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MELBOURNE, Australia (July 5, 2001 – Pacific Beat)---Often found around a kava bowl, debating village affairs, Fijian chiefs, Samoan matai or other customary leaders tend to regard silver hair as a badge of office.

But in the Cook Islands they seem to be stretching the boundaries, with a 21-year-old woman who may be one of the youngest "elders" in the Pacific.

Pacific Beat’s Bruce Hill reports.

Una Nicholas was only 16 years old when she inherited the traditional title of Poroaki Rangatira, and entered the Koutu Nui, the assembly of traditional leaders on Rarotonga.

"When my grandmother first asked me (to accept the title), I didn’t really know what it was," she said. "It wasn’t until I grew older and started to attend meetings like I just did recently in one of the outer islands, that I knew what it was about."

And despite the fact that most people associate having a title and being a traditional leader with older people, Una says she was welcomed by the other Kotu Nui members.

Made Welcome

She says they made her feel really welcome, and always let her know what they are talking about.

"But I’m not too sure sometimes, because of our Maori language. I can speak it but sometimes there are some words when they speak too fast that I can’t understand. But they also go very slow for me and just explain to me what’s happening."

Although she feels the older leaders accept her, Una says she has not made much of a contribution to the debates yet, as she feels the older members are often wiser than her, and have better suggestions.

But she feels she can bring a needed perspective as she gains experience and confidence.

Role for Younger Leaders

"There is a role for a young person in the Koutu Nui. If they get ideas from younger people or younger minds, that could open up a wider door."

The issues dealt with by the elders are important, centering on land ownership mainly, but also language, environmental protection and cultural continuity.

And despite not having a formal political role in national life, their authority is still largely obeyed.

Traditional Authority Still Important

One of the most important conservation tools available in the Cooks is the traditional practice of placing a "raui" or ban on the taking of marine life from certain areas.

Sometimes imposed because someone has drowned in the area, "raui" have in modern times been used to increase in the numbers of fish and shellfish available for present and future generations.

This concept has also been extended to encourage sustainable use of natural parks, bird and plant life.

Reaching Out To Cook Islands Youth

Una Nicholas feels the younger generation needs to understand the importance of the old ways, as well as appreciating the freedom of modern life, and she hopes to be a part of that process.

"Our language is disappearing and our reef and environment is disappearing, but the Koutu Nui can find ways of preventing that. Younger people aren’t that interested in it because they don’t know too much about it."

She is already working on ways to reach out to the new generation, saying she and her grandmother will be getting together next week and they will talk about how to get more teenagers and young people involved in these things and perhaps start a community program.

For additional reports from Pacific Beat, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia: Pacific Beat Headlines and Audio.

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