In Depth

Why the Cook Islands wants to change its name

Government-backed committee is evaluating 60 suggestions ahead of referendum

The Cook Islands is set to cut its colonial ties by changing the island nation’s name to one that reflects its Polynesian culture.

The South Pacific archipelago, a self-governing associated state of New Zealand, has borne the name of British explorer James Cook since the early 1800s, despite having been inhabited by Polynesian peoples since the sixth century.

In January, a name change committee was established by tribal leader Pa Marie Ariki to find a new moniker for the nation, which has a population of 21,000 spread across 15 islands.

The panel is now in the process of evaluating 60 proposed names whittled down from public submissions, ahead of a referendum, reports New Zealand television network TVNZ.

“It must have a taste of our Christian faith, and a big say on our Maori heritage. And it must instil a sense of pride in our people, and unite our people,” said committee chair Danny Mataroa, according to The Guardian

How did it get its name?

The Cook Islands were first inhabited by Polynesians from Tahiti in the sixth century, reports Sydney-based site SBS News

In 1595, Spanish sailor Alvaro de Menda a de Neira became the first European settler to document the islands, which he dubbed San Bernardo. In 1606, Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernandes de Queiros landed on the islands and renamed them Gente Hermosa (Beautiful People).

The archipelago’s current name stems from the arrival of British explorer James Cook, who led expeditions in the region in 1773 and 1777, although he named them the Hervey Islands.

The first documents to use the Cook Islands name appeared in 1835.

The islands became a British protectorate in 1888 and were included within the boundaries of New Zealand in 1901. Wellington granted the archipelago autonomy in 1965, though its inhabitants are officially citizens of New Zealand.

Why change the name now?

In a 1994 referendum, Cook Islands citizens were asked to choose between retaining the name or switching to Avaiki Nui, a local term for the islands. The majority voted to retain the current name.

But committee chair Mataroa this week told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) that there is an appetite for change, and claimed the result of the previous referendum failed because it was “based on deliberations from the main island of Rarotonga”.

This time, “traditional leaders from all 12 of the country's inhabited islands” are involved in the process, he said.

The deputy prime minister of the Cook Islands, Mark Brown, said the government is open to a change, adding: “I’m quite happy to look at a traditional name for our country which more reflects the true Polynesian nature of our island nation.” 

What might the new name be?

No prospective names have been disclosed by the committee as yet, but Avaiki Nui, the name rejected in 1994, is reported to be in the running again. 

The goal is to submit the top choice from the 60 names being considered to the government by April, said Mataroa.

“Initially, the idea was to have the indigenous moniker feature alongside the existing Cook Islands name, in the same way that its larger neighbour is sometimes known as Aotearoa-New Zealand,” says France 24.

But the committee is now in favour of dropping the Cook Islands name altogether and adopting one in the local language, known as Cook Islands Maori. The new name must reflect the country’s heritage, people and strong Christian belief, as well as being “easy to say”, Mataroa added. 

Regional newspaper Cook Island News reports that cultural leader and government advisor Mike Tavioni has suggested Nukutere, meaning “the place I travel to and from” - a name that supporters argue “enhances our voyaging history”.

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