Hundreds gathered at Takitumu Hall in Auckland yesterday to mark the 30th anniversary of the coronation of Pa Tepaeru Upokotini Taiteariki Marie Ariki.
But in her address, she spoke first and foremost of her desire to return home to Turangi, Rarotonga, as soon as she can.
Religious and tribal leaders and other dignitaries including Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand Elizabeth Wright-Koteka and National MP Alfred Ngaro were there to celebrate with her, with prayer services, kaikai and speeches made in her honour.
The Covid-19 pandemic stymied her plans to return home for her coronation and those of her people here to put on an event fit for the Ariki she is.
But in the coming months, she says, her time will be spent re-establishing herself on Rarotonga.
“I have been away too long here in New Zealand. In my heart I know the time to return has come.
“It will be great to return to my palace in Turangi – once more, an Ariki on her own turangawaewae, a place to stand.”
As she descends from the pa‘ata, Pa Ariki says she finds it hard to believe it has been 30 years since her late mother Pa Tepaeru Terito Ariki was laid to rest in Turangi and she inherited the role of paramount chief of Vaka Takitumu.
The years have passed quickly and the world has changed rapidly over that time.
Many of those changes are challenging, Pa Ariki says. Some are worrying.
“Over the past 200 years, our vaka has seen great changes, but during my lifetime those changes seem to be coming ever more quickly to our small island. Whether we like it or not, a new era is dawning,” she says.
“I have hope for the future, as Cook Islanders we have always been able to work together constructively. I do, though, have real fear for what may come if we do not, as a tribe and people, take charge of our own destiny.”
Tupeariki Rangatira, known as Sam Napa Jr, was a youthful 20-year-old when his mother inherited the title of Pa Ariki.
He jokes when thinking about whether he will take over the title as Pa Ariki from his mother.
“Look at Prince Charles! Queen Elizabeth is still alive and he is still waiting,” he says.
In all seriousness though, Napa would prefer not to talk about it.
“My mother may live up to 100 years old. This is her time and she has dreams to fulfil and that’s what matters to me,” he says.
“I have an older sister who I’m close to and always have been as we are a year apart, she looks after our dad and I look after mum when she’s here.
“Not forgetting my younger brother Napa Napa and sister Salamasina Napa who takes care of mum in Auckland.”
He has royal genes on both his mum and dad Sam Napa Sr’s side – his grandfather was the late Tinomana Napa Ariki.
Thanks to the advancement of technology, Facebook Messenger is the way he keeps in contact with his mum. He steps in as a representative of Pa Ariki while his mum is in New Zealand, but he says she’s the boss and make the final calls.
The 48th paramount chief of Takitumu says it’s not her role simply to sit in her palace and wait for her people to give her atinga, or gifts.
“The future role of the Pa title is one of service,” she says.
“Over the years I have always tried to identify with issues affecting my people, to show leadership in those areas and to serve my people in a way that meets their needs for health, welfare, and security.”
Pa Ariki has been vocal about the issues that are closest to her heart including the unhealthy lifestyles and eating habits of Cook Islanders, the need to take special care of the environment and caring for the elderly.
They say change starts at the top and Pa Ariki isn’t afraid to put herself out there.
“I must share a secret with you all, my knees are not as good as they used to be, so I am not the best example of physical fitness,” she says.
“But I learned my lesson, and I am taking an active interest in public health care initiatives for Cook Islanders both here in New Zealand and in the Cook Islands, I believe we can really turn this around. And we have to!”
During seven years as the House of Ariki president, she often found herself asking the question: “In a country of Cook Islanders who govern themselves in a democratic society, what room and space is there for Ariki and traditional titleholders?”.
She soon came to realise that there is a bigger picture.
“To be sure, Parliament represents the will of the people. However, it is we, the traditional leaders, who represent the vaerua, the spirit, of the people,” she says.
“If, we as Ariki, along with our supporting kopu ariki, respect our own customs and traditions, then the titles we hold each represents an unbroken link with our ancestors.”
Above all else, Pa Ariki says she sees herself as an Ariki of the 21st century.
“We are not, nor will we ever be, competitors with Government. Rather, we embody the spirit of our small nation as Ipukarea,” she says.
“We are the rock around which our language, traditions, and customs can cling and find refuge, no matter how rough and frightening the seas of the world around us.”