Tohoa Tetini, a second-generation Cook Islander in New Zealand, remembers reading a PhD thesis about second-generation Pacific Islanders in New Zealand, written by a white woman in Canada.
In that moment, her work felt urgent and important.
She’d known for most of her academic career that much of the writing and research produced about the Cook Islands over centuries was filtered through the lenses of people who had an intellectual curiosity in the place or culture, but no real attachment to it.
She’d known this work was at best incomplete and at worst, harmful and damaging. But reading about her own lived experience, written by someone half a world away, resonated in a particular kind of way.
“I have to know who I am — my identity, my family — to have a strong connection to my research,” said Tetini.
She studies ethnography — people and cultures — at the University of Canterbury.
She’s now on Rarotonga researching a thesis about how the effects of climate change impact individual and collective senses of identity and belonging. “I care about it more because in the process I’m getting to know more about my Cook Islands heritage.”
Awareness of how literature misrepresented the Cook Islands and Pacific for so many years gives her a hypersensitivity to how she’s perceived as a researcher. She does not see her Cook Islands heritage as a ticket into the lives of people and into communities.
“I don’t really have the right to anything,” she said. “All of this is a learning experience for me.”
These are the words of a researcher challenging a colonial history that privileged the researcher, of a scholar who’s aware that while she’s in the business of knowledge – making, she’s also, and first, learning from the people and places she studies.
The work of rewriting an academic history written by visitors is well underway in the Cook Islands. Scholars based here and partly based here are exploring and cataloguing ideas about identity, culture, art, the ocean, and the wider environment, among other fields of study, proving that getting a doctorate doesn’t have to mean going overseas, and that quantitative and qualitative research doesn’t have to come from overseas, either.
USP Cook Islands has been facilitating doctoral work, through scholarships and degree programmes, as well as by providing Rarotonga-based researchers with a place to work.
“I think it’s really important that research about the Pacific comes from the Pacific,” said Rerekura Teaurere, who recently submitted a thesis that focuses on how the accommodation industry on Rarotonga manages solid waste.
Teaurere received a full scholarship through USP, which paid for her fees and living expenses, so she has been free to focus on her research instead of having to juggle school, a job, and a daughter. Most days, she worked alone in the USP Cook Islands’ computer room.
For Teaurere, one of the greatest challenges of the whole experience was a lack of community. She felt like students at USP in Fiji had each other and didn’t want to disrupt them; she felt an ocean away from PhD candidates in New Zealand.
“That’s the frustrating part – having nobody to talk to,” she said.
Tetini, who attends a large university in New Zealand, relates to the sense of aloneness, even though she’s surrounded by scholars.
“The people I’m around are papa’a men,” she said. “People say it could be intimidating but it’s not, to be honest. It’s just frustrating. My role is to try to take up as much space in my situation as I possibly can because it’s not just me.
“There are future indigenous women coming up and need a community of people to support them. I do find what I’m doing at the moment quite lonely.”
For Troy Tararo-Ruhe, who is pursuing a doctorate in exercise science through the University of Otago, this sense of fighting for validity within academia is familiar.
He began his PhD at 23 years old, and is possibly the only researcher in his field focussed on the Cook Islands. Studying the social, biological, and psychological barriers to exercise, he often confronts stereotypes about Pacific people.
“I’d say ageism and racism are not just in my institution, but in academia in general,” he said.
His interest is in challenging narrow thinking by integrating traditional Cook Islands practices, such as making moina tai, into his exercise programmes and science.
His goal is to tell a story about movement and modernity that goes beyond typical and restrictive units of measure, such as weight or BMI.
Foregrounding humans in scientific enquiry is the focus of Vaine Wichman’s scholarship, too.
Wichman, whose roots are in Tongareva, is studying the socioeconomic impacts of climate change on that atoll. The title of her PhD thesis—The Invisibility of Atolls—speaks to the conspicuous absence of the voices of atoll people in conversations and literature about rising sea levels, in which atoll people are often held up as examples.
She advocates for more inclusive economic models that consider how people survive, live, and adapt in places that operate largely outside the cash economy. Her aim is for the scholarship about climate change to respect and acknowledge the resourcefulness, resilience, and wisdom of atoll people.
“A nation comes of age when the people actively discuss and merge their past and present with their future,” Wichman said of her work.
“Research by Cook Islanders supports that maturing process, and adds value to the research that has gone on before … but more important, adds more value to discussion for nation – building going forward.”
This process of knowledge-making is not new in the Cook Islands, a place where knowledge has survived with remarkable resilience over thousands of years.
But with the growth of USP Cook Islands under the direction of Rod Dixon and now Debi Futter-Puati, and the rise of interdisciplinary studies within academia, the paradigm is shifting.
The Cook Islands Research Association is again mobilising, and has grown to include more than 100 members. Currently, the association is creating a database of its members and their skills, which will be made available to organisations to access.
Futter-Puati, who is heading this move to re-energise the association, said it’s important for research done in the Cook Islands to be led by Cook Islanders, who have both a contextual and layered understanding of this place, but also “relational responsibilities of accountability”, she said.
This kind of sensitive and accountable research is not, of course, restricted to Cook Islanders. Jess Cramp, an American marine biologist pursuing a PhD at James Cook University, is contributing to global conversations about marine-protected areas by studying the effectiveness of the Cook Islands Shark Sanctuary, and in the process teaching young Cook Islanders how to deploy tracking technologies, collect data, and understand why it matters.
Tetini, who is usually based in New Zealand, has found that being here, outside books and with people, is an essential part of the PhD process.
“People have told me to just do my interviews through Skype, but I’m like, place – land, sea, sky – is so important,” Tetini said. “You have to feel it. You have to be rooted here.”
Emma Powell, a PhD candidate in Pacific Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, thinks often about the power of interdisciplinary, transnational scholarship.
“I come from a scholarly research practice that demands we not compare ourselves to ourselves and be aware in terms of what’s happening outside the Cook Islands … It’s the condition of islands to be comparing ourselves to ourselves constantly,” she said.
For Powell, whose thesis explores genealogy and relationships, the value of a place like USP Cook Islands, a site of exchange between researchers of the Cook Islands and in the Cook Islands, is immense. A tivaevae is made up of many parts; understanding of a place is made of many perspectives.
“There’s a feeling I’ve found over the last three months,” Powell said. “A lot of the researchers and scholars on the ground feel like there’s something in the air.
“There are indications of a turn in the way people here, younger people, are thinking about culture, scholarship, politics, futures, all that kind of thing. Dr Tina Newport called it the relational turn. There’s a turn in the way we’re all understanding our work.”