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‘Be proud of who you are’

Saturday 16 January 2021 | Written by Losirene Lacanivalu | Published in FeaturesWeekend

Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen is passionate about Cook Islands culture and is now on a mission to record all he has experienced and learned in a book to preserve the country’s culture for future generations.

Seventy-one-year-old Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen this week launched another four of his books on local culture at the Islander Hotel.

The books are Volume 2 of Tribal Titles: Pe’e – Chants, Volume 2 of Teia Atamira Ariki: Vaiata – Songs, Nakunga – Maori Phrases (a reference to ancient proverbs and its meanings) and Cook Islands Maori: Speak Rarotongan.

The first volumes released last year comprised chants that are used for birthdays, haircutting, funerals and welcoming ceremonies.

Dr Jonassen says the latest volumes consist of chants linked to investiture ceremonies or titles.

At the book launch on Thursday, Prime Minster Mark Brown paid tribute to Dr Jonassen, calling him “a writer, a composer of original compositions and a recorder of historical compositions, chants and legends”.

Dr Jonassen has written and kept alive chants, songs, legends and traditions – a culture from generations ago – to enable today’s generation to understand, learn and be a part of it.

“He plays an important part in our society. We are lucky, he is a creator of new songs that we sing, thank you for putting so much effort in capturing and recording. Congratulation on the effort and I look forward to others coming,” says Brown.

Dr Jonassen says it is his personal interest that got him writing about the Cook Islands culture.

Newly launched books of Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen. Photo Credit: EDWINA TANGAROA 21011504

“I realised I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time, throughout my life, that I grew up in a very cultural environment.”

He became very conscious about culture when he started touring around the world with a dance group.

Dr Jonassen, who taught politics and public administration for 20 years as a professor, says throughout his life he has always been interested in culture.

“Culture is my passion.”

He recalls being with cultural dance group that entertained Prince Charles in Fiji in 1970s.

“A group of us performers went to Fiji when Prince Charles visited Fiji. We were asked to come and our job was to entertain the Fijians, the Fijians entertain Prince Charles. When the Fijians were done, we went (on stage) to perform but Prince Charles got up and started walking away. We went on board and performed and Prince Charles sat down again.”

His group stole the show that day, he recalls: “That was not supposed to happen. Afterwards he (Prince Charles) walked over and our girls did not know what to do and they all put a lei on him and kissed him. It made the world news.”

Dr Jonassen continued his tour with the group before joining the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The ministry was in charge of government official protocol programme and all reception was under his umbrella where he was exposed to chanting when welcoming dignitaries.

“It continued my exposure. I went on to the Pacific Community (SPC) as director of programmes and one of the programmes I was responsible for was the Festival of Pacific Arts. It continued, I was involved with the youth and women programme where culture was on the Pacific scale this time.”

He went on to become the Secretary of Culture and this role, he says had a major impact in his life in terms of writing.

In preparation for the hosting of Pacific Arts Festival 1992, Dr Jonassen recalls calling a meeting of historians in the Cook Islands.

Byron Brown with Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen at last year’s book launch. SUPPLIED /21011501

“We were preparing for the Pacific Arts Festival that the Cook Islands was going to host in 1992. As I was preparing for hosting, I was also preparing the country to participate, and part of the participation was understanding our culture, so we brought in all of the tumu korero (all historians) often they are old but they have knowledge.

“We had a big conference and some of those who shared the culture looked at me directly and said ‘I hope this doesn’t die at this meeting’. They said: ‘We want to see this in writing’. That was one of the things that stuck with me.”

The words “let this not die here” is still stuck with Dr Jonassen.

“I am trying to fulfil that. It’s not finished yet.”

Dr Jonassen then took the Cook Islands historians including those from the Pa Enua to New Zealand, for three weeks, where they visited every marae from the tip of the Northern New Zealand to Palmerston.

“It was an amazing experience funded by the New Zealand government and it had all started from the Pacific Arts meeting.”

That experience helped build the foundation work Dr Jonassen needed to start documenting the history of Cook Islands culture.

After stints at international universities as educator and director of Public Islands Studies and as Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand, Dr Jonassen returned home and started focusing on writing books.

The books he has written have been produced in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture who funded the printing of the books.

“My effort is to at least record what I know, and maybe one day someone will pick it up and take it further. Otherwise it will disappear.”

Last year Dr Jonassen launched four books; Volume One of Traditional Chants, Volume One of Songs and a book on ghost stories and Cook Islands legends.

Dr Jonassen has completed the third volume of the chants book. The book will be released soon with other song books.

The books have been printed by Rarotonga Printing Ltd and published by Mana Heritage Publications Limited and are translated in both Maori and in English.

At home, Dr Jonassen teaches his children and grandchildren the Cook Islands culture “by example rather than telling them”.

“I think of the most important is to be proud of who you are, not just Cook Islands Maori culture but all culture. Don’t be ashamed of who you are, having all these linkages is beautiful and is wonderful.”


Name: Dr Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen was born in Rarotonga on July 24 1949.

Education: BSc (Hons) Business Management, BA(Hons) History/Government, MA Pacific Islands Studies, PhD Political Science

Professional: Cook Islands cultural specialist/drummer/composer.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs 1983-86.

Director of Programs, South Pacific Commission 1987-90.

Secretary of Cultural Development, Cook Islands 1991-93.

Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University, Hawaii (BYUH)1993-2012.

Cook Islands High Commissioner to New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea 1997-1999.

Director of Pacific Islands Studies, Brigham Young University, Hawaii 1999 – Associations: East West Center Alumni Board.

Brigham Young University Alumni Board. Fellow of Institute of Polynesian Studies, Brigham Young University. SACEM and SPACEM, Copyright Associations, Tahiti. Pacific Research Group, Bergen University, Norway. Cairns Institute, Australia. Cook Islands Music Association.

Awards: MBE for Culture, Music and Public Community Services to Cook Islands 2014, Hall of Fame Tangi Reka Inaugural Cook Islands Music Awards in Auckland NZ 2014, Service Award by France 1989 for work in Pacific, United Nations ESCAP Fellowship 1983, East West Center Study Award 1981, Pomare Medal Cook Islands 1962.

Interests: Martial arts: Karate, Shitoryu, Kei Shin Kan, and Shindokai. Poetry, Pacific Islands Studies, Asia Pacific and American Politics, writing/researching legends, music, composing Pacific music, audio recordings and productions.

(Source: Cook Islands Who’s who)