Liam Koka‘ua (Photo: Fliss Thompson)

Is it time for the Cook Islands to ditch its coloniser name? Liam Koka‘ua thinks so. Here he tells Teuila Fuata‘i about the history of the name, and why it’s time for a name that better reflects the islands’ culture and identity.


I changed my surname 10 years ago, when I was 21. It was an easy decision to make. I was about to graduate from Auckland University, with a BA in geography and Pacific studies, and I wanted the name of the family who’d raised me to be on the certificate that I’d worked so hard for.

That name is Koka‘ua, the name of my Rarotongan tupuna.

The surname I’d carried for 21 years was Hilyard, which came from my maternal grandfather, an Australian Papa‘ā (Pākehā). He and my Nana Moari didn’t stay together long, and I’ve never met him. Neither have I met my father. So I never felt any connection to them or to their names.

It was my mother Kirsten, my Nana Moari, and my great-grandparents Roinga “Taiti” Koka‘ua and Jane Marsters who brought me up. Pāpā Taiti and Māmā had moved here from Rarotonga in 1948, and I was the third generation of our family who’d been born and grew up in Aotearoa.

After they died, when I was about 13, Nana Moari moved back to Rarotonga. That’s when I started spending every school holiday on our family land, and reconnecting with my heritage. I spent time with elders in our family’s village, Pokoinu, where Pāpā Taiti had been the rangatira. I learned about the roles he and Māmā had, and how they contributed to everyday life in the village and to decisions around land.

And, over the years, I learned more and more about my Rarotongan papa’anga (whakapapa) and my reo. I still remember the first time I had a conversation in Māori over there. It really felt like I’d found my home, like I belonged — something I’d never experienced in Aotearoa.

Changing my name was inevitable. Koka‘ua reflected my identity and my growth as an individual — and, to be honest, it’s a name I believe I had earned. It affirmed my connection to my Rarotonga language and culture, and it fit me in a way Hilyard never had.

And it was a kind of coming of age — a late 21st birthday present to myself, and a declaration of who I really was.

Liam Koka’ua at the unveiling of the headstone of his ancestor ʻApainga Tangata o Tangaroa ki ʻAvaiki, later known as Te Ariki Kokaʻua o Ngāmaru Ariki, at Te Tuarea Nui o Ārera burial grounds, Taputapuātea, Rarotonga, 2019. (Photo supplied)

In a way, the Cook Islands needs a similar coming of age and awakening about its name.

How did we come to carry the name of a British explorer who only visited our islands twice (in 1773 and 1777)? Well, of course, it was a name imposed on us by outsiders. We didn’t choose it, and no one asked us about it.

In fact, Captain Cook only ever set foot on the tiny uninhabited atoll that he named Palmerston, where he and his crew stopped to restock their supplies. He never made it as far as Rarotonga, the biggest island in the group.

And he didn’t even name us after himself, although he did give our southern islands a collective name — the “Hervey Islands” after a British admiral. It was a Russian cartographer who first renamed those islands the “Cook Islands” in an atlas published between 1824 and 1835.

It wasn’t till 1901, when New Zealand annexed all our islands, that we were brought together under one name. For a while too, from 1901 to 1903, New Zealand’s new “Cook Islands” territory even included Niue.

A map by Tupaia, the Ra’iātean navigator, showing some of the 130 islands which he or his ancestors had travelled to. Rarotonga (rendered “ORarothoa”) is there in the top left.

Before the Europeans arrived and “discovered” us, there was no collective “Cook Islands”, by this or any other name. Each of our islands was an autonomous kingdom, with the exception of Ngā-pū-toru islands, the collective name for Ātiu, Maʻuke and Mitiʻāro, which were sometimes ruled by the same ariki families.

Even the concept of “Māori” arrived with Papaʻā. Before then, travellers across our ‘enua or the moana generally looked like us, had the same culture and lifestyles, and spoke similar languages. Our ʻui tupuna only used Māori to refer to ourselves when the new arrivals came and they wanted to distinguish people who were native, indigenous, local, or normal, from foreign or strange.

So the Cook Islands name has no meaningful connection to who we are. To me, when we describe ourselves as Cook Islanders, we’re saying “I am a James Cook Islander”, or “I am of James Cook.” And that’s certainly not a person or a heritage that I associate with.

And yet attempts to change our name to a Māori name that reflects our Indigenous heritage has met with resistance in the past.

In 1994, then prime minister Geoffrey Henry proposed ‘Avaiki Nui as a more fitting name for our islands, and put it to a national referendum. Only 30 percent supported the name change.

A more recent attempt in 2019 to find a replacement name was stalled after a backlash from Cook Islanders living overseas. But a year later, there was another push for a Māori name from traditional leaders, backed by Rarotonga’s Tākitumu paramount chief, Pā Upokotini Ariki.

I can understand the emotional attachment that some of our people have for the Cook Islands name. It’s what they’ve grown up with, and they can’t imagine calling themselves something new. And let’s face it, some people just don’t like change.

For some people too, the idea of changing our country’s name might seem too troublesome and difficult.

But more than 70 other countries around the world have changed their names, in many cases to rid themselves of the names imposed by their colonisers. For example, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), and Zimbabwe which was formerly Rhodesia after the British business magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes, and then Zimbabwe Rhodesia (a compromise to appease its white residents), before finally throwing off the “Rhodesia” label in 1980.

Closer to home, we’ve seen Tuvalu do away with the Ellis Islands in 1978, and Vanuatu changing from New Hebrides in 1980. In 1997, Sāmoa returned to its original name before it was divvied up by western superpowers to become first German Sāmoa and then Western Sāmoa.

Some discussion needs to be had, of course, about which name best reflects who we are. One option too is to keep the current name alongside a Māori one — as we’ve done here with Aotearoa New Zealand. That seems like a halfway house to me but it might make the change more palatable to those who want to hold on to our current name.

Either way, my vote goes to ‘Avaiki Nui, the name proposed by Sir Geoffrey Henry in 1994. It’s a name that reflects both our ancient history as well as the journey we’ve taken in becoming a nation of 15 islands through colonisation.

The first part of ‘Avaiki Nui refers to when a number of islands west of Raʻiātea in Tahiti were known as ʻAvaiki Raro. This included all the islands now known as the Cook Islands. ʻAvaiki is a way of  saying “homeland” in our Māori dialect, and it shares linguistic origins with the names of other islands, like Savai’i in Sāmoa, Hawaiʻi, and Havaiʻi (or Raʻiātea), and the Hawaiki of Aotearoa Māori.

The second part reflects our collective identity as a group of islands. Nui means vast, great. So ʻAvaiki Nui is our great and vast homeland. It’s a name that centres our Māori culture and identity and shows we’re Indigenous people in Te Moana nui a Kiwa.

But, more importantly perhaps, is the power we have to reclaim our nation’s name. We don’t need to wait for official approval to use ‘Avaiki Nui. Indigenising our national name through the regular use of ‘Avaiki Nui is part of a bigger journey in decolonising ourselves and our nation.

We need only look at how that’s worked here in Aotearoa New Zealand. Even without a legal change, Aotearoa has become mainstream and normalised. It’s used not just by individuals, but by schools, leaders, policymakers, government departments, companies and the media.

I don’t think we should ever underestimate how important that is. Ultimately, it’s our own moves around our reo and culture which will decolonise our people and way of life as Māori of ‘Avaiki Nui.


Liam Kokaʻua is of the Ngāti Makea Ārera of Pokoinu, Rarotonga. He also traces descent from the islands of Pāmati, Mangaia, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Tongareva, Aitutaki and Tahiti. He has a master’s in Indigenous studies and is now a senior Pasifika specialist at Auckland Council.

As told to Teuila Fuata‘i. Made possible by the Public Interest Journalism Fund through NZ On Air.

© E-Tangata, 2022

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