Cook Islands Māori, not just words but a way of life

Issue: Volume 97, Number 13

Posted: 30 July 2018
Reference #: 1H9ji_

Tata Ru, a 40-year veteran of the Public Service, reflects on his mother tongue, the Cook Islands Māori language, and what he hopes for the language in the future.

In 1971 my mother was in Wellington hospital having given birth to my youngest sister Susan. My mother was very ill, and she wasn’t expected to live.

I was 10 and living in Aitutaki in the Cook Islands with the old couple next-door - Mama Mareuti and Papa Jim Putoko. Mama Mareuti had elephantiasis in her left leg. This woman had the biggest impact on my life. And as a kid, you know it’s uncool to be around old people but as children we always gathered around her place to play and often have meals.

On our slow Sunday morning walks to church, I was conscious of other kids watching me and pointing, but then she started telling stories as we walked and the leg didn’t matter anymore; I was just looking forward to what the next story would be. She explained all these quotes, and I was only a little kid but they’ve stuck with me ever since. I would say that’s when I got taught things and it’s held me where I am in good stead. Even now when people question me I still go back to that. It’s always in the background of my mind.

My sister and I arrived in New Zealand on 6 May 1971. I was eleven and she was five. Within two weeks, my mother was able to leave her oxygen tent in hospital and, although weak, was allowed home. I believe she was merely heartbroken at not having all her children with her.

I was fluent when I came out, understandably, but my experience at primary school was so frustrating. I could explain to you, I could describe to you what I see and what I feel in my language but I couldn’t find those words in English. It was quite frustrating.

In English, if you’re speaking to someone, you don’t expect them to know about your culture or your history. You can only rely on the words. But In Cook Islands Māori, our shared history and knowledge change what we say and its meaning.

It’s like asking a simple question like ‘How are you?’ The English reply I learned was ‘Fine, thank you’. Whereas in Cook Islands Māori, the reply can depend on where you are and who is asking. So the response can vary from ‘Meitaki’ meaning ‘okay, good, or fine’. Or to an elderly person I might reply ‘Te ora ua nei i te ora a te Atua’ which means ‘surviving by the grace of God’.
Or to someone on Aitutaki, saying ‘aka ua’ meaning ‘Just enough, not too good, not too bad!’

So anyway, I went through primary school and from there I went to Wellington College. They decided I needed remedial English. Maths wasn’t a problem. Figures are figures wherever you go.
I had an English teacher from England well – she had an English accent. That’s who I learnt from.
It was hard feeling comfortable with that language, but eventually I did and shed some
of my Cook Islands language. That was the only way really, you had to.

At the end of the sixth form, like a lot of us at secondary school, you go down to the Government and in my case there was a Māori and Pacific Island recruitment scheme back then. So I started at the Department of Education in January 1978.

My mother didn’t really understand English when it was more complex. But she was eloquent and wonderful to listen to when she spoke in her mother tongue. Mum was my sounding board to the end and the one person I would always talk to and make her laugh in the way our language is able to tease and make fun.

After Mum passed in 2015, my sisters Kaisari, Tutai and Takake are my sounding boards to maintain my Cook Islands Māori.

Tata’s connection between the church and his culture

Some of the most wonderful things about our language and our traditions come through the church. It’s through our singing. And you won’t get it from any other Pacific Island group. You can pick any hymn and they will sing it and it’s sung without reading. It’s learnt over years of listening and finding your own part. And how I describe it to others is it’s like you could close your eyes and sing and you could swear you can hear your grandmother two rows down. It’s the same tune, its similar voices, it sort of connects you. You never, ever lose that. That’s why we have no instruments. We’ve sung it over and over, we’ve picked it up from when we were small. It’s a living language.

Tata’s advice for teachers

I think if some little 11-year old is given the opportunity to describe his world in his words and that gets translated, he would feel empowered by that. There’s value. It’s real, we want to know what makes you tick. Then he can have both. You can have Cook Islands, you can have English. I didn’t get that option.

Cook Islands Language Week

The annual ‘Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani: Cook Islands Language Week is being held from Sunday
29 July to Saturday 4 August 2018.

The theme for this year is: “Kia ngākau parau, kia rangarangatu to tatou reo Māori Kūki ‘Āirani – Be proud of our reo Māori Kūki ‘Airani and protect its future!”

You can find information on the week and language resource cards through the Ministry for Pacific Peoples: link).

To order Cook Islands dual-language reading books visit:

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:10 am, 30 July 2018

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