When you think Cook Islands, you have to think 15 islands and Tokoroa.
Cook Island culture is synonymous with the South Waikato with about 85 per cent of the district’s over 3000 strong Pasifika community hailing from there.
That makes the South Waikato, and Tokoroa in particular, one of the largest Cook Island towns anywhere. Even the capital island, in Rarotonga, only has 5445 residents.
Tokoroa teacher Teokotai Tarai, who helped to organise Cook Island Language Week (July 29 - August 5), said the culture began to make its mark in the 50s.
“Our fathers came and worked at Kinleith Mill; that was the drawcard and through the mill they were able to purchase homes so a lot of families came over and it just spread,” she said.
Mama Jean Tuarae said due to the culture’s strong focus on family, the local Cook Islands population has soared.
“We are no different from Indians, Chinese, and Italians. Wherever they migrate, family comes,” she said.
South Waikato Pacific Island Community Services’ (SWPICS) Akarere Henry agreed.
“We are a very communal people, that is one of our strong characteristics,” she said.
“We are a people that live under the same roof with three generations. It is natural to us.”
Christianity has also played a part in the culture’s strong South Waikato presence.
“Those first fathers of our community were very entrenched in their spirituality which meant the first church for us was well entrenched here,” she said.
“This was literally an island home away from home.”
“The Cook Island flag has 15 stars which represent each of the 15 islands. Tokoroa is commonly referred to as “the 16th star”. We have become so blended with the community at large we are here to stay,” she laughed.
She said Cook Island culture was now a significant part of the community with lots of local activities.
“At the beginning of the year we have Araura Day which brings together eight villages from one of the main islands, Aitutaki. Easily on that day there would have been over 1500 people gathered, singing and being proud of their Cook Island culture,” she said.
“In March we have a Cook Islands dance competition, in June we bring together the Pacific Island churches in New Zealand for a three-day celebration of young people, our culture and spirituality. In May our secondary schools take part in Pasifika By Nature, in October we have Children’s Day where children recite biblical passages that speak about how they are able to grow in the Lord, and in between all those we have twenty firsts, weddings, and unveilings.”
“We also have five Pacific early childhood education centres and four of those are predominantly run in Cook Island/English. You won’t get that anywhere else in the world,” she said.
Tarai said Tokoroa in particular was a spitting image of life in the Cook Islands.
“If you haven’t been to the Cook Islands then you should come to Tokoroa,” she said.
She said it would be impossible to remove the culture from the South Waikato.
Tokoroa hosts a number of sporting, cultural and music events every year including the Polynesian festival.
Note: The Tokoroa Polynesian Festival takes place every year in September. Tokoroa’s local schools and preschools give Samoan, Maori and Cook Islands performances, where you can hear Cook Island drumming and dancing and the Maori performing arts being displayed on the huge stage at the new South Waikato Events Centre, located at The Tokoroa Memorial Sports Ground.