8 Aug 2017

Navigating the seas of my culture

9:43 am on 8 August 2017

First Person - Every year for the past six, one week has been set aside to celebrate Cook Islands Maori in New Zealand as part of a government initiative to support Pacific languages. As Daniela Maoate-Cox writes, it's a time to connect with her culture but also a reminder of what has been lost.

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Photo: RNZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Pieces of language have come to me over the years.

I can say hello (kia orana), how are you? (pe'ea koe?) and thank you (meitaki maata) but as far as having a conversation goes I'm with the majority of Cook Island Maori in New Zealand who can't.

There were a few language-nest sessions when I was little and some reo Maori Kuki 'Airani classes in recent years but te reo hasn't stuck and it turns out many are in the same boat.

"There have been a couple of years that I've gone and done some lessons," says one of the two Cook Island MPs at Parliament, Labour's Poto Williams.

"But I've never really been able to commit to it to the extent that I've learnt more than cursory language" she says.

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Labour MP Poto Williams says she learns songs in Cook Island Maori to connect with the community. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

There are a number of dialects throughout the 15 islands: Atiu; Ma'uke and Mitiaro; Mangaia; Manahiki and Rakahanga; Rarotonga; Tongareva; and also the Pukapuka language.

At one of the rare lessons I turned up to, a fellow student asked which dialect we would be learning.

Our teacher planted his hand firmly on a bible: "This one" he told us.

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My colleague hand models the flashcards at one of the reo Maori Kuki Airani lessons. Photo: RNZI / Daniela Maoate-Cox

Even without the pressure of learning bible passages in every dialect, the sounds tumbled like foreign lumps on my tongue and I struggled to form a sentence.

Why is it so hard?

"I think it's a struggle because you live in a culture where there's a lot of diversity, the main language here is New Zealand (English) and Maori," says the other Cook Island MP and Minister for Pacific Peoples Alfred Ngaro.

"So if it's not every day and common to what you are using, then it makes it hard to retain that."

That might explain the low numbers of Cook Island Maori speakers. In the 2013 census just under 62,000 people identified themselves of Cook Island Maori descent with 13 percent saying they can speak the language.

Minister for Pacific Peoples Alfred Ngaro

Minister for Pacific Peoples Alfred Ngaro holds a language resource pack made by the Ministry. Photo: VNP / Daniela Maoate-Cox

The stats aren't surprising considering nearly an entire generation was told not to talk in their parents' native tongue.

"My parents chose not to teach us the language when we were children. I always have that sense of loss," Poto says.

"I believe that culture is most beautifully expressed through language and if you don't have language then you don't always fully understand the context and so I always get a sense of 'oh, if only'."

That sense of "if only" hits hard while recording interviews at a Samoan early childhood centre on the New Zealand Government's support for Pacific languages.

Tamariki at te Punanga o te Reo Kuki Airani enjoy a shared lunch of Cook Island food to wrap up Cook Island language week 2016.

Tamariki at te Punanga o te Reo Kuki Airani enjoy a shared lunch of Cook Island food to wrap up Cook Island language week 2016. Photo: RNZ/Daniela Maoate-Cox

Attached to a church the centre's architecture is a modern take on a fale and the supervisor tells me parents are attracted by the immersive bilingual programme.

The children gather around in a circle and small hands sneak a finger out to tap the microphone as the teachers try to calm them down enough to sing.

Directly in front of me is a blonde, blue-eyed German toddler proudly bellowing out "If you're happy and you know it" in Samoan.

"Afai ua i fia fia pati ou lima! - pati pati" he sings and I feel tears blur my vision - when my mother was his age she didn't know any language but Cook Island Maori.

Like many families, hers moved to New Zealand for a better quality of life and with that, came a decision most parents made for the good of their children - they told her to speak only English.

A tivaevae presented to the New Zealand speaker of Parliament David Clark, at a commemoration for Cook Islands soldiers who served in the First World War. 2016

Tivaevae are handstitched quilts gifted at special occasions like weddings or birthdays and often passed down through families. Photo: RNZ / Daniela Maoate-Cox

At the time it was thought to be the best advice but we've since learnt that knowing your reo has value.

"It's about our history and our heritage that's captured in our language," says Minister Ngaro.

The word "kia orana" he explains doesn't mean hello but rather, 'may you live long'.

"Those little nuances are important because they capture the essence of those stories that have been told from generations back by our ancestors. So the language is the vessel that carries that."

Ferrying us to the past can create a strong foundation from which to succeed he says.

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Still finding my sea legs on the deck of the Marumaru Atua which is sailed using traditional navigation methods. Photo: Supplied / Daniela Maoate-Cox

"It makes people confident. Often, as people say, if you learn one or more languages it actually makes you brainy, it makes you articulate and confident."

Poto Williams is on board with this.

"Unless you have a good grounding in who you are and where you're from you're unable to be well prepared for the future, that's my firm belief," she says.

So without te reo am I just treading water somewhere near that vessel which offers the passage to my cultural identity?

To find this answer I have to speak to someone far wiser than any politician: my mum.

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My mum and I at Avana Passage on Rarotonga where the vaka depart for their voyages. The Marumaru Atua is in the background. Photo: Supplied / Daniela Maoate-Cox

"You're still on your journey Daniela," she tells me. "What do you feel when you hear Cook Island Maori?"

"Family," I tell her.

"There you go, that is your connection" she says.

Her words lift me out of the water and place me on deck. Maybe with the other 53,000 in New Zealand who are setting out to sail our vessel.

But I'm certain that from now on, instead of highlighting what I don't know, Cook Islands language week will be a reminder I'm still on my journey (meitaki mum).

Vaka -  Daniela Maoate-Cox

Photo: RNZ/ Daniela Maoate-Cox

Daniela Maoate-Cox is New Zealand-born of Cook Island and English descent. Her mother is Takitumu from Rarotonga, Cook Islands and her father is from Ellesmere Port in England. She is a former RNZ Pacific journalist who is now a senior producer for The House.

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