Reflections from a NZ born Cook Islander

Posted By TEU on Aug 2, 2018 |

Kia orana! It is Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani – Cook Islands Language Week. Here, Frances Oberg-Nordt from Ara reflects on life as a New Zealand born Cook Islander, the importance of Cook Island Māori to her culture – and her hope that one day she will learn to speak fluent Cook Island Māori.

As a non-Māori speaking Cook Islander; born and raised in Christchurch by a Cook Island mother and New Zealand born Norwegian father, I often reflect on why being a child of a multi-ethnic background that I only speak English.

I regret the fact my mother did not making a conscious decision to teach my sisters and I her native tongue. She left school at age 13 to come and work in New Zealand, in the Wairarapa, to help support her family back in the islands.

I guess she struggled with English herself and because both my parents worked long hours in our family business when we were young, Cook Island Māori was certainly not a priority. As Mum spoke English and Dad did not speak Cook Island Māori, English was our language by default.

I remember every Sunday as a child being taken to church for the combined service followed by a Cook Island service. Combined service was in English and at times interesting. I loved the old stories from the bible but in the Cook Island service the minister would be speaking in Māori and I found it hard to focus and sit still. I did not understand.

Needless to say, I started finding other things to do on a Sunday. When in my teens I would often say to Mum why didn’t you teach us Māori when we were young, she always said if you want to learn it you will learn it. And I guess she was right. If you want something bad enough then make the effort yourself to get it, however there was nowhere in Christchurch to learn Cook Island Māori.

I remember when Mum helped organise Christchurch Polytechnic’s first Cook Island Māori language course in Christchurch. I was unfortunately unable to attend any of these classes due to work commitments, and as you can imagine there was not a great demand for the language to be taught and the courses eventually stopped running.

When I started university I decided to take Māori 101 and it is because of this foundation Māori course that I can understand smatterings of Cook Island Māori and understand sentence structure and feel comfortable with pronunciation (to a degree anyway).

My inability to speak fluently and understand the language of my fore fathers has not really been a problem for me over the years, however on my trips back to Rarotonga which are two or three times a year, I have encountered some problems.

When it comes to formal protocol, community and land matters; all of which are important in our culture, Cook Island Māori is essential. At land and community/family meetings I know I have a right to be part of these events to be on the land and when there I feel that connection to the land but when it comes to formalities I often feel inadequate or left out or that I’m missing out on deeper meaningful conversation.

I look and feel like a Cook Islander, but somehow I’m different.

Some native Māori speakers see me as different; as a foreigner or a “snob” because my English sounds “too perfect” (which it is not) or my accent is not “fob ish” enough. However, this is not everyone. At the end of the day, it does not matter what they think, it only matters what I think and feel about my identity as a Cook Islander.

With plans to move to Rarotonga in my later years – i.e. retirement (if that day ever comes) – I have decided one of the first things I will do is to learn Māori at the local school or polytechnic. Not because I need to, or others think I should, but because I want to learn. I want the language to survive and my culture to survive. My daughter moves back to Rarotonga soon and she will start lessons in October with my husband who lives in Rarotonga. In the meantime I am trying to learn and use some basic greetings and phrases.

Here are a few words you could start with:

Meitaki (may tar key) = good

Meitaki ma’ata (may tar key ma art a) = good or thank you (formal)

Popongi (Paw pong e) = Good Morning.

Kia Manuia ( key a ma nu e a ) = good luck

Pe ea koe? (Pear ear Koy?) = How are you?

So, I hope you all give Cook Island Māori a go. You might find it useful when visiting the Cook Islands for a holiday. A warm smile and Kia Orana greeting will be understood and much appreciated by the locals. Kia Manuia!

The TEU has also produced a resource with a few simple phrases for life studying and working in tertiary education.

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