Culture and identity
The Cook Islanders are Polynesians, people of the ‘many’ (poly) islands of the South Pacific. They are mainly Maori people, distantly related to the New Zealand Maori. A small number of Europeans, New Zealanders, Fijians, Indians and Chinese also live in the Cook Islands.
Each island has its own distinct mixture of culture but there are common threads. English is the official language and most people also speak one of the six dialects of Cook Island Maori, which can be generally understood. Pukapukan is spoken on Pukapuka and Nassau.
Christian missionaries brought many changes to the traditional systems of government, economy, agriculture and culture, as well as religion. The traditional tribal system, where hereditary chiefs were in control, was gradually replaced by a centralised form of government with elected politicians. A cash economy replaced the barter system and calico cotton replaced the tapa cloth used for clothing, bedding and house furnishings. Plantations replaced subsistence farming.
In churches, the traditional singing style with close harmonies and guttural sounds by the men continued through the hymn singing. There are now efforts to reclaim some of the traditional practices.
Cook Islands arts and crafts include ceremonial adzes, an axe-like tool with a stone blade and an intricately carved wooden handle; coconut palm woven hats, fans, belts and baskets; feathered headdresses; carved wooden statues and communally sown tivaivai, appliqué quilts. Tivaivai are given on important family and social occasions such as weddings and the traditional haircutting ceremony for boys when they come of age. Tattoos were traditionally a way of showing the family line and sometimes covered the whole body.
The health status of Cook Islanders is relatively good in comparison with other Pacific Island countries, as demonstrated by a life expectancy at birth of almost 75 years and infant mortality rate of 14 per 1,000 live births. Healthcare is free, babies are fully immunised and there are active health promotion campaigns to address the increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases such as obesity, stress, heart disease and diabetes.
Religion and beliefs
Most Cook Islanders are devout churchgoers. Almost 49% of the people belong to the Cook Islands Christian Church, which is derived from the Congregationalist London Missionary Society. The second largest group is Roman Catholic but many belong to other denominations.
Food and shelter
Coconut, fish, cassava, taro and tropical fruits form the basis of most meals in the Cook Islands. Traditional foods may be cooked slowly in ground ovens.
In the towns, Western-style homes have replaced the traditional homes made from bush materials for the extended family.