Kia orana kotou katoatoa i te aroa maata o te atua.…
It was Cook Island Language Week here in Aotearoa last week. It got me thinking about what it means to be a Cook Islander in 21st century Aotearoa, mainly because of kids really — specifically mine. I live in a rural village surrounded by animals, nature, farms. I tell other islanders it’s pretty much like living in the islands, except there was snow on the hills last week — Oh! and, we have less coconut trees and taro plantations here as well.
Photo: Darlene Tuiono
What our grandparents and parents are to us rubs off
In the spirit of looking back in order to consider moving forward (the 20th Century seems so long ago now) — I think back to when my family migrated here. They worked hard, and came here with that work ethic, along with a strong commitment to community. I think of some of the stories my grandfather told me, like when he was a young man and worked on the Makatea island, in French Polynesia, mining phosphorus, and how tricky it was in New Zealand back then when you did not have much English. He always had great advice like, “You talk a lot — you should go to University”, or, “You argue a lot — you should be a lawyer”. Being successful at school was integral to them moving here.
Leaving the home island and going to another country to work or to study is an experience that is fairly typical of Cook Islanders. In fact, so much so that Facebook now tells me that about half of my relatives from the Cook Islands no longer live in New Zealand, but in other countries. Cook Islanders travel a lot — if you saw the size of some of our islands you would know why.
I like to think that some of the things my grandfather talked about has rubbed off. I think also, that my generation would feel the same about their parents and grandparents about the values that they brought here from the islands. These things make us who we are, but they are also supported by other things such as language and culture.
Language makes a culture unique
It is language that makes those specific things in a culture unique. Words give meaning and provide nuances to the values and histories of a place, and its connection to people. This is supported by what we know about bilingualism.
The most difficult thing however to bring from the 20th century into the 21st is the health of our indigenous Cook Islands languages.*
It has become so serious that it has been predicted that there will not be another generation of speakers of Cook Islands Māori Rarotongan in New Zealand. This language has dropped inter-generationally to levels as low as those of New Zealand Māori (5-8 per cent of school-aged children) before the revitalisation of te reo with the Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori movements.
Serious questions for young Cook Islanders and educators alike
These are serious questions for my generation of New Zealand-born Cook Islanders. There have been opinions put forward (and I agree with them), that since the Cook Islands, along with Niue and Tokelau, are ‘Realm’ countries, that there should be official support for these languages, and that should be supported by a National Languages Policy. Those ideas have been around for a while now.
I think this would go along way to protecting, rejuvenating, and maintaining an important connection to our pacific cultural heritage.
That is big picture stuff, and while us mere mortals in the community and schools might not yet be able to move the legislative/policy mountains to make this essential step reality we can at least take some small steps in a direction that supports the identity of our Cook Islands students. Cook Islands students, like all Pasifika students, can have a wide range of identities at play. A third generation New Zealand-born Cook Island student could have completely different needs to a Cook Island student who has just arrived in the country particularly if they are from the outer islands.
Simple beginnings and small steps
We can start this journey simply, I believe, by getting our students / children’s names right. I remember as a child finding out that my father’s name wasn’t the English name that everyone called him — they called him Tony — his actual name was Teanau , my name, and that people called him Tony because it was easier for them to wrap their tongue around.
I, of course, never got called Tony, or T, or any other abbreviation. My mother is a Ngāpuhi — who generally don’t go in for that sort of thing. She would routinely tell my teachers that they were not to abbreviate, or give me a nickname. It used to make me cringe when this happened, but I’m glad now, or else I’d probably be known as Thomas, or Jack, or something like that — it was tried when I was 11, and then stopped. Mother must have had a word.
I remember dreading the beginning of the year, as teachers would read out names, and inevitably get to mine and stumble over it for 5 minutes or so. Every now and then, a teacher would get it right, and my ears would prick up and I would pay attention because obviously this teacher knew a thing or two.
I have no doubt that there are Cook Islands and Pasifika students sitting out there around the country who have had, or are having, a similar experience.
Another step is participating in Cook Islands Language week. If you missed it this year – don’t worry there is always next year. Cook Islands Language Week /Te 'Epetoma o te Reo Kūki ‘Āirani celebrates the identity, languages, and culture of the Cook Islands.
Those of you with some command of Te Reo Māori, Cook Islands Māori is very similar. I tell my Māori friends that it helps if you try channelling the sun, drums, and food of the Cook Islands — it helps with the accent.
mou i te ko, mou i te ‘ere — take up the challenge
meitaki ma’ata, kia orana e kia manuia.
Three distinct Polynesian languages are spoken in the Cook Islands:
- Cook Islands Māori is an Eastern Polynesian language, belonging to the same language family as New Zealand Māori and the languages of Hawai‘i and Tahiti. It has a number of distinct dialects.
- The language of Pukapuka is a Western Polynesian language, belonging to the same language family as the languages of Sāmoa, Tuvalu, and Tokelau. Pukapuka Island’s inclusion as part of the Cook Islands has resulted in some Cook Islands Māori terms and expressions being adopted into the the Pukapuka language.
- Palmerston Island has its own unique and distinctive mixture of Cook Islands Māori and English.
Cook Islands Māori has a number of dialects. Speakers of one dialect can understand the others. The dialects are:
- Ātiu, Ma‘uke, and Miti‘āro (Ngāpūtoru)
- Manihiki and Rakahanga
- Tongareva (Penrhyn).
The dialect of Rarotonga is the most widely used and standardised dialect, both in the Cook Islands and within Cook Islands communities in New Zealand. Learners of Cook Islands ancestry whose heritage language is that of Pukapuka or whose heritage dialect is other than that of Rarotonga benefi t from learning the Rarotongan dialect as a lingua franca because they are part of the Cook Islands community. Learners of Cook Islands Māori who are not of Cook Islands ancestry normally begin by learning the dialect spoken in Rarotonga.
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