Filmmaker and environmentalist Liam Kokaua has completed his six-part documentary series on mountains in Rarotonga. Photo: Matthew Littlewood/22061001
Many people, places and items continue to sail through life comfortably with two or more names, with some names taking prominence over others depending on the time and context. The question is, could we also sail our nation under two different names? By Liam Kokaua.
Kia kōtou te aronga mana, te au tāvini o te Atua, te
au arataki o tō tātou kavamani, ē te au tangata rima pātoa o tō tātou pā ʻenua
Kia orāna i te aro’a rānuinui o tō tātou Atua
Ko Liam Kokaua tēia
Nō roto mai au i te Ngāti Makea Ārera o Pokoinu,
Piriʻanga toto tōku i roto ia Pamati, Mangaia,
Manihiki, Rakahanga, Tongareva, Aitutaki ē Tahiti Nui
Kua turuʻia tēia karere e Ārera Tangianau Rangatira
I was born in
Aotearoa, and collectively raised by my mother, grandmother Moari (Maureen)
Hilyard (nee Kokaua), as well as her parents – my tupuna tāne, Roinga “Taiti”
Kokaua and my tupuna vahine Jane Marsters. I was born without our Māori
language, a common reality amongst our 80,000 people who live here. However I
have spent half my life learning to speak our reo and now take every
opportunity to help teach others who themselves are on the same journey.
I was raised exclusively by my Kokaua family. Yet not many people know I only legally changed my last name to Kokaua about 10 years ago. The name I carried, Hilyard, came from my maternal grandfather, an Australian Papaʻā who I have never met. At the time, I was about to graduate from university. It was an easy decision that the name of the family who raised me needed to be on the certificate I had worked so hard for.
Over the previous years I had immersed myself in learning my Māori papaʻanga and reo and I believed it was time to carry my maternal grandmother’s maiden name. In changing my name I also acknowledged my Pāpā Taiti and the love he showed me growing up.
I changed my name
to something which better reflected my identity, my growth as an individual,
and to be honest I changed it to a name I believe I had earned.
Our ancestors have
always changed names. Not only for people but the names of vaka, villages, and
islands. For many of our islands they have a physical name (such as Rarotonga)
and a spiritual name (Tumu-te-varovaro). Some people change names when grieving
the death of a loved one, getting married, or other significant events.
For example, the
name Kokaua itself was given by Makea Takau to my ancestor Apainga in his
adulthood. In full it was Te Ariki Koka
ʻua o Ngāmaru Ariki. The name commemorated Takau’s husband who used to
travel frequently between Rarotonga, Atiu and Tahiti. After being shortened to
“Kokaua”, the new name stuck, as they often do within our communities. The vaka
Tākitumu was also known as Te Tika a Te Tuaʻine, in acknowledgement of
Tangiʻia’s sister. In fact, many people, places and items continue to sail
through life comfortably with two or more names, with some names taking
prominence over others depending on the time and context.
The question is, could we also sail our nation under
two different names?
In March 2019, our
national name change debate gained international attention, featuring on news
platforms such as the New York Times and The Guardian. It was probably the most
attention our nation has ever received. It seemed like we were on the cusp of
something exciting and new for our nation, and though it has simmered, the fire
for change has not gone out.
Many of our people
still do not currently feel that the name Cook Islands represents us. James
Cook only ever made two brief visits to our islands. He merely stepped foot on
one island – Palmerston, which was uninhabited at the time. Like my own story
with my grandfather, some of our Māori people rightfully do not feel a
connection to an English explorer from the 1700s.
For this reason,
many over the years, including myself, have been promoting Indigenous terms for
our nation in an attempt to normalise their use, but we often revert back to
“The Cook Islands” because that’s our officially recognised name. Perhaps it is
time to take a stronger approach to decolonise our national identity as well as
our cultural identity as Māori. Change begins with us showing others that
things can be done a different way. We must put into practice a new name for
our nation if we want this change to occur, whether it is legally recognised or
The name I believe
our nation has earned, and the one I would choose to sit alongside the Cook
Islands is ʻAvaiki Nui.
This was the name
unsuccessfully proposed in a national referendum in 1994 by then Prime Minister
Sir Geoffrey Henry. At the time, a significant 30 per cent of the nation supported
the change to ʻAvaiki Nui. If you are unaware of the significance of this name
– this is a good place to start your own research.
Sir Geoffrey Henry
advocated for the name change, however he would not have done this in
isolation. He would have consulted with the knowledge holders of his time and
he would not have progressed to advocating for the referendum without prior
knowledge that there was existing support for this name. This shows that our
people had been thinking about changing the national name long before this
In 1900, when the
New Zealand government chose to refer to their newly acquired territory as “The
Cook Islands”, our people didn’t have the ability to influence their decision,
or advocate for an Indigenous name. Yet today, 122 years later, we now have the
agency to do so.
More on ʻAvaiki Nui
several linguistic cognates (words with the same linguistic origins), such as
the names of the islands of Savaiʻi, Hawaiʻi and Havaiʻi (Raʻiātea), and the
Hawaiki of Aotearoa Māori.
This does not mean
we are claiming to be the homeland of other Indigenous groups in Te Moana Nui o
Kiva. Simply put, we are the homeland for our own people, the 90 per cent of our Māori people who
now live in other countries outside of ʻAvaiki Nui.
state that Rarotonga, was once known as ʻAvaiki Raro, and in ancient history it
was physically situated beside its sister island ʻAvaiki Runga (Raʻiātea).
After a dispute, the three atua Tangaroa, Tūtavake and Koro (ʻOro in Tahiti)
uplifted the island and moved it to its current position “raro” (leeward – West
in this case) and “tonga” (to the South), hence the island’s current name.
Rarotongan and Raʻiātean histories agree on this, which can be found in the
accounts of John Williams. Whether you believe the island could be lifted or
not, the truth of this oral tradition may be that it refers to a historic migration
of people from Raʻiātea to Rarotonga in early history.
With the addition
of 14 more islands due to colonisation during the late 19th century, we have
expanded into a new form, with Rarotonga exerting more political influence on
the Pā ʻEnua where traditionally it did not. At the same time, Rarotonga has
been transformed culturally and genealogically by migrations from the Pā ʻEnua
over the past 200 years. My question therefore is, do we need a new name to
reflect these changes and these larger and more sustained networks within our
iti tangata? This is important as we grow beyond the figure of 100,000 Māori
people that identify as “Cook Islanders” globally.
By dropping the
old, redundant term of “Raro” off ʻAvaiki Raro, and adding “Nui” (great, vast)
to include all 15 of our islands, I believe ʻAvaiki Nui (our Great and Vast Homeland) captures the evolution
of our nation of islands better than any other name.
We are not alone
More than 70 other
countries have undergone this same name change process, with many more now
starting the journey. Many nations now seek to pave a way for the future for
their people by paying tribute to their own Indigenous wisdom and cultural
pride and not names given to them by their colonisers. Let us look at our
closest relatives first:
Perhaps the best
example of a nation sailing with two names is Aotearoa New Zealand. This is
despite Aotearoa not being recognised as an official name. However the country
currently has a petition in parliament to officially change its national name
to Aotearoa, led by the Māori Party, with many others demonstrating proactive
efforts such as artist-activist “The Hori”.
Polynesia, the pro-independence movement, led by former president Oscar Temaru,
as well as the nation’s main religious organisation, Etaretia Porotetani
Māʻohi, are calling for a name change to Māʻohi Nui.
Now to our Pacific
neighbours. Tuvalu, formerly known as Ellis Islands, changed its name in 1978.
Vanuatu, formerly known as New Hebrides, changed its name in 1980. Dozens of
other countries around the world have changed their names in the last century
(for example Holland to the Netherlands, Siam to Thailand, Burma to Myanmar,
and Ceylon to Sri Lanka), with Turkey changing its name back to Türkiye in
2022. What is in common with all these name changes, is that these countries
decided that their previous names no longer reflected their cultural identity,
or their growth as a nation. So why not us?
Is it time to add
ʻAvaiki Nui to sit beside The Cook Islands so that we may sail towards the
future with both?
Kokaua’s professional career began in environmental conservation in the Cook
Islands. He returned to Aotearoa NZ in 2019 to undertake a Masters in
Indigenous Studies. Kokaua is currently a senior Pasifika specialist at