Cook Islands - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. There are fourteen different Christian denominations active in the islands, with about seventy churches, or about one church per 250 people. The Baha'i faith, the only non-Christian faith with an organized Community, has less than 1 percent of the population as members. There are a few Hindus and Muslims among the nonindigenous transient population. While the Christian God is Paramount, the traditional deities are often referred to, often in jest but often not, and a compromise that allows a place for both is not uncommon, though not publicly acknowledged.

Religious Practitioners.

Only the Cook islands Christian Church (to which over 60 percent of the population belong) trains some of its ministers in the country, but it too sends most of them to New Zealand, Fiji, Australia, or the United States. All other denominations train their clergy in those countries. The clergy have a respected status and participate in all community activities of any significance. There are also some faith healers and dispensers of herbal and other Remedies who use a combination of Christian and traditional pre-Christian techniques.

Ceremonies. Only the traditional Christian ceremonies are observed, though with some adaptations (e.g., the nuku, or pageants, at which dramatic performances are accompanied by feasting at the time of a Christian rite). Ritualized hair cutting ideally marks the puberty of selected boys, and involves substantial gift giving as well as feasting.

Arts. Tattooing was abandoned in the nineteenth century and has not been resumed. Secular expressive arts are highly developed, with literally dozens of dance troupes (all parttime and mostly unpaid) and dozens of composers of music and song in the tiny population.

Medicine. Government doctors, nurses, and hospitals are located on all of the larger islands but, particularly if their treatment is not successful, people often turn to traditional healers who use herbal and supernatural methods.

Death and Afterlife.

Government regulations used to require burial within twenty-four hours of death owing to the hot climate and absence of preservation facilities. This rule curtailed the traditional death ceremonies, which otherwise would last for months. On the main island (Rarotonga), however, facilities for preservation now exist. This development is leading to a practice of holding the body until relatives from other countries arrive. As most Cook Islanders now live in other countries, it is also becoming increasingly common for bodies to be returned to the island of birth, Together with accompanying relatives—another very expensive procedure. A year or more after the death it is customary to hold a major ceremony to lay the headstone over the grave. The stone is always purchased overseas at considerable cost, and relatives from several countries may attend the ceremony. Belief in the afterlife follows the Christian tradition.

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