Story: Cook Islanders

Page 3. Culture

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Dance, music and tīvaevae

In the 1940s a favourite Auckland meeting place was a dance hall called The Polynesian. Men also held ‘drinking schools’, which often began with an imene tuki (traditional song) and ended with a pure (prayer). Parties were lively events with singing accompanied by ukuleles and guitars.

Cook Islanders such as vocalist Annie Crummer, who sang with the Dunedin band Netherworld Dancing Toys in the mid-1980s, and writer Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, who arrived in the 1930s, have forged successful arts careers.

Nicknamed ‘Raros’ after the main island Rarotonga, Cook Islanders often gather to celebrate their Constitution Day on 4 August. Groups also travel between the islands and New Zealand. Referred to as ‘tere parties’, they often give dance performances. Cook Islands percussionists produce the steady backbeat for these traditional dance troupes. With highly rhythmic drumming on the pate (wooden slit drum) and wild, sensuous dancing, Cook Islands teams often win Pacific dance festivals.

Throughout New Zealand, tīvaevae makers – who sew colourful bed coverings or quilts – gather to work and gossip. The beautiful quilts are often presented as gifts or used on important occasions, such as the rite of passage ceremony in which a young boy has his first haircut. The boy typically sits on a tīvaevae draped over a chair, while guests come up and cut a lock of his hair, giving him cash in return.

Māori and the Cook Islands

It is likely that some New Zealand Māori can trace their ancestors to the Cook Islands. The various dialects of the Cooks are very similar to Māori. New Zealand and the Cooks share place names, and even family names such as Paikea, which originated with a family from Mauke who settled near East Cape. Oral traditions from Aitutaki in the Cooks claim that the Tainui canoe stopped there on its voyage from Ra‘iatea to New Zealand. Cook Islanders have rekindled links with some Māori tribes, most notably Tainui in the 1990s, when they considered building an ocean-going vaka (canoe).


While different islands have different dialects, Rarotongan has emerged as the dominant Cook Islands Māori language. Even this is a candidate for the endangered language list, not only in New Zealand but also in Rarotonga. In the 1960s many older migrants spoke only their own tongue at home, while younger people were increasingly speaking English.

By 2001 only 18% of Cook Islanders in New Zealand were able to hold an everyday conversation in Cook Islands Māori, and by 2013 this figure had fallen further, to 13%. Initiatives such as punana reo (‘language nests’ for young children), and learning materials provided in some schools give hope for saving the language. A language curriculum for New Zealand schools was launched in 2004.

Pukapukan is another distinct language spoken by those from the northern atoll of Pukapuka. In the 2000s Auckland had a specialist Pukapukan publisher, Mataaliki Press, which printed children’s books.

Did they leave or were they pushed?

It is likely that some Cook Islands ancestors of Māori arrived in New Zealand about 700 years ago. However, the close links between the two peoples have an element of sibling rivalry, as one journalist explains:

‘There is a bit of stick between Cook Islands Maori and New Zealand Maori. One group maintains they kicked the other out a thousand years ago … The voyagers claim those who stayed behind were the slack ones!’ 1

Away from home

By 2011, 17,779 people were living in the Cook Islands, and of these 14,998 were usual residents. In 2013 around 62,000 Cook Islanders lived in New Zealand, 77% of whom were born there. The population was very youthful, with 39% under 15 (compared with 20% for the total population). An estimated 15,000–30,000 Cook Islanders also lived in Australia. The critical mass of the population, with its culture, traditions and language, is now living away from the islands, and efforts to preserve language and culture are under way in these expatriate communities, as well as in the homeland.

Flights to the Cook Islands from New Zealand often carry retired people and those returning for a visit. They also include Cook Islanders going back for good – those whose last wish was to be buried in their island’s soil.

  1. Mark Scott, ‘In search of the Cook Islands.’ New Zealand Geographic 11 (1991): 33. › Back
How to cite this page:

Carl Walrond, 'Cook Islanders - Culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Carl Walrond, published 8 Feb 2005, updated 1 Mar 2015