Cook Islands language central to cultural identity

posted: 8:00 pm - 14th July 2019
Cooks 1

(Picture caption: Minister for Pacific Peoples Hon Aupito William Sio, Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand HE Elizabeth Wright-Koteka, Dame Patsy Reddy and Sir David Gascoigne at the Credentials Ceremony earlier this year in Wellington.) 

The Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand, Her Excellency Elizabeth Wright-Koteka is a firm believer that knowing the language of the country you claim heritage to, is central to your identity. 

She also sees huge value in the upcoming Ministry for Pacific Peoples (MPP) annual Cook Islands Language Week, which takes place from August 4-10, as it is a way to revive and preserve the struggling language. 

Cook Islanders have become a permanent part of society, and they have contributed greatly to the development of New Zealand. 

The cultural practices Cook Islanders brought with them to this country sets them apart from other New Zealanders, and recognising and celebrating the Cook Islands culture adds value to the diversity of New Zealand while also providing connection to the homeland, the High Commissioner says. 

A proud Cook Islander, Elizabeth’s mother is from the island of Pukapuka while her father is Australian. She was raised in Vaka Takitumu. 

Elizabeth began her public service career with the Cook Islands Foreign Ministry in 1992 after graduating from the Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Arts (a double major in Political Science and History) in 1991.

She also graduated from Massey University, with a Master of Arts in Development Studies (Hons) in 2006.

Her graduate thesis, Te Uu no te Akau Roa: Cook Islands Migration, is an examination of the causes and effects of Cook Islands migration from the perspectives of Cook Islanders.

The accomplished senior government official with extensive public service and private sector experience and expertise took up the role as High Commissioner to New Zealand in November 2018.

She says the thing she enjoys most about her current role is having the potential to make a positive contribution to the development of Cook Islanders, both in the homeland and in Aotearoa. 

Promoting the preservation of the language and culture is one way to do this. 

“The Cook Islands have two languages – Cook Island Māori (which has dialects from Rarotonga, Mangaia, Aitutaki, Ngaputoru, Manihiki and Tongareva) and Pukapukan which is closer to Samoan and Tokelauan,” Elizabeth explains. 

“I believe knowing the dialect or language you claim heritage to, is central to your identity as a Cook Islands person.” 

She adds that the majority of the Cook Islands population (over 60,000) people live in New Zealand, yet only 12 percent speak the reo.   

“It is obvious that Cook Islands Māori in all its forms is threatened with extinction and it is very significant that our reo does not disappear.” 

The language needs a revolution to revive it, and where better to start this resurgence, but in the place where the majority of Cook Islanders live, in New Zealand. 

A sense of national and island pride that someone has when they can converse and write in their own language is equivalent to none, she says. 

“I can speak Rarotongan Māori, Pukapukan and know some of the Mangaia, Aitutaki, Ngaputoru, Manihiki and Tongareva Māori dialects. 

"The reo completes me as a Cook Islander.” 

While the statistics show the number of speakers of the Cook Islands language has declined, Elizabeth is optimistic the younger generation has a heightened sense of pride in being Cook Island Māori, as well as a New Zealander, and will want to learn the reo.  

“I think New Zealand-born Cook Island parents today, regret not knowing the reo, and some are trying to learn and hopefully encourage their children to learn the reo.   

“It is important we recover the reo now while there is still some life left in it.”   

The High Commissioner has high hopes for Cook Islanders to be able to relay who you are in the reo fluently.  

“My wish would be for Cook Islanders everywhere to be able to converse in a Cook Islands language.”

Visit MPP for more information and resources for the 2019 Cook Islands Language Week.