The NCP targets five key strategic areas that need to be addressed, with the first being language. A provision in the goal is that public servants will be able to speak a high level of conversational Maori after just six months.
“If you are a non-speaker, how can you speak Maori in six months? Can you (learn to) speak any language in six months?” Tavioni asked.
“There are a lot of people that have lived here their entire lives, 30-40 years, and they can’t speak Maori.”
While he believed that people could learn quickly if they had a strong passion for the language, he believed there was a basic problem that made the Cultural Development ministry’s suggestion unrealistic.
“We do not trust our own people. We do not honour our own expertise. When we want help from the cultural sector, we want it from our own people – and we want it for free.
“But we pay thousands for consultants who don’t know anything about our culture. So there’s something wrong there.”
This attitude has a trickle-down effect on children, who tend to speak English when they are away from the home, Tavioni says
And that comes back to the Education ministry and the government, he says, pointing out that even though they work as representatives of their country, some high ranking government employees are not even fluent in the language.
In that sense the Cook Islands is different from other countries, whose cultures are inseparably linked with their language, Tavioni says.
“Look at a place like Malaysia, the national language is Malaysian, not English. And they haven’t gone bankrupt, they are still functioning. So why are we different?
“Our problem is that we think we are Europeans. So we put our Maori culture on the side. And if you speak Maori, but can’t speak English, then the perception is that you must be dumb.
“You need a strong base in Maori-speaking people. And we don’t have it. It is possible to build a strong base, but the government needs to focus on the pride of being a Cook Islander.”
Pride is a strong point of reference for this man of many talents, but when he sees buildings being constructed by overseas companies, that do not include the Cook Islands history and heritage into their structures, he is not surprised by the lack of Maori speakers.
“If you are proud of who you are, you will dominate the development of your own country, by using your own traditional ideas and knowledge, to develop your identity.
“And at the moment there is no such thing. Why are we ashamed of who we are?”
Tavioni sees the problem as one that has multiple issues. Therefore, one cannot point the finger at one problem and expect a quick fix, he adds.
However, he does not think that it is fair for returning Cook Islanders to apply for government jobs here and be held the same standards as those living here, when it comes to speaking Cook Islands Maori.
“Here we are very weak at teaching our language, except for the outer islands. And there are many people I know who are passionate about promoting and driving the Cook Islands language. But, the problems are still the same.
“This (Culture’s proposed policy on language) could also just be the government paying lip service, where they just put it over to the side and forget about it.
“It needs to be put into action, because that is where we tend to fail.”