Situated about 1,900 miles north of New Zealand lies a chain of 15 or so islands upon which lives a population of about 12,000 people. The island chain has been inhabited by Indigenous Polynesians — currently called Cook Island Māori — for approximately 1,500 years, but despite that fact, the archipelago is known to the world as the Cook Islands. The nation is so named after British explorer Captain James Cook, who spotted the islands in the 18th century—long after the Polynesian population, which is closely related to the Māori of New Zealand and Tahiti, had been living there.
This is a familiar situation: Denali Mountain in Alaska, the tallest mountain in the U.S., was renamed Mount McKinley in the late 19th century, despite the fact that Denali has been considered a sacred site to indigenous Alaskans for centuries.
Now, just as McKinley was officially renamed Denali in 2015 to recognize its importance to the Indigenous people living near there, the Cook Islands is looking to divorce itself from its colonial history. A Cook Islands government committee has announced that it will rename the island chain, “adopting a standalone name in the Māori language,” according to The Telegraph.
Initially, the government set out to pick an indigenous name to be used alongside the current name, but the committee determined it would be better to wholly rename the island chain. Committee chairman Danny Mataroa told AFP news agency, “When the committee members, which include Cook Islands historians and people with deep traditional knowledge, met we decided it was time we change the name of the country.”
Both the current administration and their opposition support the name change. That said, the last time the populace of the island nation voted to change the name, the measure was voted down. Per The Telegraph, the 1994 measure would have renamed the nation to Avaiki Nui, but it was “resoundingly defeated.” Today, Avaiki Nui is one of the 60 new names of being considered, all of which came from public submissions.
Cook Islands Deputy Prime Minister Mark Brown said that before the name change is made official, the government is going to gauge public interest and expressed his doubts that it would be popular with the voting public. But Mataroa said that this time the measure is likely to pass, due to the fact that leaders from all the major islands have been involved in the initiative.