The National Psyche
Cook Islanders carry New Zealand passports, which allow them to live and work in New Zealand and, by extension (courtesy of the Special Category Visa), to live and work in Australia. This means many Cook Islanders are well travelled, worldly people. Rarotonga is a cosmopolitan place, yet beneath this Westernised veneer many Maori traditions remain, including traditional titles, family structure and the system of land inheritance. All native islanders are part of a family clan connected to the ancient system of ariki. Many still refer to themselves as from their ‘home island’ – Mangaian or Aitutakian.
But there is still a continuing exodus from the outer islands to Rarotonga, New Zealand and Australia, and some claim that Cook Islands’ nationhood is undermined by that Kiwi passport – when the going gets tough the islanders move away to Auckland or Melbourne. Tourism is the Cooks’ only major industry, but few tourists go beyond Rarotonga and Aitutaki. The outer islands have a fraction of the populations they had a few decades ago.
Politics, sport, dance, music, land and inheritance remain important, as do community, family and traditional values. Christianity is taken very seriously.
Islanders from Rarotonga are thoroughly First World in their lifestyles, with modern houses, regular jobs and reasonable salaries. Elsewhere in the Cooks, people live a more traditional lifestyle by fishing, growing crops and practising traditional arts and crafts. Family and the church are the two most influential elements in most islanders’ lives, but people remain relaxed and informal about most aspects of day-to-day living. Like elsewhere in the Pacific, Cook Islanders are especially relaxed about timekeeping – things will happen when they do.
The resident population of the Cook Islands is around 19,500, but around 80% of Cook Islanders live overseas. More than 50,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealand, half that number in Australia, and several thousand more in French Polynesia, the Americas, Europe and Asia. Of those who do live in their country of origin, more than 90% live in the Southern Group, with 60% living on Rarotonga.
Like many Pacific islands, the Cooks are struggling with a long-term population drain, as islanders move overseas in search of higher wages. More than 90% of the population is Polynesian, though the people of some of the Northern Group islands are more closely related to Samoans than to other Cook Islanders.
Dance & Music
Cook Islanders love to dance and they’re reputed to be the best dancers in Polynesia. Don’t be surprised if you’re invited to join them at an Island Night. Traditional dance forms include the karakia (prayer dance), pe’e ura pa’u (drum-beat dance), ate (choral song) and kaparima (action song). Men stamp, gesture and knock their knees together, while women shake and gyrate their hips in an unmistakeably suggestive manner.
The islanders are also great singers and musicians. The multi-part harmony singing at a Cook Islands' church service is truly beautiful, but pop music is popular too. Polynesian string bands, featuring guitars and ukuleles, often perform at local restaurants and hotels.
Arts & Crafts
Traditional woodcarving and woven handicrafts (pandanus mats, baskets, purses and fans) are still popular in the Cooks. You’ll see women going to church wearing finely woven rito (coconut-fibre) hats, mainly made on the Northern Group islands. Ceremonial adzes, stone taro pounders and pupu ei (snail-shell necklaces) are produced on Mangaia, and the best place to see traditional tivaevae (appliqué work, used for bedspreads, cushion covers and home decoration) is at the Atiu Fibre Arts Studio on ‘Atiu. Black pearls are grown in the Northern Group and are an important export. ‘Ei (floral necklaces) and ‘ei katu (tiaras) are customarily given to friends and honoured guests. You’re bound to receive a few, especially on the outer islands.
Traditional tata’u (tattooing) is also making a resurgence, with intricate designs often showcasing an individual’s genealogy. Ask at Avarua’s bookshops for Patterns of the Past: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands by Therese Mangos and John Utanga.
Purchase these in Avarua’s bookshops.
An Island to Oneself by Tom Neale is the classic desert-island read, written by a New Zealander who lived as a virtual hermit on Suwarrow during the 1950s and 1960s.
Robert Dean Frisbie ran a trading outpost on Pukapuka in the 1920s and wrote two evocative memoirs, The Book of Pukapuka and The Island of Desire.
Sir Tom Davis (Pa Tuterangi Ariki) was – among many things, including medical doctor and NASA scientist – the Cook Islands’ prime minister for most of the 1980s (he died in 2007). His autobiography is called Island Boy.
If you’re after local legends, pick up Cook Islands Legends and The Ghost at Tokatarava and Other Stories from the Cook Islands, both by notable Cook Islands' author Jon Tikivanotau Jonassen. Pukapukan poet Kauraka Kauraka published several books of poems including Ta ‘Akatauira: My Morning Star.
Akono’anga Maori: Cooks Islands Culture, edited by Ron and Marjorie Tua’inekore Crocombe, is an excellent book that looks at culture manifested in traditional Polynesian tattooing, poetry, art, sport and governance. Patterns of the Past: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands by Therese Mangos and John Utanga is a beautifully illustrated title on tata’u in the Cook Islands.
Guide to Cook Islands Birds by DT Holyoak is a useful guide to the islands’ native birds, with colour photos and tips for identification.
The Cook Islands’ small land mass (just 241 sq km) is scattered over 2 million sq km of ocean, midway between American Samoa and Tahiti.
The 15 islands are divided into Northern and Southern Groups. Most of the Southern Group are younger volcanic islands, although Mangaia is the Pacific’s oldest island. The Northern Group are ‘low islands’, coral atolls with outer reefs encircling lagoons, that have formed on top of ancient sunken volcanoes. ‘Atiu, Ma’uke, Mitiaro and Mangaia are ‘raised islands’ characterised by makatea – rocky coastal areas formed by uplifted coral reefs.
Waste management is a major issue in the Cook Islands. Glass, plastic and aluminium are collected for recycling, but there’s still a huge surplus of rubbish. Water supply is also a major concern.
Rising sea levels associated with global warming are a huge threat to the Cooks. Many of the islands of the Northern Group are low lying and could be uninhabitable within the next 100 years. Climate scientists predict that severe cyclones are likely to become much more common.
In 2011, the Cook Islands' government announced plans to become the Pacific’s ‘greenest’ destination, and was targeting 100% reliance on solar and wind-generated energy by 2020. In 2015 a new solar electricity farm funded by the New Zealand government was installed on Rarotonga for the Cook's 50th anniversary of independence, and less-populated islands in the Northern Group had achieved 100% energy sustainability.
Rarotonga’s mountainous centre is covered with a dense jungle of ferns, creepers and towering trees, providing habitat for the island’s rich birdlife. Coconut palms and spectacular tropical flowers grow almost everywhere in the Cook Islands, though the once-common pandanus trees are now rare on Rarotonga and ‘Atiu.
The only native mammal is the Pacific fruit bat (flying fox), found on Mangaia and Rarotonga. Pigs, chickens and goats were introduced by the first Polynesian settlers, along with rats, which devastated the islands’ endemic wildlife, especially native birds. The kakerori (Rarotongan flycatcher) was almost wiped out, but is now recovering thanks to the establishment of the Takitumu Conservation Area on Rarotonga. Other native birds include the cave-dwelling kopeka (‘Atiu swiftlet) on ‘Atiu, the tanga’eo (Mangaian kingfisher) and the kukupa (Cook Islands fruit dove).