Stories of Pito Planted: A Review of Te Kinakina

Twelve Kuki Airani writers of Te Kinakina, all women raised in Tokoroa, reveal how their people have expanded the Cook Islands Universe.

If you take away anything from this review, it should be this. If you are Cook Islands Māori (especially if you live in Aotearoa), you should purchase a copy of Te Kinakina: E Ngara I te Ngari, Remember who you are and where you come from. The book emerged from writing workshops led by Vaughan Rapatahana and facilitated by South Waikato Pacific Island Community Services (SWPICS), Read NZ Te Pou Muramura and the Ministry of Education. The contributors are 12 vaꞌine Kūki ꞌĀirani who tell their stories of growing up in Tokoroa, Aotearoa, the self-proclaimed ‘16th Star’ of the 15 islands on the Cook Islands flag.

The cover sings of its creators: vaꞌine Kūki ꞌĀirani. The centre shows a baby in the foetal position, pito exposed, over a tīvaevae. The title is replicated at each side to repeat the rotational symmetry of the tīvaevae. Not many books like this – by our people, for our people – exist, and it’s a treasure. There are four sections in Te Kinakina: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. If you are surprised by the direct reference to good Christian values, you probably do not know many Kūki ꞌĀirani.

The cover sings of its creators: va‘ine Kuki Airani

Reading this book is like holding up a mirror. Yes, I know, representation counts. But it’s a little bit more than that. ‘Adoration’ shares common migration narratives that focus on fathers seeking a better, more prosperous life and the gratitude felt for them by the writers. I remember sitting across the kitchen table from my grandfather as I read. It was the last time he ever came to stay with us in Dunedin, and, up until then, he had never really spoken to me beyond giving me jobs to do. In fact I didn’t realise he was so fluent in English. That day my grandfather sat with me for about an hour and shared why he had moved the family to Niu Tīreni. He told me what he had wanted for his children and how he hoped they would eventually return to build a better life for te iti tangata. Afterwards, he left me $50. I know our migration stories of arrival in Aotearoa, but, reading Te Kinakina, I realised that I wasn’t the only girl getting taught kitchen-table migration lessons.

The stories start in the islands, where one sibling moves to Aotearoa first, followed by a wife, perhaps children, then a brother, slowly building a community. Then comes the establishment of the parishes and the fundraising network across Aotearoa. The stoic mother manages the home, and the often-absent father tends the garden when he isn’t at the factory. Our communities didn’t happen overnight, but our tupuna made sure they happened.

Through it all, our culture is seamlessly woven into the narratives

If the first chapter celebrates fathers, ‘Confession’ deals with the complex dynamics between the writers, their mothers and the need to belong; the mess and pain of settling here. These narratives feel driven by a particular brand of Cook Islands guilt that equates failure to a sin worth confessing, even if that has less to do with us and more to do with the sour bitterness of the promised milk and honey. Rosalin Daniel’s writing reads like a love letter of remorse to her deceased mother. Tere Ford’s poetry entitled ‘My Beautiful Trauma’ captures the dissonance and tension between a daughter, a mother and the Aotearoa-born experience.

And through it all, our culture is seamlessly woven into the narratives. There are household objects: kana, tīvaevae and kikau brooms. In ‘Thanksgiving’, Faye Henry writes about the significance of naming her children. Levi Sikking reveals the fate of her pet goat when she sees “smoke coming from the ground”. Then there are the ties to family, land, legacy, and connections between all of them – te papaꞌanga.

Te Kinakina provides a beautiful photographic record generously shared by the contributors

The last section is ‘Supplication’. If you are church-skipping heathen like myself and need a reminder of what supplication is, it is a form of prayer where someone asks for something for themselves or on behalf of another. ‘Supplication’ begins with Jessica Kirikava’s experience with Type 1 diabetes, another common Cook Islands story but one seldom written with Kirikava’s openness. The four sections end by returning to Simiona.

Te Kinakina provides a beautiful photographic record generously shared by the contributors. At the end of Te Kinakina, we’re provided with photos that show us the myriad facets that have shaped the Cook Islands experiences over the last seven decades in Aotearoa: men lined up in front of church halls, groups of dancers, mamas in ꞌei katu, children held by aunties in white church hats. In a poem, Simiona writes:

Kua atui toku pito iaku ki te enua tangata Aotearoa.

My pito connects me as a person of the land of Aotearoa. This phrase refers to the practice of burying a child’s placenta and umbilical cord under a tree to connect the child to the land. To bury a child’s pito here is pledging them, here, to this land: the cost of migration.

The writers illuminate one more part of the Cook Islands Universe: the 16th star, Tokoroa

Was it worth it? When I read this book, I felt many things; part of a wider papaꞌanga and a shared experience, a deep sadness, pride, nostalgia, disillusionment. I couldn’t tell you whether I enjoyed it, but I see this book as pivotal in providing a foundation for our Aotearoa stories. By fixing these migration stories in the published text we can begin to unravel our narratives, select aspects we wish to retain and repurpose ideas that are no longer useful to our people in their current form. From Te Kinakina, we can begin to develop more deliberate narratives about who we are as tangata Aotearoa Kūki ꞌĀirani.

In a speech, former Prime Minister Henry Puna described the “Cook Islands Universe” as “Cook Islanders wherever they are [in the world]”. Cook Islanders in Aotearoa are an extension of the land of their tupuna, rather than a severed branch. In Te Kinakina,the writersuse the written word to illuminate one more part of the Cook Islands Universe: the 16th star, Tokoroa. It is my hope that this is the beginning of further explorations into the experiences of our people, the stories we share and the relational ties that bind us – te papaꞌanga.


Te Kinakina is published by South Waikato Pacific Island Community Services in Tokoroa and Vaughan Rapatahana, with support from the Ministry of Education Te Tahuhu o Te Matauranga and Read NZ Te Pou Muramura

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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