The Cook Islands language of kopu tangata (family)

The Cook Islands language of kopu tangata (family)

Applied arts lecturer Tuaine-Nurse Robati discusses the meanings of the words Cook Islanders use to talk about immediate family and the wider extended family.

Tuaine-Nurse’s name refers to his sister, who left Rarotonga to come to New Zealand to study nursing. He was born after his sister’s departure and was named to honour this important occasion in the family.

Tuaine-Nurse Robati. Photo courtesy of Tuaine-Nurse Robati

As in many other cultures, weddings in the Cook Islands are a significant occasion uniting families and expanding our connections. When the father of the bride speaks, he will always mention his daughter and her additional connections to her husband’s family; they become our family.

Family is the foundation of our identity: it ties you to our land, to our legends, and to our culture. Family includes connections made through our blood and those we make through marriage. We always share this knowledge of connections to our kopu tangata at weddings, funerals, 21sts… anywhere where we connect to our family.

Kopu tangata is your immediate and extended family: your people and your blood. Kopu is the word for the stomach area, linking to where a child is created and born. Tangata is the word for people, and together you are the people of the same stomach and blood.

Below is an image of my kopu tangata at a rota‘I‘anga kopu tangata, or family reunion.

Tuaine-Nurse Robati’s kopu tangata, taken in front of the Arorangi church, Rarotonga. Photo courtesy of Tuaine-Nurse Robati

Another term to refer to family is anau. Our anau are our children or those that are younger than us. Anau is also the word used for giving birth.

For us Cook Islanders, the word anau cannot be used by a younger person in reference to an older person. But an older person in the family can refer to the younger generations in their kopu tangata as their anau.

Tuaine-Nurse Robati’s anau carrying his daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day in Rarotonga. Photo courtesy of Tuaine-Nurse Robati

Sharing our knowledge, or teaching, connects our people. As a teacher, you can refer to your pupils as your anau tamariki api‘i or anau api‘i as you are their elder in the context of knowledge. Your anau api‘i may not be in your kopu tangata but through teaching there is a connection.

I have taught many anau tamariki over the years and below is a group of my anau tamariki from Whitireia Performing Arts in Wellington.

Tuaine-Nurse Robati’a anau tamariki from Whitireia Performing Arts. Photo courtesy of Tuaine-Nurse Robati

After the formalities of the wedding ceremony, many families, especially those from the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, will have an o‘ora ceremony.

An o‘ora is the gifting of a wedding dowry of bedding and will often include tīvaevae (Cook Islands quilt). The kopu tangata of the bride’s family will gather together sheet sets, blankets, pāreu (sarongs), bedspreads, and tīvaevae to put around the couple seated in front of all the guests. The items in the o‘ora are to help the couple for their future.

Oora for the wedding of Grace Hutton and Terry Callesen in Arorangi, Rarotonga, 2013. Photo courtesy of Grace Hutton

This tīvaevae ta‘ōrei (ceremonial patchwork quilt) was made by Teata Rua Teau in Porirua in 1978 for her daughter’s wedding in 1988. She had an o‘ora and this was one of a number of tīvaevae given to her.

Tīvaevae ta‘ōrei (patch work quilt), by Teata Ruaki Teau, 1978, New Zealand. Te Papa (FE012451)


  • anau – to be born, birth, younger generation of the family
  • kopu – stomach
  • tangata – people
  • kopu tangata – family
  • rota‘I‘anga – reunion
  • tamariki – children
  • apii – school
  • o‘ora – a dowry (historically it would have been tapa and mats)
  • pāreu – a length of printed cloth to wrap around the waist
  • tīvaevae – handmade bedcover or quilt


  1. This is brilliant work that signifies the importance in preserving the Cook Islands language.
    I am from Poreporena village here in Port Moresby – Papua New Guinea. My village is where the first missionaries arrived in 1872. This is the very reason of my following.

  2. Manea ti kai Thankyou maata

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *