Fifteen islands dispersed throughout the South Pacific make up the isolated Cook Islands. The geography is truly unique – spread over a tract of ocean roughly the size of Greenland, yet the total land area of the Cook Islands only amounts to that of a medium-sized city. For perspective, Rarotonga is the biggest island in the country at just six kilometers wide!
Like many countries, the various settlements of different people over time shaped the modern culture of these islands —it is a modern nation whose people are a cosmopolitan blend of their ancient Polynesian heritage and a lot of European influence.
Polynesians initially settled the Cook Islands around 1000 AD. European contact started in 1595, first by the Portuguese, and later in the 1700s by the British navigator Captain Cook, whom the islands are named for.
The Culture Division of the Cook Islands Government supports the preservation of the country’s national heritage. While the country’s landmass is small, the culture is vibrant, and there’s much to explore if you’re planning to travel there. You can definitely plan to be at urban markets, festivals, and cultural centers in addition to, of course, absolutely stunning beaches and endless marine adventures.
With all that said, let’s dive into the main point of this: to talk about all things culture on the Cook Islands. If you are thinking about a trip there, knowing a bit about the people and history can make your travels all the more enriching and memorable. It certainly did for us!
Quick Facts About the Cook Islands
- The official language is called Cook Islands Māori, also known as Rarotongan. English is also an official language, but if you want to try your hand at Rarotongan, here are some frequently used words:
- Hello: Kia orana (Key-ah-o-raah-nah)
- Goodbye: Aere ra (Eye-ray-raah)
- Thank you: Meitaki (May-tah-key)
- Yes: Ae (Eye)
- The vast majority of people are Christian—70% are Protestant, and 30% are Roman Catholic or other denominations. This is primarily due to the influence of Christian missionaries beginning in the late 19th century.
- Almost all Cook Islanders are of mixed Polynesian ancestry; the exception is the isolated northern island of Pukapuka, which has a distinct Polynesian language. The population here is more of Tongan and Samoan descent.
- The currency of the Cook Islands is New Zealand Dollars.
- Like in much of the South Pacific, Rugby union and bowling are popular sports. The Cook Islands national rugby union team started playing internationally in 1971, and the islands have hosted several international tournaments since then.
Modern Trends in the Cook Islands
Generally put, the Cook Islands have experienced more Western influence in past decades due to tourism and interaction with other countries. Traditional ceremonies are still performed (we’ll get to this later), but Western lifestyle has slowly been incorporated into the daily life of islanders.
Most residents today wear Western-style clothing and dress somewhat casually day-to-day, except Sundays, which is a day that most go to church. Traditional dress is not usually worn outside of dances and other celebrations – this traditional outfit includes grass skirts, headbands, and flowers in the hair.
Today, status is determined by education and profession and there is more movement between social groups, whereas traditionally, lineage strictly determined social class.
Lastly, in the past having fat was a symbol of wealth and beauty, and at puberty, boys and girls would undergo ritual feedings to gain weight. However, this has evolved and changed as Western standards of beauty have gained influence.
The Cook Islands’ Traditions, Customs, and Holidays
Cook Islanders are known to be kind, hospitable, and generous, albeit a bit reserved. You can expect warm and friendly treatment towards visitors. Although there’s been Western influence, there are still certainly customs that are thriving in the country.
Similar to many countries worldwide, it is customary to bring along a small gift when invited to someone’s home.
Tivaevae quilts, which we will get to later, are precious heirlooms presented at special occasions such as baptisms, birthdays, weddings, and at hair-cutting ceremonies – a traditional ceremony that has not waned at all in recent years. This celebrates the first haircut of sons in a family and are as vibrant as ever. This is a rite of passage for young boys and can end up being very large gatherings, where the boy sits on a chair draped with tivaevae quilts, and might get gifts as his hair is cut.
The major national holiday is Constitution Day in August, which usually gives rise to a 10-day celebration. A Tiare (“Gardenia”) Festival, a parade of floats, and a series of musical and dance competitions also fill the calendar.
Family values are very strong throughout all of the islands – children often live with grandparents and nephews, and nieces live with aunts and uncles. Additionally, naming is a symbolic tradition of the islands’ Maori population. Names form a link not only to ancestors, descendants, and friends but to titles and land, as well as events and relationships.
The Rich Art and Craft on the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands are well-known for wood carving, weaving, and the tivaevae quilts, the latter of which is very unique to Cook Islands culture.
Traditionally, weaving was to make practical objects like baskets, fans, and for fishing trips. Weaving material comes from the fiber of pandanus plants and coconut trees, which populate the islands. Additionally, hats called rito hats are made from especially young fiber and are often worn by women to church. The art of rito hats is especially prevalent in the islands of Manihiki, Rakahanga and Penrhyn.
The islands are also very well-known for the aforementioned Tivaevae quilts – patchwork and appliquéd textiles which are not only works of art but also have important roles and functions. Making these quilts is a social process by nature. Women create them as a communal activity and usually depict surroundings such as flowers, leaves, birds, fish, insects, and animals. The wives of Christian missionaries introduced the art of quilting in the 19th century, and it is an art form that is still thriving. They are given as gifts of love and friendship or on special occasions such as weddings, funerals, or hair-cuttings.
Additionally, wood carving is a common form of craft that you’ll see around if you visit. Although in the past, it was imbued with more mythology and spirituality, it is still a common art form. Rarotonga is known for its carving of staff-gods—a long work that combines images of gods with human descendants. Tangaroa is the Cook Islands’ god of the sea and is a common subject of carving.
If you travel to the islands, you might see crafts such as dresses, sarongs, and jewelry which is frequently made of black pearl. Additionally, islanders make hand-painted and silk-screened sarongs, like many many other islands of Melanesia. These sarongs are usually brightly colored and are called pareu. Flower art is also popular in the form of ei (necklaces) and ei katu (tiaras), which you’ll surely see around.
As far as other contemporary art and studios, Michael ‘Mike’ Tavioni is a highly-regarded and internationally-known master carver whose studio is in Rarotonga. You might encounter his artistry on your visit. Also on Rarotonga is Island Craft, an art studio that produces local products like shell carvings and jewelry.
Interestingly, tattooing was forbidden in the Cook Islands after the arrival of missionaries but has recently become popular again. Missionaries tried to ban the then taboo practice of tattooing, however, the islanders preserved this tradition and have since brought it back into modern practice. Designs are still derived from ancient symbolism & heritage and worn proudly.
Music, Dance, and Mythology
Travelers to the Cook Islands will surely experience a lot of upbeat song and dance. In fact, regular events celebrating these art forms are sponsored by the government!
Rarotonga’s traditional form of evening entertainment is the Island Night – a spectacular showcase combining traditional dance and music (karioi). Dancing, drumming, and singing are always on show, and even fire juggling, storytelling, and acrobatics. They are also staged during the annual Dance Week every April and Constitution Week in the summer.
Te Vara Nui Village, located on Rarotonga, is a center of Cook Islands culture and offers one popular “island night”. At night, you can enjoy a buffet dinner of fusion Western and more traditional food while you experience the dance and music of the locals. This is a must-do during any trip to Rarotonga. While these are somewhat commercialized for visitors, it is still an excellent way to observe traditional dance and eat local food.
Heavy drums and ukuleles characterize the music of the Cook Islands. One of the typical traditional dances of the Cook Islands is the Maori Ura, a sacred ritual usually performed by a female who dances to tell a story. She is accompanied by fast, dramatic drumming by at least five drummers.
Cook Islands mythology is similar, in ways, to other Polynesian myths and legends. Tales of the supernatural and spirits are common practice in the islands by people of all generations and used to explain unusual events.
All Things Food
Like most places, traditional cuisine on the Cook Islands is defined in part by geography. Indigenous species include taro, yams, bananas, breadfruit, and sweet potatoes. Like the culture in general, the food is a lovely cosmopolitan blend: Europe, Tahiti, Fiji, and China have all influenced gastronomic culture in the Cook Islanders. (Recommended: The Foodie’s Guide to the Cook Islands).
Typical cuisine eaten by locals is fresh seafood such as octopus and clams. Suckling pig – a meal of which is known as Puaka – and lamb are also popular. Taro and seasonings such as fresh ginger, lemon, basil, garlic, lime, and coconut are used in many dishes. Rukau is a dish of taro leaves combined with coconut sauce and onion. In more recent times, a lot of food is imported from New Zealand.
Again, Island Nights are one way to experience some of the culture on the Cook Islands, particularly in regards to food, dance and music. An elaborate buffet of local food, kai, accompanies song and dance.
If you’re looking for a specific recommendation, check out the Night Market in Muri Beach, which is open four days a week from 5–8 PM. It has a vibrant, easy-going atmosphere of a street market with a variety of stalls of food to pick from. Most of the food is cooked on-site and there’s everything from seafood, dessert, noodles, and more.
More Sites for the Culture Lover
Many of the best sites have been mentioned above. However, there are a few more sites of note if you’re looking to prioritize experiencing Cook Islands culture:
- The Saturday morning Punanga Nui Markets in Rarotonga is the social hub of the island. Tourists and locals come together to enjoy delicious local produce, talented local music and dance, and crafts.
- Te Ara Cook Islands Museum of Cultural Enterprise is a great opportunity to learn about the cultural history of the Cook Islands. Featuring a fantastic visual display about the story of the Cook Islands from pre-colonial times through to the present day. It also houses a gift shop and cafe selling only locally produced crafts and food. Located in the heart of Rarotonga, they prioritize positive impact on the local communities by minimizing waste, providing local jobs, and stocking local products.
- Cook Islands National Museum is another good option for the museum lover. Also located on Rarotonga, it is a smaller museum that provides much historical information about the islands that is worth checking out.
Our Final Thoughts!
The natural, unspoiled beauty and charm of the landscape is matched by the friendly people who are welcoming to visitors. With the stunning combination of world-class beaches, an energetic and lively atmosphere, and unique food, it is more than worth a visit to the Cook Islands.