OPINION: It is not often that I lend my voice to a more formal public forum than the kitchen table conversations I would have with family and friends.
For many of us the kitchen table or anywhere where the food really is, becomes the parliament where we voice our thoughts about current issues and realities.
I have read and seen interviews and articles in the past few weeks that have led me to respond with the hopes of readjusting the narrative we have around discussions of our reo and suggesting why it’s important we make these changes.
Moreover, in Cook Islands Language Week (August 2-8) in Aotearoa, New Zealand there will be a lot of our own people and many others who are not of Cook Islands descent, embracing and giving our language and culture a go.
It is a time our varieties of reo are brought to the fore in Aotearoa and that is an exceptionally proud moment.
To provide a bit of context of why I write, I was born and raised in the Cook Islands and am a speaker of tō tātou reo Māori, mainly a mix of Rarotongan and Aitutakian.
I moved to Ākarana to pursue tertiary studies and am currently a PhD candidate at the University of Auckland. I convene our first year level Cook Islands Maori language paper and I am also a guest lecturer in Pacific Studies and Pacific Health.
It is both a privilege and responsibility to always in a way acknowledge and give back to the community that raised me, fully aware that I also do not speak for all Cook Islanders in the Cook Islands content that I present.
There is beauty in the diversity of the Cook Islands, that is what makes us colourful and I dare not homogenise that diverse beauty. In our own way, we bring unity to our Cook Islands identity while also proudly identifying where our genealogies and its islands have brought us from.
As a teaching fellow, the responsibility to give voice and visibility for our people on the platforms that I am given is something I take seriously.
I stand on the shoulders of giants that have gone before me, teachers of our reo at the University of Auckland, notably, the late Papa Rangi Moeka’a, the late Taria Kingstone, the late Tairi Fenwick, Dr Sally Nicholas and notable others.
These teachers and scholars have helped to capture our own students at the University and those non-Cook Islanders who have seen the beauty of our reo. I now have the privilege to meet and provide a space in the academy for many of our tauira who are carving out their worlds at university.
Part of that responsibility is to also in a way ensure that there is room for Cook Islands world views in a space that is not predominantly built on Pacific or Cook Islands values and ways of seeing the world. I am grateful for the chance to share my ability to speak with those who were not raised the same.
Many of the problems that we are facing in the world today will be visited upon by our children as well, language being one.
One of the best chances we have to ensure that they have the tools to deal with those issues is to give them the foundation of not only a great education but one that thrives on the security of being proud of their heritage regardless of their language competency.
Cook Islands language, culture and land/environment-based education does not only connect us with our past; it also allows us to connect with our futures as well.
I am encouraged to see Te Kōrero o te ‘Ōrau run with this kura; a re-learning and teaching of connections to our Cook Islands culture and way of life.
This shows us a different way (the right way) to connect to the land and our tūranga Maori from a Rarotonga island perspective.
Language goes hand in hand with how we view the world and to change our world we must also rethink how our actions and the narratives we push about our reo as they will impact the growth of our reo.
The issue of language learning and being Cook Islands Maori who are raised outside of the Cook Islands can be a source of anxiety. I hear, see and read the plight many of our current generation and future māpū say about themselves not being Cook Islands enough because of their inability to speak the language.
And some of those who are able to speak the language can at times weaponise it against others in maybe some humorous ways that can ultimately cut deep if we are not careful with how we may emotionally taunt those who are unable to speak.
A number one rule of mine when teaching is to create a safe environment where one can mess up and feel totally okay with themselves. It is about promoting and ensuring the wellbeing of a person (usually a student who is of Cook Islands descent) first because I know the language learning will soon follow.
Part of the pukuatu of the class is that there is no one “right way” to be Cook Islands Maori and we cannot assume that there is one right way to look, speak and behave as a Cook Islander.
If you’re growing up in the Cook Islands, your context will be different to that of a Cook Islander growing up outside of it and we must be okay with that.
Our Cook Islands communities growing up in Aotearoa have had to develop their own sense of who they are in response to their context and the challenges they face.
We learn our cultures in relation to those around us, and if you grow up in Aotearoa, you learn who you are as a Cook Islands person in relation to what it means to be a New Zealander, and not being part of the majority.
I have respect and appreciation for our own Cook Islands people who are growing up outside the Cook Islands, constantly navigating different cultural nuances to those of their parents and or grandparents.
I also dare reflect back to our island home whereby we are not living life in a vacuum, nor should we think that we are immune to first world problems or the ongoing challenges of a postmodern world.
For instance, our conversational spaces have changed over time and you only need to go on social media to read, learn and debate everything and everyone. I also believe that Covid-19 has in some way normalised this space of communication and information.
Like many of our own Cook Islanders in Aotearoa, we here in the Cook Islands are also finding meaningful ways to relate to each other with evolving realities and different contexts.
So why can’t we reconcile the fact that we need to create more forgiving and encouraging spaces where we can find humour in our mistakes and be okay with it too.
Learning our reo and embracing the Cook Islands identity in Aotearoa has greater challenges, and that includes those faced by Cook Islanders wanting to return to the ipukarea to live and find themselves.
Blaming one group for the bastardisation of the language is not fair at all.
Neither should we be blind to the fact that there are barriers to our learning of the language when the explanation and learning about ourselves are not articulated meaningfully to us.
Having empathy and understanding for those of our iti tangāta outside the Cook Islands exemplifies our ‘ākono’anga and tūranga Maori.
In the spirit of Te ‘Epetoma o te Reo Kūki ‘Āirani in Aotearoa, and with a persistent commitment to the teaching and flourishing of tō tātou reo, I want to remind us all that language learning goes beyond the classroom.
Though the classroom provides an important place to ask questions of our language and make attempts and mistakes with the guidance of teachers and the support of peers, reo Maori lives, grows and teaches us in every part of our lives.
I hope we will all encourage our own to participate in Cook Islands cultural, community and family activities because we cannot separate the language from our ways of doing and knowing things.
It is where our language and values are applied. Ka ‘akaūtoa kia pūāvai tō tātou au reo o te Kūki ‘Āirani.
· Eliza Tohoa Puna is a daughter of the Cook Islands born and raised on the island of Rarotonga with papa’anga to the islands of Aitutaki and Manihiki. Currently, a Teaching Fellow and PhD Candidate at Te Wānanga o Waipapa, School of Māori Studies and Pacific Studies, University of Auckland.