As the Te Maeva Nui festival continues on Rarotonga, Cook Islands, Cook Islands Maori has made headlines becoming the first foreign language to be used to recite the parliamentary prayer at the New Zealand parliament earlier this week.
The prayer was recited by National Party Member of Parliament Alfred Ngaro, the first Cook Islander to be elected to the New Zealand parliament. “Today we made history. For the first time ever, the parliamentary prayer was presented in a foreign language,” Ngaro said.
The historic occasion was conducted to celebrate Cook Islands Language Week in New Zealand. Events are being held across the country in celebrating Cook Islands Maori.
Some New Zealanders of Cook Islands heritage are drawing on music and taonga (valuable property) in their celebrations. The theme for this year’s ‘Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani is “Be proud of your language and protect its future”. The theme was chosen because the language is at risk, with Cook Islands Maori currently classified as a vulnerable language by UNESCO.
In a statement, New Zealand’s Minister for Pacific Peoples, Aupito William Sio, said “This is a very pertinent theme for Cook Islanders because use of the language is declining and its future is under threat. New Zealand has an important part to play in protecting the future of the language because there are more people of Cook Islands descent in New Zealand than the Cook Islands.”
About 62,000 people in New Zealand’s Pacific population are of Cook Islands heritage, and just one in eight speak Cook Islands Māori or Te Reo Māori Kuki ‘Āirani. In 2013 there were 8,121 speakers of the language in New Zealand.
Drum master John Kiria who is a regular performer at the museum, but this time the former Māori Party candidate is celebrating Cook Islands language week. Mr Kiria hails from the island of Aitutaki and he says the language is his identity, but music is his conduit. “Back in the days there was no telephone, no mobile. The using of the drums, the using of the conch shells to signal or to call a meeting. So its the using of the drums, the using of the chants, I guess it’s putting to use what god has placed us with.”
Music is Mr Kiria’s way of sharing language with people. But for Barbara Afitu of the Auckland Museum sharing language can also be done through taonga. This week an array of treasures from the Cook Islands have been rolled out at Auckland Museum to celebrate the language. They are part of the Pacific Collection Access Project, which manages around 30,000 items from 13 Pacific Islands.
Ms Afitu says future generations will have to learn through their eyes rather than their hands, before passing that knowledge on. “We’ve had some elders come in and even they were saying that growing up they thought they heard about some of these treasures but had never sighted them until they came to the museum,” she said.