Aotearoa: Home to thriving Pacific languages, cultures and identities

Launch of Cook Islands Language Week, St Lukes Pacific Island Presbyterian Church, Tokoroa

Kia òràna tatou katoatoa.

Papa Turu. To the māmās and pāpās of the Tokoroa Cook Islands community. To the Samoan orator who greeted me, the mana whenua present, and your worship the mayor.

It is such a fantastic pleasure to bask in the shining glory of the sixteenth star. You are the most southern of all the Cook Island stars.

I have to say, my heart is filled with an immense sense of gratitude at your generosity of spirit this morning. My whole body is overflowing with the power of your wonderful singing and the spirituality of your songs. My legs are still shaking from the beat of your drums.

I have brought with me mana and dignity of the New Zealand Parliament with the presence of so many of my parliamentary colleagues, especially local MP Adrian Rurawhe, who is also the Associate Speaker of Parliament.

I am particularly pleased to acknowledge the presence of my ministerial colleague and your daughter, Minister Poto Williams, the Minister for the Community and Volunteer Sector. She is a daughter of Manihiki.

I am also joined this morning with the royalty of the Cook Islands community from South Auckland.

Mama Rosie Blake, the Cook Islands Consul in Auckland is here with Mama Tupou Manapouri.  They are supported by all the beautiful mamas of Mangere - the gateway to the nation, land of the young, beautiful and gifted, home of world champions.

They have all come to support you on this auspicious and special occasion.

Thank you so much for hosting us this morning.

Kia ōrāna kōtou. Kia ōrāna te au manu’iri. Warm Pacific greetings to you all.

Let me start by thanking the community of organisers who make this celebration possible, the Cook Islands community in Tokoroa, our church leaders, mana whenua, our traditional leaders, especially the Cook Islands Development Agency New Zealand (CIDANZ) who have worked with the Ministry for Pacific Peoples for this event.

Community organisations ensure that the Cook Islands culture, history and custom is understood as part of the fabric of New Zealand - and one of the threads that keeps together the fabric of who we are, is our language.

More than this, you have given us a foundation upon which we in government have been able to build a programme of work focused on making Aotearoa New Zealand a home to thriving Pacific languages, cultures and identities.

We come together today to celebrate Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani at an important time for Pacific people in Aotearoa.

Our vision of a confident, resilient and prosperous Pacific Aotearoa has become something real. It has taken us to the cusp of great change.

The four goals we developed in partnership with the Pacific community are now within reach. Each of these goals tell a story about the challenge and change we have been through, and the aspirations we have for the future.

The reason one of these goals is focused specifically on our language is because, for us as Pacific people, language is an important bridge between our place in modern New Zealand and our story as Pacific Islanders.

Today, that story is one where we are better recognised for the diversity we bring, the knowledge we impart, and the contribution we make to life in Aotearoa.

But our success was not handed to us. It has been fought for, won through hard work, courage, determination, commitment and a faith in our ability to make our own history, to write our own stories, and to have a voice in the decisions that determine what direction our nation takes.

Language is an ideal lens through which we can think about what we have accomplished. Because, despite a general expectation that we use English, many Pacific families do still maintain strong affiliations with their language.

Think about this for a moment. For decades, English has been internalised as the norm – suppressing the possibility of giving proper value to Pacific languages outside the home, family, and church. And yet so many of us still preserve our language while simultaneously becoming proficient in English. This is a remarkable skill. One we need to acknowledge, value and promote in Aotearoa.

Since coming to government, we have developed a vision that speaks of a resilient Pacific Aotearoa. This is what we mean.

Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani is one of seven language weeks we celebrate in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Since these celebrations first started, we have been through significant change as a Pacific population.

Now, more than ever, the messages we see about what it means to be from the Pacific celebrate what we are – and the contribution we make - rather than defining us by what we are not.

We have always known that embracing our Pacific culture would not hold us back, but rather propel us forward.

But because of what we have achieved – in part through language weeks, as well as our engagement with the community and our vision for Pacific Aotearoa - we can now point to a set of government policies that say the same thing.

Policies that say, “we will support you to explore and express your identity freely, in the context of your own language, cultures, values and beliefs.”

But policies alone will not be enough. Changing the status of Pacific languages is a long-term project that requires all of us – politicians, officials, community, academics, journalists, teachers, parents – to work together.

That takes me to the theme of this year’s Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani.

… Taku Rama, Taau Toi: Ora Te Reo - My Torch, Your Adze: The Language Lives.

What this teaches us is that the vision promise we have made will only be kept if we work together. For it is up to us - as it has been for every Pacific generation - to light the way so the next generation can carve a prosperous future for themselves. 

Let us remember those who are no longer with us, who fought hard till their final breath, to value our te reo, and to find ways to pass it to the next generation.

What we are here to celebrate today is the role our language play in guiding us towards this future.

This is not necessarily going to be easy. We live in a world where encouraging people to speak English is perceived to have greater value and offer more opportunities.

Moreover, we belong to a multi-cultural country where identities are not static. They wax, wane, and change.

On a day like today, Cook Island Māori may be your most salient identity. Yet, at other times, you may identify more with another part of your heritage.

The point is: how we define ourselves depends, in part, on what we understand about where we are from and the extent to which we can participate in the cultures we are surrounded by.

Language is a crucial part of this understanding. Because our language is who we are. It defines us. It is a lens through which we can understand and explain the world around us.

However, the number of people who speak our Island languages is declining. This is putting the intergenerational transmission of Pacific languages in Aotearoa at risk.

What this means is that the stories our languages carry from one generation to the next will – without action – be heard less and less frequently in Pacific homes and communities up and down the country.

Nowhere is this starker than with Cook Islands Māori.

Over 77 percent of Cook Islanders now live outside of their island homelands, yet so few, particularly of school age, speak their language. What this suggests is that Cook Islanders’ interaction with modern New Zealand - and decades of prioritising monolingualism - has made it much harder to maintain the numbers of native speakers of Cook Islands Māori.

What we face now, then, is a similar situation to Māori in the 1970s, where we are struggling to build a linguistic bridge between generations. The hard work of people like you, however - to ensure we never lose the recognition, status and prestige of our language - has always been about changing that, about building that intergenerational bridge. 

Indeed, the work you do to celebrate Epetoma o te reo Māori Kūki ’Āirani has a reach that extends into the homes, schools, libraries, churches, media organisations, businesses and government Ministries across New Zealand, who will be joining us in celebrating all this week.

With each Pacific person that learns a word, or a phrase, in their language, or better still goes on to become a fluent speaker and advocate for our language, New Zealand and its people change for the better.

Together, you are making that change possible.

But you know as well as me that we cannot meet our goal of thriving Pacific languages without having a clear and shared understanding of what our languages mean – and that comes from hard work, reflection and an ongoing talanoa.

One of the things we do need to reflect on is the story we are all, I’m sure, familiar with – the story that we are the ones responsible for the decline of Pacific languages. This is a story that so often disguises the responsibility of dominant cultures – and the various pressures their expectations and values have placed upon us.

We have an obligation to change this story. But, as I said before, this is a job for all of us.

That’s why our decision in the first ever Wellbeing Budget to allocate $20 million to a new dedicated Language Unit in the Ministry of Pacific Peoples is so important. This new unit will be tasked with working with you, the community, to figure out how we best deliver our vision of a New Zealand where all Pacific people can learn and use their language - at home, at work, and in our communities.

Our objective in this isn’t simply to increase the number of Pacific language speakers, but to help our people develop a stronger identity as Pacific New Zealanders.

Because when we have our language, we have our story. And when we have our story, we have a sense of place. And when we have a sense of place, we have the confidence we need to thrive.

This year’s Cook Islands Language Week is particularly special as it is taking place during the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages.

In this year of global celebration, we can be proud that we are already making positive changes to support our Pacific languages and those who speak them.

Cook Islands Language week is not only about celebrating those who speak this wonderful language, but to inspire others to learn.

It is an opportunity to remind all of us that we, as New Zealanders, do not speak with one language.

So, for those who do not speak Cook Islands Māori, or any other Pacific language, I encourage you, when you next hear someone use a Pacific greeting or open a meeting in a Pacific language, take time to learn what their words mean.

Take time to understand the depth of meaning and the cultural importance of these words.

Because your job – like all of ours – is to work together to protect, nurture and grow our Pacific languages.

Ends.