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Cook Islands Travel Guide

Maori family on Palmerston
A Cook Islands Maori family on Palmerston.

The People

About 87 percent of the people are Polynesian Cook Island Maoris, most of whom also have some other ancestry. They're related to the Maoris of New Zealand and the Tahitians, although the Pukapukans are unique in that they are closer to the Samoans.

Almost everyone on Rarotonga and most people on the outer islands speak flawless English, while their mother tongue will be one of the 11 dialects of Cook Islands Maori. Rarotongan is now spoken throughout the southern group. Penrhyn is closely related to Rarotongan, Rakahanga-Manihiki is more distantly related, and Pukapukan is related to Samoan.

Over half the population lives on Rarotonga; only 13 percent live in the northern group. Cook Islanders live near the seashore, except on Atiu and Mauke, where they are interior dwellers. The old-style thatched kikau houses have almost disappeared from the Cook Islands, even though they're cooler, more esthetic, and much cheaper to build than modern housing. A thatched pandanus roof can last 15 years.

While around 20,000 Cook Islanders live in their home islands, some 60,000 live in New Zealand and another 10,000 in Australia. Emigration to New Zealand increased greatly after the airport opened in 1973. During the 1980s the migratory patterns reversed and many ex-islanders returned from New Zealand to set up tourism-related businesses, but because of the economic crisis the steady flow of people to New Zealand and Australia resumed in 1996 and the total population decreased. The loss of many teachers and students forced schools and classes to be amalgamated and led to an increase in the dropout rate among teenagers. Education is compulsory until the age of 15.

There are almost no Chinese in the Cooks because of a deliberate policy of discrimination initiated in 1901 by New Zealand Prime Minister Richard Seddon, although many islanders have some Chinese blood resulting from the presence of Chinese traders in the 19th century. A quarter of the population was born outside the South Pacific and the proportion of Americans, New Zealanders, Australians, and others is increasing as "lifestyle investors" arrive to run businesses in the Cook Islands while the islanders themselves move in the opposite direction.

Under the British and New Zealand regimes, the right of the Maori people to their land was protected, and no land was sold to outsiders. These policies continue today, although foreigners can lease land for up to 60 years. The fragmentation of inherited landholdings into scattered miniholdings hampers agriculture and many fine late-19th-century stone buildings have fallen into ruins because of ownership disputes.

The powerful ariki, or chiefly class, that ruled in pre-European times is still influential today. The ariki were the first to adopt Christianity, instructing their subjects to follow suit and filling leadership posts in the church. British and New Zealand colonial rule was established with the approval of the ariki. Today materialism, party politics, and emigration to New Zealand are eroding the authority of the ariki.

Ariki titles are tied to land and cannot be carried overseas (the title passes to another family member if a holder decides to migrate to New Zealand). Until self-government, Cook Islanders were allowed to consume alcohol only if they had a permit; now it's a serious social problem.

Continue to   People: Annoyances   »