Identification. The country is named after Captain James Cook, who landed there in 1773.
Location and Geography. The Cook Islands are part of Oceania, a group of islands in the South Pacific roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand, lying between American Samoa and Tahiti. Their total area is 93 square miles (240 square kilometers). The islands are dispersed over nearly two million square kilometers of ocean. The southern islands, which make up 90 percent of the land area, are hilly terrain of recent volcanic origin; Rarotonga is the most mountainous. The northern islands are coral atolls that have formed over ancient sunken volcanoes and are characterized by outer reefs surrounding a lagoon. There are several species of birds but few native plants and animals; the only indigenous mammal is the Pacific fruit bat.
Demography. The population is 20,407 (July 2000 estimate). Among the residents, 81 percent are full-blooded Polynesian, 8 percent are mixed Polynesian and European, 8 percent are mixed Polynesian and non-European, and 2 percent are European. Among the Polynesian people, there are slight variations from island to island; northerners, for example, are more closely related to Samoans than they are to other Cook Islanders. More than 90 percent of the population is concentrated in the southern islands, and over 50 percent on Rarotonga. The population is declining, as many residents have emigrated to Australia and New Zealand; there are more Cook Islanders in New Zealand than in the islands.
Linguistic Affiliation. English is the official language and is taught in school. The common vernacular is Cook Islands Maori, also called Rarotongan, which is similar to the Maori spoken in New Zealand and Tahiti. Dialects vary, and in the north, some islands have their own languages.
Symbolism. The flag has a blue background with a Union Jack in the upper lefthand corner. In the center of the flag is a circle of fifteen white five-pointed stars, one for each of the fifteen islands.
Emergence of the Nation. Archeologists trace the settlement of the islands to the fourth century C.E. ; the oral history of Raratonga (the most influential island and the first one to be settled) dates back about 1,400 years.
The first European sighting occurred in 1595, when the Spaniard Alvaro de Mendana glimpsed Pukapuka, one of the northern islands. In 1606, Pedro Fernandez de Quirós landed on Rakahanga in the north. Captain Cook was the first European to explore the land extensively. He arrived in 1773 and returned in 1777. Cook's name was bestowed on the southern islands in an 1835 atlas. At that time, the northern group was known as the Penrhyn Islands or the Manihiki Islands.
Christian missionaries had an important large impact on the islands. They decimated the population by introducing diseases such as whooping cough, measles, and smallpox. However, culturally they did not attempt to eradicate all indigenous traditions. The first missionary on the islands was the Reverend John Williams of the London Missionary Society, who landed on Aitutaki in 1821. Another influential figure was Papeiha, a convert from the Society Islands who moved to Rarotonga in 1823.
In 1888, the British declared the islands a protectorate to counter the French, who were increasing their colonial holdings in the South Pacific. In 1900, New Zealand annexed Rarotonga and the other main islands in the southern group; this was
Albert Henry of the Cook Islands Party (CIP), a major figure in the independence movement, was elected prime minister in 1968. He was knighted in 1974, but the honor was revoked in 1980 because of claims of corruption. When Henry died in 1981, Dr. Thomas Davis of the Democratic Party became prime minister. Several years of relative political instability followed; power changed hands a few times between 1983 and 1989, when Geoffrey Henry, Henry's nephew, became prime minister. His government did not have widespread popular support, but Geoffrey Henry was knighted in 1992, and the CIP won by a large majority in the 1994 elections.
In the mid 1990s, a controversy known as the "winebox affair" surfaced: the islands were accused by New Zealand of illegal practices in offshore banking and international tax evasion. The affair developed into an international scandal, but the nation's misdeeds were never proved in court. However, economic problems continued to beset the country, including a trade imbalance. In April 1996, Prime Minister Henry announced a 50 percent cut in government departments and privatized a number of government-owned businesses. Many of the recently fired government employees left for New Zealand and Australia. The tourism industry suffered for several years as well.
National Identity. Cook Islanders identify first with their individual islands and secondarily with the country as a whole. There is a strong sense of connection with New Zealand; Cook Islanders have citizenship, and many emigrate or have relatives there.
Ethnic Relations. There is some resentment toward Europeans because of the islands' colonial heritage, but it is acknowledged that Europeans generate a large proportion of the nation's income in the form of tourism.
The capital, Avarua, is the largest city but is more like a small town. Located on the northern coast of Rarotonga, it has an old harbor and one main road that follows the waterfront. Much of the architecture is colonial, including the Cook Islands Christian Church, which was built in 1855.
Traditional houses, called kikau, have panadus-thatched roofs. Few of these structures remain, mostly on the northern islands. In the south, this architecture remains only on the island of Aitutaki in a village called New Jerusalem. On Rarotonga, this style of building is prohibited because it is considered inferior to European architecture and bears a certain stigma.
Food in Daily Life. Rori (sea cucumbers) are eaten raw or cooked with butter, garlic, and spices. Fish is eaten both raw and cooked. Raw fish, called ika, is marinated in lemon juice or a mixture of vinegar, oil, and salt and served with chopped onion and coconut cream. Young taro leaves are mashed and mixed with coconut cream, salt, and chopped onion in a dish called rukau.
Coconut water is a popular beverage, as are fruit juices and coffee. Beer, called bush beer, is brewed from oranges, bananas, pawpaws, or hops.
Traditional cooking is elaborate and time-consuming. Food is prepared in an umu, an oven dug in the earth and filled with firewood and basalt rocks. A grill of banana wood is placed over the hot stones. Food is wrapped in banana leaves and then in sacks and thrown into the pit, which is covered with soil and allowed to sit for about three hours.
Food Customs at Ceremonial Occasions. Special occasions are marked by a feast called an umukai (literally "food from the oven"). Meat is the main dish, supplemented with ika and potato salad. Kava, made from the root of the pepper plant, is a traditional ceremonial drink. It is nonalcoholic but can be consciousness-altering. Christian missionaries virtually eliminated the drink from the islands; today, the word "kava" is used for any alcoholic beverage.
Basic Economy. Economic development has been hampered by geographic isolation, a lack of natural resources, and natural disasters. The country has a severe trade imbalance that is partly compensated for by foreign aid from New Zealand and by remittances sent by islanders living abroad. The New Zealand dollar is the currency used. Most economic growth is in tourism, offshore banking, and the mining and fishing industries.
Land Tenure and Property. There are laws prohibiting the buying or selling of land. Ownership is hereditary; land can be leased, but outsiders are not allowed to own land. Land is divided among the descendants after the death of the owner. As a result of this system, a family may possess several plots scattered over an island.
Commercial Activities. Commercial activity centers on the tourist industry. The islands (Rarotonga in particular) are dotted with hotels, resorts, and restaurants that cater to tourists.
Major Industries. The major industries are fruit processing and tourism. Rarotonga receives nearly fifty thousand tourists a year.
Trade. The islands import large quantities of products, including food, textiles, fuels, timber, and capital goods. Forty-nine percent of imports come from New Zealand, and the remainder primarily from Italy and Australia. Exports include agricultural products (copra, papayas, fresh and canned citrus fruit, coffee, and fish), pearls and pearl shells, and clothing. Eighty percent of exports go to New Zealand; the rest are sent to Japan and Hong Kong.
Division of Labor. People are relatively free to work in the profession of their choice. Twenty-nine percent of the labor force works in agriculture, 15 percent in industry, and 56 percent in services.
Classes and Castes. Class traditionally was determined by a hereditary system of titles. Today, status is determined more by education and profession, and there is a good deal of social mobility.
Symbols of Social Stratification. The majority of residents today wear Western-style clothing. Dress is often casual, with the exception of churchgoing on Sundays. The traditional outfit of short, fringed grass skirts, headbands, and collars is worn mainly for dances and other celebrations. Both men and women wear flowers in their hair. Traditionally, fat is a symbol of wealth and beauty, and at puberty boys and girls undergo ritual seclusion and feedings to gain weight. However, this is changing as Western standards of beauty have begun to exert more influence.
Government. The chiefs of state are the British monarch and the New Zealand high commissioner. The head of the government is the prime minister, who appoints a cabinet. The unicameral parliament has twenty-five members elected by popular vote for five-year terms. Twenty-four members represent different districts, and one represents islanders living in New Zealand. The prime minister is not chosen by election; this position goes to the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the parliament. The indigenous ruling body is the House of Arikis (chiefs). The chiefs advise the government on matters relating to tradition but do not have legislative power.
Leadership and Political Officials. The Cook Islands Party was the party largely responsible for independence. The two other parties are the Democratic Alliance Party and the New Alliance Party.
Social Problems and Control. Violent crime is rare, but petty theft is becoming more common, particularly on Rarotonga. The legal system is based on New Zealand law and English common law.
Military Activity. The Cook Islands do not have a military. They depend on New Zealand, which defends the islands at their request, in consultation with the islands' government.
The country participates in several international organizations, including UNESCO and the World Health Organization.
Division of Labor by Gender. Women are responsible for domestic work; men do all the fishing and heavy labor such as construction. Women often work outside the home. Until recently, men dominated most positions in management and government, but this situation is changing.
The Relative Status of Women and Men. Women are treated with respect, primarily in relation to their roles as wives and mothers. Women are in charge of family finances and oversee the land, determining which crops to plant. At the level of the church and village, women are the primary administrators. Domestic violence against women is punished strictly.
Marriage. Polygamy has been eliminated because of the influence of the Christian churches. There is a good deal of freedom in choosing one's spouse, and it is not uncommon for couples to have a trial marriage before wedding. Divorce and separation are fairly common, as are common-law marriages.
Domestic Unit. The extended family is highly valued, and it is common for various relatives and generations to live under the same roof. A newly married couple usually lives with one set of in-laws until they have the means to establish a residence of their own.
Inheritance. Inheritance is not gender-specific. When a mother dies, land passes jointly to all her children.
Kin Groups. Society is divided into family clans, each of which is linked to the ancient system of chiefs. Rarotonga has six clans ( ariki ), which were established centuries ago, when the Maoris first settled on the island and divided the land.
Infant Care. Infants are given a lot of attention and are treated with indulgence.
Child Rearing and Education. The teaching of Christian values and respect for elders is an important aspect of child rearing. Education is free and compulsory from age five through age fifteen. There are twenty-eight primary schools and seven secondary schools.
Higher Education. There are several institutions of post secondary education. There are training programs for nurses and teachers as well as an apprenticeship program for various trades and a Cook Island Christian Church theological college that trains ministers. There is a branch of the Fiji-based University of the South Pacific in Avarua. Many people send their children to New Zealand, Australia, or other South Pacific countries to receive higher education. The government provides scholarships to students for studying abroad.
Cook Islanders are known for their hospitable and generous, if somewhat reserved, nature. When invited to someone's home, it is customary to bring a small gift for the host. Upon returning from a voyage, travelers are greeted with a garland of flowers placed around their necks; they are seen off the same way before departures.
Religious Beliefs. Virtually all the people are Christian; 70 percent belong to the Protestant Cook Islands Christian Church (CICC) and 30 percent are Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, Mormon, or members of other denominations. Little is known about the indigenous religion, which had a complex system of seventy-one gods, each of which was responsible for a specific aspect of life; this religion also believed in twelve levels of heaven, some of which were located above the earth, and some below.
Religious Practitioners. Ministers are the central figures in the CICC. They are held in high esteem and have a great responsibility to their congregations. People express approval or dissatisfaction with a minister through the size of their donations to the local church.
Rituals and Holy Places. There are churches throughout the islands, and many residents attend regularly, dressing up in white straw hats. Sermons are in Maori. (The Bible was translated into Maori in the 1880s.) Singing is an integral part of services, and hymns often incorporate traditional Polynesian harmonies.
The site of worship in traditional religious practice is called a marae . Despite the fact that the indigenous religion has been supplanted by Christianity, marae still hold significance for many people, particularly on Rarotonga.
Death and the Afterlife. Burial vaults are located in the front yards of houses. Usually, the woman who built the house is buried there. Women's coffins are sealed in these concrete structures because it is considered disrespectful to cover their bodies in dirt after death. Graves are only cared for by friends or family of the deceased. When no survivors remain, the tops of the burial vaults are removed and the land is plowed over.
Health care is provided by the government, but the system is relatively primitive. Each island has a hospital, but some of the more remote hospitals are very poorly equipped. People generally are sent to the hospital in Rarotonga or New Zealand for serious illnesses. Some people rely on traditional medicines and faith healers in addition to the Western medicine that is available.
New Year's Day is celebrated 1 January. Anzac Day on 25 April commemorates Cook Islanders killed in World War II. The queen's birthday is celebrated on the first Monday in June. Constitution Day is celebrated on 4 August; the ten-day festivities include sports and dancing. Flag Raising Day occurs on 27 October. Tiare (Floral) Festival Week is held in the last week in November; it includes parades and other festivities.
Support for the Arts. Avarua is home to the National Library, which has a collection of rare books and literature about the Pacific. The National Museum displays traditional arts and handicrafts. The capital has the Sir Geoffrey Henry National Cultural Centre, which was built in 1992.
Literature. The literary tradition is primarily one of legends and stories passed orally from one generation to the next. Many of these stories have been written down and published. One of the best known writers in the twentieth century was Manihikan Kauraka Kauraka, who published both renderings of traditional tales and original poetry, stories, and nonfiction writings.
Graphic Arts. The islands are known for a textile art called tivaevae, practiced by women, which combines appliqué and embroidery. Tivaevae decorates bedspreads and cushion covers. Flower art is popular in the form of ei (necklaces) and ei katu (tiaras). Jewelry made from black pearls is another specialty. Other traditional arts and crafts include woven pandanus mats, baskets, purses, and fans.
Performance Arts. The islands are known for music (primarily fast, complex drumming) and dance, in particular the fast, hip-swinging tamure, which is performed in traditional costumes consisting of grass skirts and headbands. Many of these performances are held for tourists on so-called Island Nights at hotels. They also are staged during the annual Dance Week every April and during Constitution Week in the summer.
There are few facilities for the study of the physical and social sciences.
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—E LEANOR S TANFORD