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'Akapapa'anga Ara Tangata: Genealogising the (Cook Islands) Māori imaginary

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posted on 23.05.2021, 21:31 by Emma Powell

For Cook Islands Māori (Māori) peoples, genealogical practices, or what is referred to as ‘akapapa‘anga ara tangata (‘akapapa‘anga), are central to identity-making, relationality and subjectivities. Though this is anecdotally acknowledged, there has been little scholarly consideration of this cornerstone of Māori society and how it is practiced, developed and given meaning in their day to day lives. This thesis provides an understanding of ‘akapapa‘anga ara tangata in three modes: cultural practice, cultural paradigm and research method, and examines the theoretical potential of these modalities in the revisioning of Māori historiography, nationhood and futurity.

To build an understanding of ‘akapapa‘anga in these interrelating modes, I discuss reflections from interview participants, gathered during fieldwork in Rarotonga, Cook Islands in 2019. This is deepened with comparative analyses of scholarship about indigenous Pacific genealogical practices, world-view and knowledge-making by Cook Islands Māori scholars, and writings from other national and cultural contexts in the Pacific region, Polynesia in particular. This critical approach is a Pacific Studies practice shaped by Teresia Teaiwa’s (2010) prescription for interdisciplinarity and comparative practice. It situates this thesis and is inherent in the subsequent chapters. The thesis is structured around three narrative centres, shaped by the temporal and spatial scales of ‘akapapa‘anga explored in Chapter 2.

To demonstrate the theoretical efficacy of ‘akapapa‘anga in the contemporary lives of Māori peoples, the history and potential futurity of the Cook Islands name is examined in Chapter 3. As a key cultural practice of ‘akapapa‘anga, Māori naming traditions can be understood as temporal markers across the complex genealogies of people and land. Both people and land can carry and invoke several names in life and in death, and they are often changed, bestowed, or kept deliberately silent. This facet of ‘akapapa‘anga offers a Māori epistemological lens through which to view the nation’s name anew: all names for Māori are not necessarily appended irrevocably, but invoked through ‘akapapa‘anga.

In moving temporally and spatially outward from this narrative centre of nation and name, Chapter 4 explores the constitution of Cook Islands nationhood through discussion of another familiar name – the demonym Māori – and the relations of Aotearoa Māori with whom we share it. The inclusion of the Cook Islands and its people as part of the Realm, or the nation-state that is New Zealand, rarely features in popular discourse about the Cook Islands and as such the genealogical connections between Māori and Māori are ostensibly acknowledged but remain somewhat indeterminate. Through examples of story, chant and dance I show that through these knowledge-making practices of ‘akapapa‘anga it is possible, as Alice Te Punga Somerville (2012) writes, to productively “re-remember” our way across time, space and well-beyond the colonial cartographies we think we have always known.

This re-remembering takes us to a final narrative centre. In Chapter 5, the Māori world is presented as an imaginary built from the cultural paradigm that is ‘akapapa‘anga. By surveying a tradition of imaginaries across theoretical, critical and poetic literatures of the Cook Islands and the Pacific, I build a Māori imaginary by using the modalities of ‘akapapa‘anga in the context of the time in which this thesis was written; the COVID-19 pandemic occurred at the same time as the Cook Islands’ government began preparing a development plan with a 100-year outlook. Using Oceanian topography from the aforementioned tradition, I use the conceptual reef to show that ‘akapapa‘anga offers a certainty of the Māori world that stretches beyond the boundaries of nation and Realm, and beyond the current moment.

‘Akapapa‘anga ara tangata is a cultural paradigm that holds Māori relations to kin and to place through complex and deeply meaningful cultural practices. It is an institution of knowledge-maintenance and knowledge-making that has the ability to revise some of the current discourses that border Māori identities and subjectivities, and reassert sovereign histories, nationhood and futurities.


Advisor 1

Case, Emalani

Advisor 2

Loader, Arini

Advisor 3

Henderson, April K.

Copyright Date


Date of Award



Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Rights License


Degree Discipline

Pacific Studies

Degree Grantor

Victoria University of Wellington - Te Herenga Waka

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Unit

Va’aomanū Pasifika

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

950399 Heritage not elsewhere classified

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Languages and Cultures