Family trying to reclaim Cook Islands Māori

By Herewini Waikato

Like many families who move to New Zealand from the Cook Islands, the Wilson family has found it had gradually lost its first language.

But now the eldest child in the Wilson family, which lives in Huntly, has decided to reclaim her Cook Islands Māori reo.

Torerenui a Rua Wilson has come to her homeland of Rarotonga to connect with her language, customs, culture, and people. 

“The most important thing about my Cook Island language to me is I am from this island, therefore it is only right that I make this language part of me,” she says.

Koro and mokopuna meet

Today in Rarotonga she met for the first time her Cook Islands koro, Tata Oro Ngere Strickland from Rarotonga, Tahiti, Aitutaki, and a whāngai to Ngāti Pikiao, and Ngāti Whakaue.

“I am really happy to see this grandchild, her beauty and her spirit, '' Strickland says.

Wilson was excited to meet a relative who lives on the island who speaks Cook Island Māori and knows genealogy, the mountains, rivers, seas, and customs.

“This meeting has filled my heart and my soul,” says Wilson who is from Rarotonga, Tahiti, Ngāti Porou, Waikato, and Ngāti Whatua ki Orakei.

Wilson was also in Rarotonga to perform in front of her people with her school, Te Wharekura o Rakaumangamanga, this week at the Rarotonga Maeva Nui Festival.

‘Learn their westernised language’

Te Kao Arama Tama Āriki came to New Zealand from Rarotonga. But four generations later the Cook Island language has disappeared largely among the whanau.

Torerenui’s father- Ngati Tahinga Wilson – says when he we grew up, English was mostly spoken “because it was a westernised world back then. My koro once said to me that because this is a westernised world, learn the westernised language.”

And Koro Tata Oro Ngere Strickland added, “That is the journey, unfortunately, that is happening with te reo, the appreciation of te reo me ngā tikanga me ngā peu Kuki Airani kua ngaro, when we travel from here to Aotearoa or Australia that a lot of our families and their generations seem to immerse themselves i roto i a European lifestyle and of course take on the language as well”.

Wilson whānau striving to connect

According to NZ Foreign Affairs and Trade, there are 80,000 Cook Island Māori in New Zealand. Of this, only a small number speaks the reo.

But the Wilson family is trying to do something about the issue.

“We have tried to teach our children the language from songs, on the weekends on YouTube to learn our language. Another plan we have is to attend Cook Island events in New Zealand,” Ngati Tahinga Wilson says.

And Torerenui a Rua is thinking about returning and staying in Rarotonga to learn more of the reo.