We Asked Cook Islanders If The Cook Islands Should Change Its Name
“It continues to perpetuate the colonial hold on us.”
All images by the author
Fifty-four years after gaining independence, the Cook Islands is once again considering a name change. The tiny island nation, located between New Zealand and Hawaii, is thinking about changing its name to one that better reflects its Polynesian culture and heritage.
Made up of 15 islands, each with its own unique history and pre-colonial name, the Cook Islands were first sighted by infamous explorer Captain James Cook in 1773. Cook originally named what are now known as the Southern Cook Islands the “Hervey Islands”, after a British Admiral.
The name remained in use until the 1820s, when the islands were renamed by Russian cartographer Von Krusenstern, in honour of Cook, who died in 1779. The country was annexed to New Zealand in 1901.
The Cook Islands eventually gained independence in 1965. In 1994, former Prime Minister Sir Geoffrey Henry approved a referendum proposing a name change. The proposal was rejected by the voters.
Now, almost 25 years on, talk of changing the name has been reignited by tribal leaders. We spoke to locals in the Cook Islands to find out what they think of the proposed change.
Renasha Nee Nee,
VICE: Hi Renasha, do you think the Cook Islands should change its name?
I'm a little unsure about whether it's a good thing. I agree that we should acknowledge our culture and stuff, but there's going to be a huge cost involved. I think the money is probably better spent elsewhere, like an increase in the minimum wage, improving internet accessibility, or roading.
Business owner, 27
Hi Maeva. What do you think about the proposal to change the Cook Islands name?
I do support the change.
I think that [with] the history that we've been taught about Captain Cook and how he sailed here and how we got our name from him, we tend to forget our roots and we've lost a lot of our heritage. Foreigners have come here and told us that this is how we should live, and this is how we're supposed to do things. So, I think it [changing the name] is a really good step in terms of us taking back our heritage. We do have a choice. We can decide what we want to be called.
What benefits do you think a name change will bring?
It will give the future generations a better sense of identity. "Cook Islands" is not a traditional name – it's definitely not what we were originally called back in the day. It's a name that was given to us by a couple of old men in a room.
What are your thoughts on changing the name of the Cook Islands to something more reflective of its Polynesian culture?
I'm happy with keeping the name Cook Islands. I just feel there's not a need to change the name. It's not only that, it's the money involved, it's the cost involved to change everything. I don't think that at this time it's a big issue. There are other issues going on that we need to focus on. To me, that's more important than the name, at this moment in time.
Would you want to see the Cook Islands name changed?
There's a lot that goes into a name. We have such great pride in the unique names of our islands, but we haven't managed to transfer that to our national name. Naming tells us a lot about ourselves and right now, the Cook Islands is not really telling the world much about ourselves – it's telling a story of colonialism, which we should acknowledge as a part of our history, but not allow it to define us any longer.
What effects do you think a name change would have?
If it is changed, there will be teething issues. We've had this label for over a hundred years. But it has been done before in other countries. In the long-term, it's going to have a lot of positive flow-on effects for our people. When people ask me “What’s your ethnicity?” and I respond, “Cook Islander”, there's nothing really behind it. If you had something that's in your language, that's something you can be proud of.
Two weeks ago I was asked, “What's the meaning behind the name 'Cook Islands'?” Before I could answer they said, “Is it colonisation?” I kind of took it to heart. I feel that a lot of Cook Islanders are ready to change. Just as we became independent over 50 years ago, we are now ready to take another step towards decolonising ourselves. It can be a name that we can be proud of as a people.
Accounts Manager, 30
Do you support this proposal to change the name?
Not really, no.
Because everyone knows us as the Cook Islands and, having that in place, I think we should just leave it as it is. The name should stay as it is. Everyone knows us as the Cook Islands.
Teatuakaro Michael (Mike) Tavioni Te Rangi Nui o Iva,
It has been proposed that the Cook Islands be renamed something more reflective of its Polynesian culture and heritage. What are your thoughts on this?
It's already changed. I changed it in my book, Motifs of Rarotonga and Nukutere (Cook Islands). The name I put down is Nukutere, instead of Cook Islands.
The only objection against having a new name, or an original name, is the arguing between people. A lot of people do not agree.
The other negative side of it is the millions of dollars that went into the development of the tourist industry. You see, the "Cook Islands" is the name of this destination. Since tourism began here, we've lost two-thirds of our population. What I'm trying to say is that tourism is not doing us any good. So, if people argue that it's no good for tourism because we promote the Cook Islands as the "Cook Islands", my answer to that is take your tourist industry and stick it up your arse.
What effects do you think a name change would have?
The problem we have, with our people both here and overseas, is a health problem. This is due to them adopting other people’s lifestyles. Maybe changing the name will remind them who they are. Maybe they will become Māori again and lead happier and healthier lives. It will cost the country heaps to rebrand tourist promotional material and the likes, but I don't care.
Why don't you care?
Colonialism – we should just shake it off. ”Cook Islands” implies that Cook owns us, you know? If that's what it implies, then it continues to perpetuate the colonial hold on us. We have to shake it off.
Follow Liam on Twitter @rata_nah