Cook Islands

Culture Name

Cook Islander


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.

History and Ethnic Relations

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

Cook Islands
Cook Islands
extended the next year to include the northern islands. The goal was eventual self-sufficiency for the islands, but despite their agricultural potential, this has not happened. In 1965, the islands gained the right to self-government in internal affairs, but defense and foreign policy remain under the control of New Zealand.

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.

Urbanism,Architecture, and the Use of Space

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 and Economy

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.

Social Stratification

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.

Political Life

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.

Thatched cottages and plants line a street in New Jerusalem, Aitutaki. These are some of the last remaining examples of traditional houses, called  Kikau.
Thatched cottages and plants line a street in New Jerusalem, Aitutaki. These are some of the last remaining examples of traditional houses, called Kikau.

Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations

The country participates in several international organizations, including UNESCO and the World Health Organization.

Gender Roles and Statuses

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,Family, and Kinship

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.

A village store in Arutanga. Stores often cater to tourists, who make up a large portion of the Cook Island economy.
A village store in Arutanga. Stores often cater to tourists, who make up a large portion of the Cook Island economy.

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.

A woman sits on the floor making a colorful quilt in the city of Aitutaki.
A woman sits on the floor making a colorful quilt in the city of Aitutaki.

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.

Medicine and Health Care

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.

Secular Celebrations

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.

The Arts and Humanities

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.

The State of the Physical and Social Sciences

There are few facilities for the study of the physical and social sciences.


Baltaxe, James Bernard. Transformation of the Rangatira: A case of the European Reinterpretation of Rarotongan Social Organization, 1975.

Beaglehole, Ernest. Social Change in the South Pacific: Rarotonga and Aitutaki, 1957.

Buck, Peter Henry. Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands, 1944.

——. Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki), 1976.

Campbell, Andrew Teariki, ed. Impressions of Tongareva (Penrhyn Island) 1816–1901, 1984.

——. Social Relations in Ancient Tongareva, 1985.

Crocombe, R. G. Land Tenure in the Cook Islands, 1964.

Feizkhah, Elizabeth. "Large Load, Heavy Soil, High Spin." Time South Pacific, February 28, 2000.

Gilson, Richard. Cook Islands 1820–1950, 1980.

Harmon, Jeff B. "Ignoring the Missionary Position." New Statesman, August 21, 1998.

Kauraka, Kauraka. Legends from the Atolls, 1984.

Web Sites

U.S. State Department, Central Intelligence Agency. The Cook Islands,


Also read article about Cook Islands from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

georgina john
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May 9, 2006 @ 9:21 pm
Nice going guys. keep it real with the raros. katch
simon williamson
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Sep 11, 2006 @ 7:19 pm
yay this is a cool web site i got a lot of informmation thanx guys
sam flett
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Sep 11, 2006 @ 7:19 pm
I loved the infomation that you guys gave me i LOVE you all
Tom winter
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Sep 12, 2006 @ 1:01 am
Oh my god u guys r so gd 4 all this info i just love u guys
Aaron Yuill
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Sep 12, 2006 @ 9:21 pm
thanks alot for the infomation....... i love this site so much chou
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Apr 30, 2007 @ 5:17 pm
i found this web page to be, very interesting even thou im not a cook islander. i was helping my daughter to find her some research for her school assignment.
Mis Tee
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Sep 19, 2007 @ 7:19 pm
Outstanding information for educational purposes. Thank you for sharing this, it will be a great assistant for me. I really like this site.
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Oct 21, 2007 @ 6:18 pm
hey heap of information. does anyone have info about special rarotongan traditions?? if you do please email me it at it would be a great help. thanks
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Nov 12, 2007 @ 4:16 pm
Hello, I randomly found your site while searching for information on Kauraka Kauraka. Would you happen to know of any sources that can provide images of the author?

Taina G.
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Mar 13, 2008 @ 9:21 pm
Very interesting site...Thanx for all the information,it has everything that i was searching for...thanx again..
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Aug 14, 2008 @ 5:05 am
well i was researching something for my assignment and came across this site that really helped provide more information then any of the sites combined. Thanks for the help
Summer Smith
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Aug 18, 2008 @ 8:20 pm
Wow that sure is alot of info. I'm actually quite impressed!!!
Dr. Imran Masood
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Jun 20, 2009 @ 11:11 am
I met Hon. Jim Marurai, the prime minidter of the Cook Islands few days back in Malaysia, during commonwealth education ministers and VCs conference. This was the 1st time I listened the name "Cook Islands". so wanted to know more about this country, and fortunately i reached this web page, I really got lot of good information at one place, and want to visit this beutyfull place
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Nov 23, 2009 @ 11:23 pm
Nice job. got alot of good imformation from here for my history project. keep the goo work up!!
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Feb 10, 2010 @ 6:18 pm
hey, thanx a lot, this article have nice info and it helped me for a school proyect, keep going with the good work. i loved the site thanx again
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May 8, 2010 @ 9:21 pm
This was very helpful due to my essay! Thank you, for making this!
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Sep 15, 2010 @ 10:22 pm
"thaanks for thee info" this is my country mahn!!
i needed this info badly coz im doing an assignment
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May 21, 2011 @ 1:01 am
What an awesome amount of info. Big ups to you guys
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Sep 29, 2011 @ 8:20 pm
bro that was a awsome website to look at if your in need for the info on the cooks
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Oct 13, 2011 @ 12:00 am
Kiaora! I have to write stories about the history of hair as part of my Hairdressing assessments. Could anyone tell me about the Rarotongan history. I love this culture and would like to write and present a small biography. Thank you C.Stuart
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Oct 28, 2011 @ 11:11 am
I'm actually quite impressed!!!thanks alot , for making this!
Abdul Waheed
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Dec 31, 2011 @ 2:14 pm
very usefgul info about cook islands and their people
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Mar 25, 2012 @ 11:23 pm
hello this website really helped me with my assignment
some Gal
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May 12, 2012 @ 3:15 pm
well thanks alot this website has helped we i did this world fair project due on this island and everyone got common islands in the book except for me so thanks this helped a lot
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May 16, 2012 @ 12:12 pm
This was ah-mazing info!! This helped a lot on my research project. Thanks a million!
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Oct 10, 2012 @ 7:19 pm
Interestingly, The Cook Islands are diametrically opposite to Egypt. In geography, the antipodes of any place on Earth is its antipodal point. Two points which are antipodal to one another are connected by a straight line through the center of the Earth!
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Nov 25, 2012 @ 12:00 am
Kia Orana,
Love this site, makes me want to live there. I'm Maaori Tuwharetoa/Waikato, and a few years back, I feel in love with a Cook Island Boy and began to research everything I could about the Cook Islands & to get a better understanding of the people, language, history, culture, customs and food, as I have great respect for other cultures, and great respect to his Mother. I did not read any information regarding the Island of Mangaia. Anyway, keep up the awesome Job!
Lou's Wife
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Feb 5, 2013 @ 10:22 pm
This was very helpful. thank you so much for this site. Essay completed :-)
Laraine Josephs
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Jun 26, 2013 @ 8:20 pm
Kia Orana,

Is there a specific animal that symbolizes our culture? for example in India elephants is significant to their culture.

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Sep 10, 2013 @ 6:18 pm
Thanks for you amazing info. I will use this sight more often. Do you have any other sites?!
Tangi Stephano
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Feb 17, 2014 @ 3:03 am
I'm working on an assignment that talks about cultural communication protocal, so I decided to use our country as an example. Is there any specific type of clothing that our cultural people wear to business matters?
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Aug 26, 2014 @ 4:16 pm
thank you for these knowledge u hve given us 2 us, we have learnt so many thank u very much
lester lindquist
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Dec 15, 2014 @ 8:20 pm
this is a great site lots of useful information (tuk)
Giina Tereapii
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Aug 1, 2015 @ 5:17 pm
Kia Orana :) Great article, I was born in Rarotonga and am researching cultural identity and cultural practices etc and have to explain my own, but since i am in NZ its difficult to know the "ways" back in the islands, you could mention in the family section a couple of things which popped into my head while reading which was how we do the boys first hair cutting as well as the father in a family names the first child etc :) Anyways, great article. :)
Andrew Nixon
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Sep 30, 2015 @ 4:16 pm
I'm trying to trace the grave of a person who died at Nuie in 1915.I've had no joy with the Local Admin. Could you please tell me where Nuie is in the Cook Islands?
Yours Sincerely,Andrew Nixon.
Mavis Augustina Amankwaah
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Sep 17, 2016 @ 5:05 am
Interesting and useful information about Cook Islands
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Oct 20, 2016 @ 7:19 pm
it helped a lot with my history project I found I very helpful and interesting
Mahina Tangaroa
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Apr 12, 2018 @ 8:20 pm
Awesome, complete and true assessment of the Kuki Airani. Good to have this page for quick reference. Love it a lot!!!
Monday Adam Marsters Poaiti
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May 24, 2018 @ 6:18 pm
Kia Orana kia tatou Kuki Airani - Well amazing reference of our HOME land, it gave me idea where did i come from and to read the story of the Cook Island it gave me hope were my tongue come from, So well job well done Kia Manuia e kia Orana
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Nov 6, 2018 @ 6:18 pm
Loving the content it was very insightful. Would love for there to be a more detailed procedure of what the Traditional Cook Island Engagement and Wedding procedure was back in the day verses present day. Things that the couple would need to do to get blessings to be engaged, activities and expectations of elders. That would be really cool! Thank you!
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Jan 13, 2019 @ 2:14 pm
Anthropologists have written that the ancient Cook Islands were only inhabited by natives, thus no new immigrants. Because of the lack of diversity and no new ideas, the populations began to diminish. Does anyone know anything about this? Thx!
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Mar 31, 2019 @ 10:22 pm
I didn't find a lot on my research maybe have some housing, food But other wise it was good
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May 19, 2019 @ 11:23 pm
Why do you say that the country had been named after James Cook??? Cook Island had a name and it wasn't "Cook Island" that's just a white man's name for it. It wasn't a privilege to name it after James Cook. He just went and named it after himself. Put it on paper and made a name for himself. The Islands real name is and still to this day is named Hawaiki-nui long before white man step foot on the land. Captain Cook was just a discoverer that went to different land/ countries trying to take over and place his name on it even when our people already lived on it. Especially coming from a anua whos high in the place that holds the papers from way back and stories you guys should really get it right before writing that. Cause that's false information. Just like our other anua the Tahitians hate being called French Polynesians. White man has alot to answer for and need to get there facts straight before putting it on paper.
Thank you Ra.

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