I joined with other members of the Cook Islands community at the opening of Te Reo Hotunui o Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa in Wellington last month.
The Pacific Islands Memorial represents New Zealand's enduring friendship with the Pacific Islands and the service of Pacific Islanders in support of New Zealand in the two world wars as well as later conflicts. The Pacific Islands Memorial has pride of place over the Arras Tunnel at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.
Its designer, artist Michel Tuffery, modelled the memorial - a bronze, upscaled conch shell embellished with poppies - on a shell left behind by World War I Pacific soldiers in tunnels below the French town of Arras where they were stationed from 1916 to 1918.
Tuffery created the shell after hearing the story of one discovered from World War I. During that war, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company reached the Western Front and completed two vast quarry networks underneath Arras.
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Post WWII the tunnels were closed, but sometime after they were rediscovered in 1990, a conch shell was found near a pillar inscribed by Private Angene Angene.
Angene – one of a small group of Cook Islanders who served with New Zealanders on the Western Front alongside Private Isaac Solomona and T Kopunaiti – enlisted in Rarotonga and survived the war.
World War I had a profound effect on the Pacific Islands that still resonates today. It helped define how we Pacific Islanders viewed ourselves, and our relationship with the then British Empire, and New Zealand, its proxy in the region.
An estimated 500 Cook Islanders and a significant number of Niueans served in WWI. This is a massive number for a country which, at the last census, had a population of about 15,000. Most of them were in the Rarotongan Company, which served with the British in Sinai and Palestine as ammunition handlers.
It is essential to know this history if we are to understand who we are as people living in Aotearoa. From the legacy of the New Zealand occupation of German Samoa, and the subsequent inept administration in the post-war years — so appallingly inept that then Prime Minister Helen Clark apologised on behalf of New Zealand in 2002 — to the many who went, primarily from Cook Islands and Niue, but also other Pacific nations including Kiribati, Tonga, and Fiji.
I am also reminded of the words of Sir Apirana Ngata about the Māori contribution to the war efforts and how this was considered the price of citizenship. Certainly, this is something Cook Islands and Niue have paid.
So what does that mean in terms of our relationship with the Pacific realm countries? It cannot merely be a transactional relationship - it has to be a relationship that is both economically and environmentally beneficial for the home island countries.
Ka 'akama'ara 'ua rāi tātou iā rātou – we will remember them.
+ Teanau Tuiono is a Green list MP based in Palmerston North.