If a teacher heard a child speaking Cook Islands Maori in the playground, they would put a heavy weight around their neck causing shame, as well as pain.
“Using old milk tins, filled with stones, with a strap on the side, (it was put around our neck). We were forbidden to speak Maori, and if you did, you had to wear this as punishment.”
She says you would have to wear the heavy tin around the playground, until, you heard someone else speaking Cook Islands Maori, and they would have to take it. But if they refused, a teacher was asked to intervene.
“Otherwise you’d carry it for the whole break until the bell rings.”
Now a retired teacher herself, she says that as small children they could not yet speak English properly, and they were being punished for speaking their own language.
“And now it is the opposite – we have to go back and search for our language.”
Kora’s interview with German linguist Caroline Biewer takes place at the Manihiki hostel along with two other participants from her original study conducted in Rarotonga 10 years ago.
Biewer is looking at how Cook Islands Maori was impacted by the influence of English through the generations.
What’s interesting is how the language has survived, regardless of negative circumstances.
The second mama interviewed is Matakeu Tauta 48, who explains that she remembers going to Araura college in Aitutaki, at a time when we weren’t allowed to speak Maori in the school zone.
“But when we got out, we spoke Maori... honestly not many, if any, spoke English,” she says.
She says they had quite a rebellious “try and stop us”, attitude towards being told not to speak Cook Islands Maori. At a time when they were just starting to learn English, when the teachers were in the staff room, or out of earshot, they would speak Cook Island Maori.
“I believe that’s why we went to school, to learn English; but at home we spoke our own dialect.”
The youngest participant to be interviewed, Georgina Matutu, 27, was just 17 when she first spoke with Biewer. She soon left for the bright lights of Australia when she turned 18.
She says she also knew both Kora, and Tauta when she was young as they both taught her at school.
“Yes, Mrs Kora was always teaching and speaking Cook Islands Maori. Unfortunately, I actually spoke more Maori when I was young than I do now.”
However, while Matutu used English in Australia, now that she has returned to Rarotonga, she is speaking Cook Islands Maori again.
Kora says the reason today children are not strong in Cook Islands Maori is due to confusion over a first language.
“My belief is we were born, then we grew up in the (Cook Islands Maori) language, but now it’s very different. Babies are born and they grow up in different languages, in English or even Cook Islands Maori, so when the child grows up, it’s very confusing for the child. The child is mostly listening to English.”
Kora says Cook Islanders should also be proud of their own specific dialect.
“And for me my first language is Manihiki, I’m still holding onto my language.”
She proudly refers to Manihiki as her first language.
Kora says the Manihik community plans to run classes at the Manihiki hostel from today (Monday), to keep their cultural heritage alive by passing that knowledge down to the next generation. She doesn’t want young people growing up with questions and confusion over their culture and language.
“The Rarotonga dialect is used here the most, but those of us brought up in our own dialect from the outer islands, we still carry that with us.”
Kora refers to her “second” language as the local (national language) Rarotonga dialect.
“We had to know that before coming here, so we could communicate with local people here. After arriving in Rarotonga, English was a necessity, she says.
“And then I believe my third language is English. With the increase in visitors coming here, people working in businesses have to speak English.”
As the elder of the group, Kora wants to lead by example, to keep the use of Cook Islands Maori alive.
“I have no right to blame them for speaking English, but just why don’t they use our language? I know without our language and our culture we are nothing.
“So I believe that we should hold onto our culture, and to our language too. Our language, when we speak out, identifies who we are, where we come from. Where our roots are… so we won’t lose it.”