Cook Islands Maori revival: The road ahead

Wednesday December 13, 2017 Written by Published in Opinion

Recently there has been discussion relating to encouraging the use of Cook Islands Maori (te reo) as the primary language in the home with everyday conversation including dialects across the Cook Islands being the target.


The Ministry of Cultural Development (MOCD) is at the forefront of leading this charge and has identified a number of strategic areas in which they hope will address the diminishing language skills of our people.

There have been mixed reactions from the street, with positive support but also concerns about the perception of being forced to learn te reo.

There is also a move to ensure that public servants will be taught a high level of conversational te reo six months after taking up a position within the public service. I want to say that MOCD is to be applauded for taking this stance and I am fully supportive of the revival of te reo. However, I want to raise a number of discussion points.

I contend that te reo cannot be seen as being separate from our Cook Islands culture. It will require a concerted effort by MOCD to engage with the people to make a decision as to what we mean by culture.

Modern culture bears very little semblance to the culture that which existed in pre-European days and there needs to be a consensus to differentiate culture from cultural entertainment and cultural tourism.

The world’s first exposure to the Cook Islands is through the glossy images, magazines, social media, advertising, television and Facebook photos, and selfies taken at all sorts of places and events in the Cook Islands. We see the dancing girls, the warriors in their finery, the beaches, lagoons, resorts and daily life and we and the tourists remark, “Wow, this is Cook Islands culture at its best.”

Let’s define what we mean by culture as it is a term that has a number of meanings depending on how you define it. Culture can have a social science perspective, lay person’s perspective or depends on what outcome you are pursuing.

I define culture as: “A peoples’ accumulated knowledge, customs, experience and skills developed and learned and passed down through the generations such that it is indistinguishable from their daily lives and more importantly determines and identifies to the world who they are.”

During thousands of years we developed skillsets that enabled us to enjoy and pass on our knowledge to our descendants. Through song, dance, storytelling, tatau, carvings, arts, crafts and our tikaanga we flourished and spread our people to the four winds.

The only problem is that what we are telling the world is Cook Islands culture, is nothing of the sort. I submit that cultural entertainment and cultural tourism is what we have sold the world and ourselves on - the idea that this is our culture, this represents what we are.

Unfortunately, that is only part of the equation; the reality is a lot more complex. Cultural entertainment and cultural tourism actually represents what we have become. That is one aspect of our culture, the one that is most visible, is physical and leaves an impression. But this is not culture it is a window into our culture, a snapshot of one minuscule part of our daily lives.

It doesn’t describe our interaction with each other and our environment. Nor does it describe in minute detail the subset of interactions that occur on a daily basis, the village life, how we live, prepare food, eat, work, fish, build, look after our children and how we love and work. These are all parts of the culture that is unique to us as a people and what is missing from the so-called culture that the world sees.

The state of affairs that we find ourselves in with the diminishing use of te reo has been repeated down through the ages. When a people make first contact with foreigners, business and social interaction can take place very quickly. The foreigner can have access to and can provide trade goods and services of a type, quality and quantity that has beneficial and not so beneficial effects for these people.

The language of the foreigner can supplant the language of the people, especially when the language of the foreigner over time becomes the language of business, marketing, promotion and everyday conversation. The language of the foreigner introduces new concepts and ideas and ways of expression.

This has contributed to our falling language skills, not just in conversational te reo but also in our formal ceremonies. These are now heavily influenced by Christian values and the formal oratory skills are a former shadow of mana and rich history and are vanishing especially in Rarotonga.

Our children are exposed to all manner of media phenomena, films, movies, docos, TV shows, smart phone technology, tablets, PCs, laptops, social media, texting and the list is endless. The technology is predominantly English and all the super heroes, sports heroes and heroines and all manner of messages both overt and covert are in English. This is where the revival of the language will founder or survive on the technology event horizon especially with respect to our children. Rightfully so, the focus should be on our children as the next generation of speakers and that is where our priority lies.

A number of Pacific islands have developed models for the revival, survival and sustainability of their cultures and especially their te reo. Aotearoa has kohanga reo for pre-schoolers, kura kaupapa maori for primary and kura wananga secondary schools for teenagers and then whare wananga universities for graduates and te reo wananga for older people to learn, improve and immerse themselves in te reo. There are also toa wananga for the teaching and development of the martial arts, whakapapa wananga for geneaology, rongoa wananga for health and wellness, kapahaka wananga for traditional dance and Marae Kawa for the teaching of formal oratory… the list goes on and on. In all cases, the focus is on culture and te reo being fully integrated within the various wananga.

Teaching our public servants a high level of English as well as te reo should be a priority as the writing and oral skills of some staff are quite poor in both languages even at senior positions. A well-known Cook Islands linguist commented over 50 years ago that if you are going to speak Cook Islands Maori then do so and do not add English words into your conversation. Don’t force a bylaw or legislation to use te reo; you will only get resentment and push back from foreigners and locals who are brought up speaking English as their first tongue.

As for our education system, I believe it should be based around a Cook Islands culture, a living breathing cultural campus that offers the best of both worlds rather than what is happening at the moment. The current focus is on a western ideology of what or how we should be teaching our children at the expense of our Cook Islands culture.

Education is quickly turning our children into worker commodities and consumers for the global villages of New Zealand and Australia. We need to look at how we are meeting the needs of our Maori programmes rather than just talking about strengthening them.

No wonder our children and adults are reluctant to learn their culture, there is no incentive, no motivation and no proper role models to help them define who they are. If they stay here they may use te reo, but if they move away those skills are not in demand as English is the medium of conversation not te reo.

How do they get past the fact that they are bombarded daily with the language, symbols and signs of their colonial forebears? No amount of goodwill or wishful thinking is going to change the status quo, it’s going to take hard work and social engineering to convince the reluctant to come on board. We are in for a long haul, generational in its inception and not without pitfalls along the way.

The challenge is that if te reo does not run parallel to the teaching of what has been agreed as the Cook Islands culture, it will not be attractive enough for our children and adults. It needs the best minds from all walks of life, not just MOCD to come up with the best model for us.

Culturally, economically and socially we are at a crossroads. If we don’t harness all points of view, te reo will languish because literally it is a whole lot of talk without the substance of culture to define who we are and how we keep it alive for following generations.

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