The Cook Islands, Niue, and Tokelau are a part of the realm of New Zealand. What could this mean for the indigenous languages of those islands?
As I write this it is Cook Islands Language week, which also means we are in the middle of the New Zealand winter. So for most Pacific Islanders, feeling the cold (one of my car doors was so frozen this morning it wouldn’t open!) makes the tropical pull of our home islands that much more compelling.
The theme for this year is, “Kia ngākau parau, kia rangarangatu to tatou reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani“, translated, “Be proud of your language and protect its future”. It is a theme that underpins the perilous state of the languages and dialects of the Cook Islands. Niue also shares a similar threat. Both the Niuean and the Cook Islands languages feature on UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. This view supported by a 2010 research publication, ‘O tatou ō aga’i i fea?/ `Oku tau ō ki fe? Where are we heading?: Pacific languages in Aotearoa/New Zealand1 by researchers John McCaffery and Judy Taligalu McFall-McCaffery which suggests that Niuean and Cook Islands Māori languages will disappear from New Zealand within a generation, unless urgent action is taken2. The research highlighted that fewer than five percent of the New Zealand-born population can speak Cook Islands Māori, and less than 11 per cent of the Niuean population can speak the Niuean language in New Zealand.
This was also highlighted in the PPTA Komiti Pasifika Paper, ‘Mind your language’, where it was noted:
‘Depopulation significantly affects the islands of Niue, Tokelau, and the Cook Islands. 91 percent of Niueans, 83 per cent of Tokelauans, and 73 percent of Cook Islanders now live in New Zealand. Because of the dominant numbers living in New Zealand and speaking English, it is likely that if they [the languages] fail in New Zealand they will not survive in the islands either. In fact, there will not be another generation of speakers of Cook Islands Māori Rarotongan in New Zealand. This language has dropped intergenerationally to levels as low as those of New Zealand Māori (5-8 per cent of school-aged children) before Te Kohanga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Māori began.3’
With my father a Cook Island Māori and my mother a New Zealand Māori this kind of makes me Māori-Māori. Confused? Then you would be like the kid I went to school with in Avarua Primary, Rarotonga, when I tried to explain to him that ‘yes’ there were Māori in New Zealand, and not just in the Cook Islands. He was amazed. There were no television stations or televisions back then in Rarotonga, so I couldn’t visually prove what I was saying. He had to take my word for it, that yes my mum was a Māori, and yes she was from New Zealand.
It’s quite ironic that I often find I need to use the colonial terms i.e. ‘New Zealand’ and ‘Cooks’, to draw distinctions and similarities between both the New Zealand Māori and Cook Islands Māori. I use ‘Aotearoa’ in place of ‘New Zealand’, when referring to ideas or contexts outside the ‘establishment’, like the land wars, the Treaty of Waitangi, and most aspects of tikanga Māori.
When I was young, most New Zealand Māori hui I went to were conducted in English, and most Cook Islands Māori gatherings were in the Cook Islands Māori language. On the Cook Islands side, we were encouraged to speak English because this would help us assimilate better into mainstream New Zealand, while our parents’ generation spoke in our island languages. The opposite was happening with my New Zealand Māori side. Assimilation wasn’t an option. There was the historical 1975 Māori Land March led by northern matriarch, Whina Cooper, successive Māori land occupations taking place around the country, and regular protests at Waitangi calling for the Crown to honour the Treaty. My mother and her generation had Te Reo Māori literally ‘whacked’ out of them at school. Māori language revitalisation continues to be a strong part of the Māori renaissance, and as a parent of Kura Kaupapa children, it is something I am grateful for. The benefits of bilingualism and multilingualism are well documented. The cognitive benefits have associated educational advantages, as well as having the added ability to help ground people in their culture, and strengthen their ties to their identity.
Strong community organisation, and consistency in reminding the State of its responsibilities and obligations to Māori, were a key feature to advocating for Te Reo Māori in Aotearoa. Clearly, Cook Islands Māori, despite being a Māori people, are not Tāngata Whenua of Aotearoa. I understand this more acutely than most, as someone that walks in both worlds. The establishment of New Zealand as a settler colony resulted in the loss of Māori and land resources often through violence (The New Zealand Land Wars) or legislation specifically designed to take away what little land remained The Cook Islands also experienced colonisation but not as a settler colony due in the main to its size and relative isolation. The Cook Islands and Niue became New Zealand’s first Pacific colonies in 1901 and then protectorates along with supporting war efforts in WW1. The ability of mass arrival came much later with the opening of the Rarotonga International Airport, by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in 1974. The experiences of colonisation in both cases are as different as they are geographically apart yet the impacts continue to reverberate for generations.
Growing up, I did not know that New Zealand had a ‘realm’, and that I was a part of it. The Realm of New Zealand is the entire area whereby the Queen of New Zealand is the head of state. It is a collection of states and territories united under its monarch. New Zealand has one Antarctic territorial claim, the Ross Dependency; one dependent territory, Tokelau; and two associated states, the Cook Islands and Niue. In 1965 the Cook Islands became a self-governing in free-association with New Zealand and Niue followed in 1974. New Zealand is officially responsible for the defence and foreign affairs of the Cook Islands and Niue. However, these responsibilities confer New Zealand no rights of control and can only be exercised at the request of the Cook Islands and Niue. Tokelau came under New Zealand control in 1925 and remains a non-self-governing territory. With that relationship comes New Zealand passports which helps with access to jobs particularly in Australia where most Cook Islanders migrate to these days4. New Zealand supports the Cook Islands as a part of its development efforts in the Pacific5 and the Cook Islands supports New Zealand with imports for the tourism industry ($70.9 million in 2016)6.
All good relationships are based on the understanding that commitment is a two-way street, and the Pacific Islands communities are no strangers to this. This has culminated in an environment where Pacific Islanders continue to contribute at every level of New Zealand society, spanning from areas of sporting prowess and academic excellence, to arts and culture, and other spheres of New Zealand.
That commitment was profoundly demonstrated during World War One. The ranks of the Māori Contingent were seriously depleted during the Gallipoli campaign in 1915, and subsequently, recruitment in New Zealand became more difficult. The government looked to Niue and the Cook Islands for reinforcements. Māui Pomare, the Member of Parliament for Western Māori and Minister Responsible for the Cook and Other Islands, took personal responsibility for this recruiting. An estimated 500 Cook Islanders, and a significant number of Niueans, responded. Most of them were in the Rarotongan Company, which served with the British in Sinai and Palestine, as ammunition handlers7. Māori leaders, such as Sir Āpirana Ngata, saw participation in war as the ‘price of citizenship’. A price that both Niue and the Cook Islands paid.
The right to learn and use one’s own language is an internationally recognised human right. While New Zealand has a particular responsibility under the Treaty of Waitangi and international law, to protect and promote te reo Māori as the indigenous language of New Zealand, it also has a special responsibility to protect and promote other languages that are indigenous to the New Zealand realm.
Recognition of the various Pasifika ‘Language Weeks’ galvanise communities to celebrate who our respective languages and culture. But we need to be doing this for more than just one week out of a whole year. As someone who works in the Māori medium education sector, I am more than aware that when communities want to throw weight behind language revitalisation initiatives, it must be matched by resourcing and commitment. I think the Cook Islands and Niue have shown substantial commitment to New Zealand over the years, and so ensuring the protection and survival of their languages would be a significant way to reciprocate that commitment. It is a conversation not only for those of us from the islands but for those who remember that Aotearoa / New Zealand is part of a wider whānau of Pacific nations. The identities and cultures of Pasifika peoples are like the Pacific ocean itself unable to be contained by borders between nation states. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ there is only ‘us’ and ‘ourselves’ and everything we do for Pasifika languages and education in Aotearoa must be done from the perspective of that great wide ocean.
- The research draws together statistics, research, public data and community information from New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. This includes information collected during visits to the four Pacific Island nations, 2006 Census data and The Pasifika Languages of Manukau Project – a major sociolinguistic study which examined Samoan, Tongan, Niue and Cook Island dialects in Auckland between 2000 and 2008.