New Zealand. I had previously seen the birds in the zoo in Washington.

Americans understand the cultural importance of certain feathers. Our own Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act prohibits the collecting or possessing of eagle feathers unless you are Native American (and have the proper permit). The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has long had in its collections ceremonial Maori cloaks woven from kiwi feathers.

The National Zoo in Washington has an extended history with kiwi birds. The Zoo has been exhibiting them for more than a century and has had a specialized kiwi study program for about forty years. Seven kiwis have been hatched in DC, and in fact Kathy oversees all kiwi breeding that occurs outside of New Zealand.

The Smithsonian has written a nice article with more details about the feathers, the partnership between the Auckland Zoo and the National Zoo, and related details. You can access that article by clicking here.

One of the highlights of the Embassy’s Rugby World Cup program last year was launching a rugby blog to discuss America’s long rugby tradition and the interesting rugby links between New Zealand and the United States. My colleagues and a few stringers updated the blog regularly with news, features, photos, flashbacks, interviews, videos, and play-by-play posts from games. It attracted a robust following of rugby fanatics from both (and other) countries.

I was a fan myself because I strongly believe that diplomacy should not be just about folks in suits sitting around with other folks in suits. Don’t get me wrong, that’s still important. But I also think it’s necessary to break past the self-appointed gatekeepers (who come in a variety of different forms, some quite toxic), and get people talking with other people as people. That’s how mutual understanding develops, and how progress gets made.

So, with the Rugby World Cup behind us, we’ve decided to keep the rugby blog but morph it into a more general Sport Diplomacy blog that focuses on the connections, collaborations, and activities shared by athletes from the United States, New Zealand, and Samoa. There is certainly a lot to talk about.

For example, this week Major League Baseball scouts came to New Zealand and ended up signing Kiwi teen-ager Pita Rona to a seven-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Rona is just 17 years old, and there is certainly a lot of work ahead on the way to his first World Series. What’s important, though, is enjoying the ride while doing one’s best. I’m sure Pita’s journey will be great fun for him, his whanau, and the rest of us watching and wishing him well.

Please click into Sports Diplomacy and take a look. Tell us what you think. Going forward, we’ll be covering pro, semi-pro, regional, amateur, school, and special sports of all sorts. As always, please consider sending us story ideas, news, and images that you think should be shared. We hope you enjoy the new blog.

There are only a few more minutes left until midnight here, so I’ll jump right back into my Top Ten countdown before 2011 expires. Picking up where I stopped yesterday …

5. Pacific Partnership 2011

Inspired in part by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Pacific Partnership is an annual humanitarian mission led by the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, intended to ensure that the United States and its friends and allies are better coordinated to respond to future disasters in the Pacific region.

At numerous stops along its route, Pacific Partnership trains local forces in disaster relief, works with local and international relief organizations on emergency response plans, and provides medical care and construction aid to local communities. The past five missions have served more than 300,000 patients in 13 countries and engaged in 130 engineering projects.

Aboard USS CLEVELAND (LPD 7) (May 9, 2011) HMNZS Canterbury is followed by Landing Craft Utility (LCU) 1665, Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) L133 HMAS Betano, and Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) L126 HMAS Balikpapan out of the Segond Channel during Pacific Partnership 2011.

HMNZS Canterbury and support craft, photographed from USS Cleveland.

In May, Royal New Zealand Navy ship HMNZS Canterbury met USS Cleveland in Tonga and then participated in a month of Pacific Partnership humanitarian activities in Vanuatu. That was the first time in more than 25 years that American and Kiwi naval ships operated together. US Commodore Jesse Wilson actually transferred his command from USS Cleveland to HMNZS Canterbury for the month, marking the first time in history that an American naval exercise was led from the bridge of a Kiwi ship.

Although largely overlooked in the press, Pacific Partnership 2011 was dramatic evidence of both the accelerating positive momentum in the US-NZ bilateral relationship and the benefits that such collaboration can produce for our mutual neighbors in the Pacific region. There was perhaps no better example this past year of the Wellington Declaration in action.

4. Embassy Restructuring

Perhaps the most impactful effort by our team in 2011 was the restructuring of the way in which our Embassies in New Zealand and Samoa do business. We reorganized staff positions, shut down legacy programs that did not fit current needs and circumstances, created new portfolios, launched new projects, articulated a more focused and active strategy, and set higher standards for performance and outcomes.

All of that can be disconcerting, particularly after years of relatively stable activity. And, of course, change of any sort can be difficult to engineer within government entities. I have been greatly impressed, though, with the flexible and enthusiastic manner in which most of the team in Wellington, Auckland, and Apia have embraced the more kinetic, purpose-built, results-oriented approach to our mission.

Click through for image source.

Without that heavy internal lifting, we could not have pursued very much of the external engagement that you’ve seen from us this past year. Without the re-engineering, several of the other items on the Top Ten list simply would not have been conceived, attempted, or even considered possible. A few of the remaining items would have been reactive rather than active, thus significantly reducing their impact.

Because of the tremendous long-term value of retooling operations and aligning resources and strategy with current realities, this is the project to which I devoted the bulk of my own time in 2011. It was certainly time well spent … an investment that will continue to pay dividends for decades. In fact, but for the three special events discussed below, our Mission restructuring would have hit the top spot on this list.

3. Rugby World Cup

It’s difficult to talk briefly about this one. The riotous pageant known as the Rugby World Cup (RWC) consumed the country for more than a month, not counting the year of intense preparations before the opening match. Our Mission’s RWC program had hundreds of moving parts, including very special participation by headliners such as the USA Eagles and the US Marine Corps Forces Pacific Band.

The tournament lands in the upper reaches of my Top Ten list because it presented an unprecedented opportunity –enthusiastically and successfully converted by my colleagues — to reinvigorate old relationships, build new ones, demonstrate shared values and interests, and celebrate our two countries’ love of sport. We hosted well over 60 separate events which drew approximately 50,000 people, including a series of American tailgate parties and pep rallies before the USA Eagles’ pool matches.

Richmond for the Street Parade and Block Party to celebrate the USA Eagles arrival - RWC 2011.

Kiwi friends at the USA Street Parade in Richmond.

We launched a rugby blog. We held online contests. We took the Marine Corps Band on a concert tour of Taranaki, Kapiti, and Wellington. We organized school tours and performances by world percussionist Tom Teasley and Hawaiian dancers from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Honolulu. And we arranged training sessions with the Eagles for special friends like the Ōtaki rippa Eagles.

We also participated actively in dozens of events sponsored by organizations and communities outside the Embassy … the Eagles’ welcome ceremony in Wanganui, parades in New Plymouth and Richmond, street fairs in several cities, wine tastings, local rugby tournies, and a fun-packed USA national day at Te Papa that featured cheerleaders, Country/Western line dancing, and jazz.

Amidst the many highlights, the Marines really stood out … the exuberant street parade in New Plymouth, their participation at St Andrews in a moving commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the American homeland, rock ‘n roll performances at fan zones in New Plymouth and Wellington, providing on-field entertainment at Eagles games, a dozen appearances in small towns around the country, and a powerful concert at Old St Paul’s, a site revered by Marines for the comfort and refuge it provided Marines of a previous era.

Rugby World Cup 2011.

TV One Breakfast host Tamati Coffey with Marine musicians and USA Eagles fans.

The RWC taxed the Mission to its limits, but no ball was dropped, and no opportunity was lost. We learned many valuable lessons, including the impressive things that can be accomplished with limited resources and a lot of imagination, the great store of affection for Americans among rank-and-file Kiwis, and the enthusiasm of the large number of Americans who call New Zealand home.

I wish we could do the RWC campaign all over again next year.

2. Prime Minister Key’s Trip to Washington

In July, President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Key to DC for his first official visit to the White House. Over the course of three days the PM held substantive discussions with the Washington A-list including the President, Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Director of the National Economic Council Gene Sperling, and Senators John Kerry, Richard Lugar, and John McCain.

The Prime Minister and his party were accorded the special honor of staying at Blair House, the official residence for guests of the American President, where President Abraham Lincoln sought quiet refuge during the Civil War, and where the Marshall Plan was signed. The Prime Minister was greeted by a 19-cannon salute, a military band, and an honor guard of hundreds of service men and women when he visited the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Arlington National Cemetery.

PM John Key’s visit to the White House.

Prime Minister Key with President Obama in the Oval Office.

What earns the trip a top spot on this list was not the pomp and circumstance but the substantive work accomplished. The meetings were detailed, specific, and mutually beneficial. A broad range of topics including Afghanistan, TransPacific Partnership, regional security and stability, economic development, financial markets, bilateral investment, climate change, Christchurch earthquakes, joint projects, and regional disaster preparedness was covered. All in, the meetings comprised the highest-level, most productive working visit to Washington by a New Zealand Prime Minister ever.

There was ample evidence of the affection with which Americans and American leaders regard Aotearoa. The President emphasized the strength of the US-NZ partnership and inquired in detail about the welfare of Cantabrians and the progress of Christchurch’s recovery. In introducing Prime Minister Key during a pause in Senate deliberations, Senator John Kerry made special reference to the great friendship between the two countries, noting that New Zealand is “in enormous partnership” with America, indeed ”one of the strongest and best partnerships with us on a global basis.”

1. Christchurch Earthquake Response

The top slot on the 2011 list goes of course to the February 22nd earthquake in Christchurch. It’s on the darkest of days when authentic friendship is most easily distinguished from transactional acquaintance, and when people show their true mettle. My colleagues — not only in Wellington and Auckland but in Honolulu, Washington, Sydney, and elsewhere – rose to the occasion, jumped in to assist, and demonstrated that the deep kinship between New Zealand and America is tangible and real, not rhetorical.

Christchurch Cathedral moments after the February 22nd earthquake.

As you know from my posts earlier in the year, we had a dozen Embassy staffers and approximately 100 visiting American officials, business leaders, students, and others in Christchurch for the US-NZ Partnership Forum when the quake struck. I had just left the city on a US military plane with a delegation of American Congressmen, en route to meetings in Wellington.

Within minutes of the quake we donated the Embassy’s entire disaster assistance fund of US$ 100,000 to the New Zealand Red Cross, and began the process of airlifting in 40 tons of rescue supplies and a 90-person urban search and rescue (USAR) team composed of USAID and Los Angeles County Fire Department specialists.

We later brought in the US Army Corps of Engineers to assist in evaluating damaged buildings and to advise on deconstruction options. In Washington we formed the American Friends of Christchurch to collect contributions from American citizens and companies wanting to assist in relief and recovery efforts.

Los Angeles County Fire Department USAR team in action.

Los Angeles County Fire Department USAR team in Christchurch.

Eight of my colleagues remained in the city for days after the quake. They camped on the floor of the US Antarctic Program offices at night and forayed into the ruined city by day to search for injured Americans, provide relief services to American citizens, and facilitate the arrival and deployment of our USAR team and other assistance. It was difficult, emotional, and highly stressful work — above and beyond the normal call of duty – through ongoing aftershocks, with little sleep and only the clothes on their backs.

But that’s what friends do.

Our response to the quake was not political. It was visceral and personal. We did not press the already over-stretched Kiwi authorities for help. We rolled up our sleeves and pitched in. Our USAR team did not stay in a Wellington hotel and commute down to Christchurch periodically for sightseeing and photo ops. They set up camp on the lawn in Latimer Square in the heart of Christchurch and worked in shifts around the clock for weeks. And when the time came to depart, they gifted $650,000 worth of high-tech search and rescue equipment to their Kiwi counterparts.

Because that’s what friends do.

USAR team members starting a shift.

More powerfully than anything else during 2011, the Christchurch earthquake of February 22nd demonstrated the depth of the kinship between Americans and Kiwis, the value of true friendship in challenging times, and the tenacity, courage, and skill of my Embassy and Consulate General colleagues, as well as the people of Canterbury. As often happens, a tragic occurrence taught compelling lessons and brought out the best in people.

*  *  *

That’s it for 2011. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through the highlights, challenges, and meaningful moments of what was an extraordinarily busy twelve months at American Mission New Zealand. I’m not exaggerating when I say that, in my opinion, 2011 was among the most productive and impactful of the 173 years of formal American diplomatic engagement in Aotearoa, second perhaps only to 1942.

Let’s see what develops in 2012.

To all our friends in New Zealand and Samoa, Dr McWaine and I wish you and yours a very happy, healthy, and rewarding New Year. Kia hari te Tau Hou.

Earlier this month we had a special visitor spend time with us here in Wellington. Tom Teasley is his name, and percussion is his game. I was delighted to be able to import Tom from the US for a few days as part of our cultural outreach activities.

Tom caught my attention because his work is a rich, vibrant, spontaneous synthesis of diverse influences from his extensive travels around the world. Among many other things, he has served as artist-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, collaborated with master drummers in Bahrain, and jammed with oud players in Iraq.

Because of Rugby World Cup commitments, I was not able to attend all of Tom’s clinics and performances. Fortunately, he graciously agreed to write a few paragraphs about his activities in New Zealand. Take it away, Tom:

* * *

Tom Teasley.

Tom Teasley.

Tom Teasley:

Thank you, Mr Ambassador. I was honored to be invited to visit.

Let me start by saying that one of the highlights of my career as a musician has been travelling the world as a US State Department cultural envoy.

In that capacity I have toured to Bahrain, Jerusalem, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and now New Zealand and Samoa … my first time in this part of the world.

I was first struck by the generosity of spirit of the people in the Pacific when a taxi driver abandoned his vehicle to help me with my luggage after I arrived in Auckland. He left before I could pay him, and his kindness was the beginning of a memorable tour.

I spent most of my time in Wellington, kicking things off with a visit to Kimi Ora School for special needs children. In my 30-plus years as a professional performer, the performance at Kimi Ora stands out as one of my most memorable. It will stay with me and empower all of my future musical experiences.

Music is a great way to develop understanding, to heal, and to connect with others. That certainly played out dramatically at Kimi Ora. I sensed strong connections with two young boys in particular.

One of the boys had a disability that confined him to bed, and it moved me to see his eyes light up when I played my melodica, a reed type horn sounding somewhat like those played in the Middle East. The other boy who I felt responded in a most touching way turned out to be from Saudi Arabia, and I think he recognized the sounds of his home in my music.

I visited two other schools during my time in Wellington – Aotea College and Silverstream Primary School. At Aotea I did two workshops with high school music students whom I found to be thoroughly engaged with the program. They especially enjoyed learning about Middle Eastern cultures and how those cultures manifest themselves through music.

The students were also fascinated with the science and technology that I apply to my music, and they seemed to find the combination of ancient instruments and computer technology directly relevant to their own interests. The program at Aotea culminated with jam sessions with very talented guitarists, a bassist, and myself, including on some music by George Benson. Having the students see me perform with their friends created an understanding that speech can only hint at.

At Silverstream School, the 450 students were also extremely enthusiastic. Like the students at Aotea, they were very interested in the unusual instruments that I brought with me from various regions in the world, as well as the technology that I used. One boy said that the digital looping (recording in real time to create a virtual ensemble) “seemed like magic.”

Tom playing to children at Silverstream Primary School.

Tom plays to children at Silverstream Primary School.

One of the things I most enjoy doing when I travel for the State Department is collaborating with local musicians and learning about their music heritage. I was certainly able to do that in Wellington, including with Cook Island drummers. I really enjoyed getting to know those performers, the instruments, and their music early in my visit.

I was honored to share my music with them in return, and to be invited to join them for a performance as part of their Cook Island Cultural Festival. Traditional Cook Island drums are made of wood, and the rhythms are highly intricate and energetic. I improvised with a mixture of American rhythms inspired by jazz, funk, Arabic, Indian, and African rhythms. It was certainly a cultural exchange, and it seemed to me that the performers and the more than 400 attendees had a great time.

Tom at Te Papa for USA Day.

Tom at work on an island rhythm.

The centerpeice of my visit was performing at Te Papa Museum as part of USA Day, one of the many festivals organized to celebrate the Rugby World Cup. It was such an honor to represent the US musically and to have Ambassador Huebner come by to introduce me.

For my performance I wanted to celebrate the great tradition of American Jazz. Jazz is frequently considered to be the merging of African rhythmic sensibility with European harmonic concepts. My goal is to widen the gene pool of jazz to include influences from my Middle East travels. I included musical traditions from India and Africa, as well as music technology.

Tom playing at Te Papa for USA Day.

One of the performances at Te Papa on USA Day.

When not performing, I presented clinics and master classes while I was in Wellington, including at the Goodtime Music Academy with my new friend Jonny Wilson and approximately 50 of his students, teachers, and some young professional drummers. It was so rewarding to work with that group. Jonny is a real entrepreneur and is doing a fantastic job of developing drummers of all ages and abilities.

Finally, I had a chance to integrate myself a little with the Wellington music scene by playing a gig at Meow Café. I played a set on my own and then collaborated with new friends Nick Brown, his band Eb and Sparrow, and Andreas Lepper, a talented drummer and music teacher I had met earlier in the week at Kimi Ora School.

Tom at Kimi Ora School.

Tom at Kimi Ora School.

My time in New Zealand was over far too quickly, and I hope to have the opportunity to come back again. Although I was sorry to leave, I had another exciting stop ahead, in Samoa. I’ll send you a separate note soon about my adventures with the wonderful people of Samoa.

* * *

Tom, thank you very much for visiting and for sharing your experiences with us. You made quite an impression, and people still occasionally stop to tell me how much they enjoyed seeing you. I look forward to hearing how things went in Samoa.