In today’s society, the stories that children grow up reading (and watching) are big action filled, dramatic, pictures from overseas.
Movies like the Avengers and Star Wars (which are written and directed by Americans), books like Harry Potter (a series that is famously British), are common in households all over the place. And there’s nothing wrong with that; being informed of other cultures is a good skill set to have.
But, when it becomes that all we think of when asked what is interesting or cool – something we enjoy the most in the world – and the majority of us here in the Cook Islands jump to a piece of media from somewhere else, not even considering a story closer to home, then that is not a positive.
When the history we are taught in school starts from the moment we were colonised and all thereafter, and our major areas of study in college history are the European world wars and American revolutions, then it is not a positive.
The beautiful stories we have here are not being told and shared, not being passed down and celebrated.
Our commonly known history is of our path to self-governance, which means more in other places than it does here.
The past that came before the arrival of missionaries is nothing more than knowledge for a lucky select few; the legends that spring to mind are of Maui and the sun, or Katikatia.
It is not a fault that lies with us as a people; it is simply the lack of any Cook Islands literature, film and easily accessed information that means we are not as aware of our stories as we have the potential to be.
Our grandparents aren’t always around to ask about stories, and even then they aren’t all knowing- seeking out knowledge sources is a hard task and not very likely to be done.
When we can find our stories in one place, then we are more likely to look at them and learn them and be proud of them; to reflect on our legends, our historical figures and contemporary issues.
The New Zealand created book series ‘Pasifika Heroes’, written by school teacher David Riley, is a project we can take inspiration from.
Comprised of four books in the official book set (Samoan Heroes, Tongan Heroes, Cook Islands Heroes and Tokelauan Heroes), with the first book We Are the Rock about Niuean Heroes, each book of the series is full of meaningful stories from each Pacific country – all about overcoming challenges and pushing forward, no matter what life throws at you.
The first book came about because of a school project that Riley assigned to his pupils at Tangaroa College, in Auckland. “I gave them the assignment to research and write about heroes from their own culture,” he recalls. “Two Niuean boys in my class weren’t able to find a book – there's info available about cultural heroes (elders, internet) but my students needed to use a book for their research as well. We couldn't find any books.
“So I decided to research and compile all I could about Niuean heroes, and originally what I wrote was supposed to only be for those two.
“When my mate, he’s Niuean, saw my manuscript he said to me: ‘You’re thinking too small bro: what about all those other kids out there?’”
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The Cook Islands Heroes book tells the stories of legends (such as Ina, Maui, Ngaru and Ru), historical figures (the likes of Pa Tuterangi Ariki Sir Thomas Davis, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and and Mautara) and more modern heroes (Margaret Matenga, Lima Sopoaga, Mīria George, Dr Kiki Maoate, Kevin Iro, and Teremoana Rapley).
Writing a book is no easy feat, but if you have enough ideas and enough passion for your cause to bring them to life, then the process seems to fly by.
When asked how he started out the Cook Islands Heroes book, author David Riley explained that it start with a meeting with a Cook Island academic at Auckland University. “I talked with her and ran my ideas by her. From there I started talking to Cook Islands educators and gathering a list of names of the stories and people I could write about.
“It was about getting as much of an equal balance as I could; of stories from each of the 15 islands, and ones that were equally about males and females as well.
“I have to be careful when I write these stories because I am papa’a; I make sure I run everything by as many informed people as I can, people who know the stories inside and out.”
In the book, you can see that a real effort was put in to making sure that all of the islands and their unique mythology was portrayed in equal measure; not just the islands that are most prominent or well known. The balance of fields the heroes were in, where they were from, were as diverse as possible.
Riley tells how his visit to the Cook Islands and the time he spent with the students of the Cook Islands.
“In 2018, the Ministry of Education brought me over to visit schools and talk to the kids. I visited many of the schools, both primary and secondary, such as Tereora, Te Uki Ou, Nukutere, Titikaveka – most of the schools.”
The purpose of his visit was to encourage kids to write stories and read them. One of Riley’s main goals for the series was to improve the literacy level and reading rates of Pasifika students, who are so often discouraged when it comes to reading.
“The really awesome thing was that the Ministry used the book and based a competition around it called Cook Islands heroes, where the kids had to pick a hero in their life and write about them.
“That’s what I wanted to see happen. As a papa’a, me writing this book isn’t meant to be me telling these stories; it’s supposed to be a starting point for the kids to be able to write their own stories, and to encourage them to be proud of their stories and what they want to say.
“It was cool to see kids write about the first heroes that they ever get to see in action, which is their family. One girl did a story about her solo mum, and you could really see how much she appreciated her.”
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The stories written for the competition allow you to see through the eyes of children (who don’t often say how much they appreciate their parents!) who their heroes are, and why they are heroes.
The stories that children have the potential to tell are extremely powerful in their own right.
Riley speaks joyfully of his time in the schools. “I love the energy of the kids in the Cook Islands – they’re really hungry to learn. On my Facebook page, my banner is a picture of me with the students of Nukutere college because of the joy and energy you can see on their faces.
“Cook Islands young people are amazing and so eager to learn more; it just needs to be given to them.”
The problem with a lack of Pasifika-based stories and reading material is everywhere that Pacific Islanders are; it isn’t just here that the struggle is.
“In New Zealand, where I’m based, there’s a lot of kids who don’t know their stories and their histories. They don’t have much access to it, and the links they have to them are with their grandparents.
“Our elders have so many stories to share, and our young ones can struggle to ask for them when they are quite young. It isn’t until they are older that they feel a sense of urgency to learn all of it. There should always be that sense of urgency, as there is so much we need to know before they pass on; when they go, the stories they have and our opportunity to learn of them are gone.”
It is much the same here; when the parents don’t know the history, then the younger generation don’t learn it.
When given access to the knowledge of culture, there is so much impact that it can have.
“With the Tongan Heroes book, there was a kid who read it with her grandmother; and it turned out, her grandmother knew some of the people in the stories. Her grandmother would tell her things about the people she knew, and then keep going with more and more stories.”
The stories sparked conversation and common ground, then with it the passage of knowledge.
“One of my students, who’s a mum now, told me that she reads Tokelauan Heroes to her son. She said to me, ‘It makes me proud to be Tokelauan’. To think that there’s a Pacific kid who can have the heroes of his culture read to him at night, like all other kids get to see, is such an amazing realisation.”
Riley is well aware of the fact that he is writing stories that he himself has no blood ties to.
“These aren’t my stories, and when I tell them it’s not about me writing them. It’s about collecting them and putting them in one place, so that it is available when kids are curious and when they need them – as a teacher I can’t wait for the resources, and if I have the means to do it I will.
“There is an issue with the lack of Pasifika story books for Pasifika youth here in New Zealand, which really needs to be addressed.”
We could write our own stories, of course, and we could teach our history – but we don’t.
What’s expected is that the younger generation listen if they are told, and if they aren’t they find it themselves.
From a young age, Cook Islanders aren’t taught their history or aware of how important it is, how much it means in the grand scheme of things and what it says about who we are and where we come from.
So, we grow up, and now we are too ashamed to ask or too embarrassed to learn.
Like with our language, and our history, we are expected to know it from birth and are shamed when we are older because we don’t – even though we aren’t taught, the burden of knowing and seeking it out is placed on our shoulders.
It would be nice if we could have some help carrying it.