Polynesian Culture

by Sean N. Bennett

Cook Islands Culture




The Cook Islands consist of 15 Pacific islands arranged over nearly 700,000 square miles of ocean [1]. They are separated into two divisions; The Northern Cook Islands and the Southern Cook Islands. The Northern Cook Islands are named Manihiki (ma-nee-hee-kee), Nassau (nah-saw), Penrhyn Atoll (pen-rin a-tol), Pukapuka (pu-ka-pu-ka), Rakahanga (ra-ka-hong-a), and Suwarrow (su-air-o). The Southern Cook Islands are named Atiu (ay-tu), Mauke (moke), Mitiaro (ma-ti-ro), and Takutea (ta-ku-te-a). There are a few other islands as well named Aitutaki (ah-tu-ta-kee), Mangaia (Mon-gay-a), Rarotonga (Ra-ro-ton-ga), Palmerston (palm-er-ston) Island, and Manuea (mon-way-a) [1].

From 1595 to the late 1700’s, many islands northeast of New Zealand were sighted and explored. In the late 1700’s a man by the name of James Cook explored some of these lands and named them the “Hervey Islands,” but unfortunately, this name was not continued. When these islands were added to the Russian naval chart in the early 1800’s, they chose to call them after the man who had found them, and so they became the Cook Islands [2].

The original Cook Island natives are said to have traveled from Tahiti to dwell in a new land [3]. They were the first to have an influence on these islands’ culture. The Islands then went through many different influences until they were finally allowed to lead and govern their own land.

One of the greatest influences on these people were the missionaries who arrived in the early 1800’s. These Christian missionaries eliminated cannibalism within the islands and brought Christianity and schools to the islands, allowing for a common language among the people.

The British influence began due to the Islanders’ concern of an attack by France, who at the time, occupied Tahiti. The Islanders turned to Britain for help because they knew Britain could assist them in their time of need [1]. Years later they were included within the New Zealand colonies. By 1965 the Cook Islands were awarded the option to self-govern in association with New Zealand. The Islands are still a part of New Zealand, but have their own form of government [2].

The Cook Islands have developed their own culture since the earliest settlers, around the 6th century [3]. The islands were discovered over many years which allowed time to alter the culture. There are many aspects to the Cook Island culture such as their language and literature, that began with the missionaries. Other aspects of their culture include their music and dance, their food and sport; as well as their artwork and their Tivaevaes (Ta-vay-vay) or patchwork quilts.

Values and Norms

The Cook Islanders have specific values and norms in their culture. One such norm was that it was original for Islanders to live in a hamlet. These structures accommodated about 50 people and were near the land that the natives worked. In the early 1820’s they relocated to villages where there could be anywhere from a couple hundred to a thousand or more people occupying a village [4].

Just as families are important to the Cook Islanders, so is their head of the tribe. The head of the tribe or clan is called an “Ariki”(aree-key). The tribe values the coronation of the “Ariki” with a ceremony that is a very significant and extravagant event for the people. They bring gifts such as pigs, coconuts, and fish, to their future ruler which they display before his feet on woven leaves. He is then lifted shoulder high and taken by procession to the coronation. According to tradition, while the Ariki is being carried into the coronation he must not fall or they believe he will not be a good ruler. There is drumming, dancing, and chanting during this ceremony and the women dress the Ariki in fine clothing and seashells. He then has the crown placed on his head and is anointed with holy oil making him the new Ariki of the village. As with many celebrations in this culture, the event is concluded with a large feast [6].

Another ceremony that is important to the people is the cutting of the first born son’s hair, which is traditionally not done until the boy has reached age twelve. For the ceremony, the son will braid his hair into multiple braids, or plaits (plates). Each plait has a ribbon tied to it, and the guests come to the ceremony and each cut one of the son’s plaits. The guests are welcome to keep the ribbons and/or hair as souvenirs and in return give the boy a gift to begin his adult life with. Afterwards they sit together to enjoy a feast [6].

Traditions, Beliefs, and Attitudes

Along with the family values and ceremonies, the Islanders have very definitive beliefs. One belief in particular is marking themselves with tattoos. Tattoos are a unique cultural tradition and are done in specific ways because each tattoo means something unique and they are highly individualized. When James Cook first came to the Cook Islands, aboard his ship was a man by the name of Joseph Banks. Joseph Banks was the first man in the Cook Islands to use the word “tattoo” when he wrote about the people’s strange markings in his journal [7].

Traditional Tatoo

The skill to tattoo is a learned craft and is passed from generation to generation. A person who tattoos someone else is known as a “tufuga”(too-fu-gah). The apprentice has to watch and work with his master for years in order to fully understand and learn how to tattoo. The reason the craft is passed generation to generation is to prohibit anyone outside of the family from learning the craft. Because the tattoo is a very sacred marking of the body that must be done in a particular way and with specific tools and rules [7].

The tattoo’s purpose is to tell outwardly about the individual. It tells others about the spiritual nature, or power, of the individual as well as providing the owner with protection and strength. Tattoos usually depict the “character, position, and levels in a hierarchy”. The tattoo's location is often determined by personal factors such as genealogy [7].

There are differences in tattooing of a woman versus a man. In order for a man to get tattooed they have to take time to be cleansed properly. The tattoo portrays the rite of passage and the man’s personal life events. A woman may be tattooed, but only on her extremities, ears, and lips. A young woman may be tattooed on her right hand to signify that she is capable and worthy of making a meal [7].

There are many other traditions throughout the Cook Islands. There is a dance competition in April or May each year where all ages are invited to participate. In June there is a kite surfing contest where the people celebrate the “natural gifts” that the Cook Islands have to offer. From July to October the people have a whale watching season to witness the miraculous mammals. On August 4th the people celebrate “Te Maeva Nui” (tay may-va nu-ee) or the day that the Cook Islands were able to self-rule with a festival of dance, costumes, and food. They also have a celebration called “Gospel Days” on October 26th to honor the missionaries that brought Christianity to the islands. On November 1st they pay their respects to their dead by decorating the graves of their loved ones and sharing stories about them, this celebration is called “Turama” (Tur-ama). Another tradition is the annual canoeing festival held in November that gathers hundreds of competitors to attempt to win the “Pacific Cup” [8].


Christianity is currently the dominant religion of the Cook Islands, and has been since the London Missionary Society arrived in 1821 and uprooted the islanders’ tribal worship of gods and idols and their practice of cannibalism [9]. “There are currently 14 different Christian denominations active on the Cook Islands, and about 70 churches, or about one church for every 250 people.” The Baha’i (Ba-ha-ee) faith is the only non-Christian faith with an organized community on the islands, but it has a population of only 1%. This faith believes that God created all things on this earth and sent great prophets, such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, to this earth to guide and direct the people. They believe that they greatest problem facing humanity today is the need to find a unifying vision of what the future should be like, and what the purpose of life is. [10] There are also some Muslim and Hindu people on the islands, but they do not belong to any particular community [11].

John Williams

One of the missionaries who brought Christianity to these islands, by the name of John Williams (depicted on the left), had the idea that sending Polynesians as missionaries to the other islands would be a great success, and it was. Many Polynesians were eager to be converted, this is due mainly to the fact that the Ariki tribal leaders were among the first to be converted to Christianity. Their high amount of influence encouraged the Cook Islanders to adopt the faith as their own [12]. Without the missionaries, there would likely be no schools and no written form of the Rarotongan language in Polynesia [9].

The most dominant Church on these islands is the Cook Islands Christian Church, a Protestant denomination, and about 60% of the Cook Island population belongs to this church. Clergy for this church are trained both on the islands, and sent to the countries of New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, or the U.S. for training. These clergymen have a very respected status on the islands and participate in all community activities of significance [11]. The Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC), founded in 1821, currently has 23 branches on the Cook Islands, 20 branches in New Zealand, and 18 branches in Australia. All of these branches are managed by the church headquarters in Rarotonga, the main island of the Cook Islands. The church is run by an Executive Counsel made up of 10 members, elected every 4 years by the people of the church. The current President is Reverend Tangimetua Tangata Tutai.

The CICC believes Jesus Christ to be the leader and foundation of their church, and follow the teachings of the bible as best they can. Their vision is to worship and serve God, while spreading the gospel of Christ to all people. They believe that all mankind may be saved through repentance and faith in Christ. The church currently has over 18,000 members in the Cook Islands, New Zealand, and Australia, and is growing consistently throughout these countries [12].

Sense of Self and Space

Sense of self is defined as: “ideas about the type of person one really is”[13]. The Cook Islanders believe sense of self is one of friendliness, high-spirits and welcoming towards others [14]. The Cook Islanders love having a good time and enjoy entertaining people; in fact they are regarded as some of the best dancers and drummers of Polynesia [15]. The Cook Islanders are happy and friendly, which allow them as a people to stay positive. The Cook Islanders have incorporated Christianity and its beliefs into how they identify themselves [16]. Before Captain Cook arrived and brought Christianity the Cook Islanders were very religious, this religious perspective leads to sense of space for the cook islanders[15].

Sense of space generally follows the definition of sense of place, which refers to how one interacts with the natural environment. The Cook Islanders have always interacted well with their environment; they had to rely on their environment for food water and travel. Relying on the environment in their view requires relying on God. Before Captain Cook, the Islanders lived a sustainable life and they couldn’t exploit their environment [15]. Respecting the environment is taught by the elders of their tribe. This respect shows us they have a great sense of place of where they belong in the world. The Cook Islanders take part in the world economy and have various means of transportation and deliveries which allows the Islanders to exploit the environment more [16]. These people have to rely less on their natural environment and rely more on other areas of the world for building materials and different sources of food. This global economy hasn’t taken the Cook Islanders away from their roots, yet they remain a happy and high-spirited group of people that still rely on their elders and their environment to live [16]. They show off their dancers and musical ability to tourists and know there are other places to live but love their islands, they have a good sense of place, which is with their people on these beautiful islands[15].

Communication Style and Language

The Cook Islands have two official languages and four unofficial and indigenous languages and/or dialects. The official languages spoken and taught in the Cook Islands schools are English and Maori. The Cook Island form of Maori is similar what is spoken in New Zealand and Tahiti [17]. Approximately 26,830 citizens are able to speak this language. Less than 3,000 people are able to speak the unofficial or indigenous languages which are Rakahanga-Manihiki (Ra-ka-ha-ga Mah-nee-hee-key), Pukapuka (Poo-kah poo-kah), and Penrhyn (Pen-reen) [18].

The Cook Islands are known for their diversity and culture, which extends to their communication style. The naming process is a symbolic tradition held by the Maori population. They believe that names form a link to ancestors, descendants, and friends, but they also believe it ties one to titles, land, events, and relationships. First names are interchangeable between men and women, while surnames can vary from person to person within a family unit [19].

Language is not only a form of communication, it is a critical part of the Cook Islands culture. A traditional nakunga (nah-coon-gah), or wise phrase, highlights this critical role of language, "Ko toku reo te i'o 'o taku peu tupuna" (co toe-coo ray-o tay io o tay-coo pay oo too poon ah) (My language is the essence of my culture), or in other words, "without my language my culture will be lost". Language competence enables a person to fully appreciate the power of oral histories, names and places. It equips a person to respond to three crucial questions that are basic to any legitimate claim to being Cook Islands Maori: 1. Tei'ea to'ouy marae? (tay e ah too e ma-ray) (Where is your sacred ground)? 2. Tei'ea to'ou maunga? (tay e ah too e ma-oon-gah) (Where is your mountain?) and 3. Ko'ai koe? (ko ay ko-eh) (Who are you?) These issues are fundamental to the identity of being a true Maori of the land [20].

Time Consciousness

The Cook Islands have close ties to Polynesian culture, and because of this tie they are referred to as having “no sense of time”. Each island has their own pace, but they all live by the following motto, “watches should ideally not be worn. You are now on island time.” This is common advice given to all tourists as they enter into a zone where time no longer exists. “Whilst Rarotonga is only 32km around, the slow pace of life makes driving round the island a day trip. Plenty to do, or nothing at all. Part of Rarotonga’s charm is the ability to choose how busy (or not) you are” [21]. “With a population of just 180 and fewer than 10 cars on the island, life is slow-paced and gentle. Little has changed here since the first subsistence islanders fished the waters” [22]. Things here run on island time. If a shop owner decides not to open that day, then that’s that; if the bus is running late, no one’s keeping KPI statistics and demanding answers; if you’re told you’ll be met at midday, what they really mean is “sometime today” [23].

The Cook Islands are within the Cook Islands time zone specifically which does not participate in Daylight Savings time. The slower paced lifestyle which they live even extends to their livestock. “Even the roosters have no sense of time, crowing at random throughout the day, their only function to remind visitors that alarms and schedules have no meaning there… In the laid-back ease of the Cook Islands, work-life balance is clearly weighted in favour of enjoyment of life” [24]. “Cook Islanders might love a joke and live with less obvious stress than many of us but they approach their jobs, faith and authority with the utmost seriousness. They work a lot but it seems that work is life and life is work; there is no expectation of anything else” [23].

Relationships and Social Organizations

The Cook Islands continue to develop and evolve. This includes their societies. While they are changing, they continue to keep a part of their past and their history alive.The Islands people are traditionally Maori, and as such, they hold many of the Maori social norms. In the past, the Cook Islands were much more traditional, but as Western society becomes more and more influential the Cook Islands are losing some of their traditional values and social norms. Traditionally, social class was determined by hereditary titles, meaning that societal rank was dependant on your family’s social status. Now however, social class is determined by education and profession rather than familial ties, and people are more easily able to move up in society. Although the islanders used to have healthier eating habits than they do now, being heavyset was traditionally a show of wealth and beauty, especially among women. Because of Western influence, heavyset people are becoming less of a sign of beauty, especially when it comes to women, where a skinny figure is preferred [26].

Some things, however, have not changed. Flowers are given as housewarming and welcoming gifts, especially leis, which are used both to welcome people and to say goodbye to them. The people continue to be very generous, and education is still highly valued on the islands.

Families are very important to the Cook Islanders. These people value their extended families, not just their immediate families, and it is common for multiple relatives and generations to live within the same home. When a couple gets married, they typically move into the home of one set of in-laws until they can afford their own home.One critical family relationship is that between older and younger siblings. In the past, the older sibling would receive everything and the younger sibling would work hard to earn the respect of his/her older sibling, and there was a lot of love between the siblings. Currently, siblings still highly respect one another and are expected to help each other build society up, and help families stay strong [27].

Education and Learning

Education and learning in the Cook Islands can be found from two main sources: from the people within their family units, or from the Ministry of Education. In family units, traditional views are shared and taught, along with necessary skills to survive and profit. Unlike the family unit, the Cook Island’s Ministry of Education oversees and monitors all the formal education done through schools.

The parent’s view their role in education as their children’s first teachers. They strive to provide a strong foundation in language, religion, and cultural values. The parents hold high expectations and hopes for the education of their children. “In the recent consultation on the National Standards in literacy and mathematics, Pacific parents were the group most interested in having timely information about their children’s progress, and ideas or resources they could use at home. Pacific parents were also the most likely to say that it was very important to help their child learn, and that they were very involved in helping their child learn” [28].

All children find that the culture of home is not the same as the culture of school, but for some children this difference is a difficult adjustment for them, making it hard for them to understand what is expected and how to respond at school [29]. Due to this difference, the teachers often must find ways to integrate cultural values and beliefs taught in the home, with classroom teaching. Although many face this difficult balance of school and home, the large majority of the children are keen and eager to learn.

English is the second language for a majority of the students, which means that teachers must always be conscious of the vocabulary, complexity of sentences, and the differences in meaning of the same word they are using while instructing their class,. All instructors teach the English language; however, when they are able to communicate and teach in the Maori language, they have a definite advantage in getting through to the children and helping them to understand [28].

School schedules are set up differently than in Western culture, mainly due to the tourist season and climate changes that are to be expected on the islands. “Schools are open for a minimum of 200 days in the year. Classes usually run from 8:00 am until 2:30 or 3:00 pm; with primary schools opening for 4 hours and secondary for 5 hours of daily instruction. The Ministry runs 4 terms per year with holidays running over Christmas – (6 weeks), April/May – (2 weeks), July/August – (2 weeks) and October – (1 week)” [28].

The Cook Islands curriculum consists of the standard classes as well as introducing and enabling more island specific classes. “The curriculum consists of Early Childhood Education (ECE) curriculum and curriculum statements in Languages (Maori and English), Science, Mathematics, The Arts (Visual and Performing Arts), Health and Physical Well-being, Social Science and Enterprise. The Cook Islands administration also facilitates the development of learning and teaching programmes that align with, and complement the Cook Islands curriculum. These programmes include marine studies, bilingualism and bilingual education, literacy, numeracy, inclusive education, careers and guidance, and life-skills. All the Cook Islands Curriculum documents recognizes the importance of Cook Islands Maori language, culture, traditions, and history” [28].

Education and learning holds a high degree of importance to the islanders. It is by this education that the future generation can return and continue the traditions their fathers held.

Food and Feeding Habits

Food and feeding habits differ from one nation to the next, and that is no different in the Cook Islands. Because of the seclusive nature of the islands, in the past it was necessary for the Islanders to rely on the natural plants they found on the islands. Some of the native foods they grew up with on the Island were coconut, taro (tar-oh), and other fruit.[30] They also ate fish and birds these also occurred naturally. Their diet was nutrient and vitamin rich which allowed for the people to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle [31].

The islands have since changed quite a bit from them relying on the plants that naturally occur, to relying on the food shipped in from the all over the world [30]. The islanders are bombarded with tourists every year which subsequently brings money to the Cook Islanders. Because the islanders themselves cannot produce enough food for the tourists and the tastes of their food is vastly different from westerners food, and the tourists need to eat, over 80 percent of the food eaten on the Cook Islands is imported. The tourists not only bring imported foods to the islands, but they also bring restaurants and fast food chains that are commonly seen throughout the world [30]. The Cook Islanders have found the tourists food to be good and choose to eat the imported food rather than the food they grew up with, such as fish and fruit.

The Cook Islanders economy is based on tourism, they earn their money from tourists and then spend the money they earn on food that is processed, and typically from western culture. The western food isn’t bad, but since it has been imported, there has been a notable problem with obesity on the islands. The people that eat the food native to the Cook Islands are typically thinner and healthier overall, while those who consume Western foods are more likely to be overweight or obese [31]. The native food they are accustomed to consists largely of fruits and freshly caught fish. The islanders did find a way to brew beer and they also drink Kava (kah-vuh), which is a root of a plant. Kava is a drink used typically ceremonially, and ritually in Cook Island culture [30].

Work Habits and Practices

Men and women have different roles in labor in the Cook Islands. Women take domestic work, while Men are expected to do all of the heavy and difficult manual labor. In the past, men were in charge of all leadership roles, but as the country progresses and becomes more modern, this is changing [37].

The main parts of the Cook Islands economy are offshore banking, mining, fishing, and tourism. The Cook Islands also have a large fruit processing industry and export many of their products (various fruits, coffee, fish, etc.), most of which go to New Zealand, but a few go to Japan and Hong Kong [37]. Because they are so isolated, the Cook Islands have had few chances to develop a strong economy, and what little opportunity they have had, has often been crushed by natural disasters. In addition to being isolated, the Cook Islands are losing much of their workforce because many islanders are moving to New Zealand or Austrailia.

Because of this, the Cook Islands have turned even more towards tourism and getting people to want to come there [38]. The Cook Islands Government has recognized tourism as an opportunity for growth. They recently put in place reforms to reduce national debt and strengthen the economy, part of which is a focus on tourism [39]. The Cook Islands have many tourists that flow in from all around the world. These tourists provide unique opportunities for the local or native people. The jobs provided by the tourists are very different from the work that used to occur on the islands, particularly in the regions with many tourists year round.

There are other jobs around the islands such as missionaries or religious leaders. As mentioned above, there are also tufugas (too-fuh-guhs) or those that tattoo [7]. Tattoos are important to their culture so they make sure there is someone who can satisfactorily tattoo according to their cultural practice. Other work opportunities come from within their form of government. There is a specific form of government in the Cook Islands, which is comprised of a head of state, a queen’s representative, prime minister, the house of Ariki (aree-key), the Parliament or legislature, and the executive government [32]. These different positions provide work for many people and allow for the Cook Islanders to have the leaders they need to run the government effectively. Their Queen is Elizabeth II since February 6th, 1952 [33]. Their Queen’s representative, who recommends and appoints the Prime minister and members of Parliament to their role, is Tom Marsters since July 27th, 2013; their Prime minister, Henry Puna, has been in office since November 20th, 2010 [33]. The Queen’s representative. The house of Ariki (aree-key) is a purely advisory role that is composed of 14 chiefs from many different villages throughout the Cook Islands [33]. Consisting of 24 members, the Cook Island’s Parliament follows similarly to the Westminster system, which follows closely with the United Kingdom’s version of Parliament. These members are elected directly for limited time, usually 4 to 5 years, or until “Parliament is dissolved” [34]. These different people serving in different capacities, help the Islands to function appropriately and effectively.

Health Care

The Cook Island healthcare system is run by the Cook Islands Ministry of Health, which is a branch of their government. Their vision is to have “All people living in the Cook Islands living healthier lives and achieving their aspirations” and their mission statement is “To provide accessible, affordable health care and equitable health services of the highest quality, by and for all in order to improve the health status of people living in the Cook Islands.” [35] Services provided by the Ministry of Health have helped maintain a very good level of maternal health, low infant mortality and high childhood immunization coverage.

The Ministry focuses greatly on prevention of disease, health promotion, and improving the environment in order to improve the health of the islanders. There are a wide variety of services provided on the islands, everything from surgery, to ophthalmology, to pediatrics. Oftentimes though, what the islands offer is not enough for the patients, in which case the Ministry officials will bring in specialists on a routine basis (once or twice per year), or refer their patients to a specialist overseas in Australia or New Zealand. All Cook Islanders, both residing on the island and residing overseas, are eligible for healthcare in New Zealand, making the referral program possible [36].

According to a research study done by the World Health Organization (WHO), in collaboration with the Cook Islands Ministry of Health, the health status of the population is steadily improving. Due to recent improvements in water supply and sanitation, infectious diseases are becoming rarer. Non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, respiratory problems and risk factors such as hypertension, obesity and injuries are the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in the Cook Islands [36].

One struggle for the Cook Islanders in terms of health care, is sexually transmitted diseases. Condom use is low, and a number of sexually transmitted infections are common. Another great concern for the people on these islands is the obtaining of clean water, and although there have been many successful efforts to sanitize the water on these islands, water borne diseases and parasites continue to occur somewhat frequently. The Ministry of Health considers this to be one of the greatest concerns on the islands, and aims to provide drinkable water for all who live on the islands. The last and most likely largest struggle that the Cook Islanders face in terms of healthcare is that the population on these islands is gradually decreasing, especially on the outer islands, and has been for many years. This creates a shortage of well-trained health care workers because there are less people to care for, and causes the people on the outer islands to have to travel to other islands in order to receive quality health care. The population decline also creates a weakened economy, causing healthcare and other government programs to suffer [36].

External Links


  1. James Cook Photo: http://www.ohwy.com/history%20pictures/jamescook.gif
  2. Tatoo Photo: http://www.punaruaproductions.co.nz/sites/default/files/25985_06.jpg
  3. John Williams Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Williams_(1904).jpg
  4. Clock Photo: https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com/images/I/51pO36toNXL._SY355_.jpg
  5. Chalk Tablet Photo: https://www.etsy.com/listing/92939756/vintage-chalkboard-slate-school- chalk
  6. Food Photo: https://www.goway.com/travel-information/australia-south-pacific/cook-islands/ food-and-drink/
  7. Ocean Photo: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/destinations/traveler/none/cook-islands


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