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A culture shaped by Polynesia and Europe

The beauty and charm of our islands is matched

only by the friendliness of our people. Here
among your island friends, you will find the
hospitality warm and spontaneous, the music
and dancing exuberant, the mood relaxed.

The Cook Islands culture is shaped by the

arrival of Polynesians that took place around
800 AD.

This was part of what was believed to have been the last great wave of Polynesian migration
from Asia that began in 1500 BC.

Of equal importance has been the contact with European culture, particularly the British and
the influence of missionaries spreading the Christian message.
Cook Islanders share a genuine care for others and as we have chosen to retain and preserve
much of our old ways, our cherished culture lives on. This is openly expressed with song,
dance and an easy pace of life, uncomplicated by the turmoil of the outside world. We invite
you to share this unique lifestyle whilst you are our guest.

Although displays of the Cook Islands past are exhibited in local museums, our culture is not
confined to their walls, or to restored sites. Polynesian identity can be found in everyday life,
in the many art galleries around the island of Rarotonga who exhibit local artists, in the
carvings that adorn our buildings and homes, in dance and drama and at various events
throughout the year, particularly during Te Maeva Nui Constitution Celebrations in July. This
is a time to renew the warrior’s might and the dancer’s grace – a time when heritage excels.
However, it is the songs of the Kaparima, the hymns of the Sunday choir, and pride in
traditional crafts that exists in the day-to-day lives of our people.

Christianity plays an important role in our lives and Sunday is a day for celebration, prayer,
families and singing. There are several denominations who\ welcome your attendance at
church services on Saturdays or Sundays. An uplifting highlight of your visit will be the
joyous sound of a Sunday choir.

The total population of our islands is approximately 19,000. Some 2000 people live on the
Northern Group islands and about 5000 on 5 Southern Group islands. The rest live on
Rarotonga. Many of our people live overseas, including close to 50,000 in New Zealand.
Throughout the villages, at your hotel, or at the many attractions, you will be welcomed by
our people and treated as a friend.

Song and Dance - The heart of Cook Island's culture

What most defines the Cook Islands and leaves a

lasting impression on tourists is the grace, art and
skill demonstrated in song and dance – particularly a
traditional dance known as the Ura.

Unlike most western dancers, the islanders tell a story

with their bodies that matches the words of the song.
The dancing, accompanied by highly rhythmic
drumming is taken very seriously, with each island
having its own unique songs and dances that are
practised from an early age.

The Cook Islanders are considered amongst the finest

Polynesian singers and dancers. And there are many
competitions throughout the year where the competitive spirit between each island comes to
the fore. Regular international awards are a testament to this phenomenal talent.

Close harmonious singing can also be heard in churches along with the powerful and
emotional impact of chants and hymns during weddings and funerals. This range and talent of
popular singing can be found at numerous festivals throughout the year.

String bands that play at restaurants, hotels and concerts, using combinations of modern
electronics with traditional ukuleles made from coconut shells also provides tourists with a
uniquely Cook Islands experience.

Festivals and Events

Throughout the year we find many reasons to celebrate and have fun. Some of our festivals
have a cultural or historical significance, such as the Te Maeva Nui Celebrations held each
year in July, where we celebrate our nation’s self-governance. This is an important festivity
for us and perhaps our largest, with colourful float parades, drumming and dancing
competitions, choir singing, sports and so on. This event involves peoples from all of our
islands and is a great time to be in the Cook Islands.

Other celebrations and events of note are: Te Mire Kapa ‘Dancer of the Year’ Competitions
that are excellent events to watch, attracting many spectators. During the month of April, men
and women, boys and girls participate in several categories of dance, all leading up to the
finals late in the month or early in May.

Miss Cook Islands Pageant is held every two years and is a big event for our young female
contestants aged between 18 to 25 years. The winner goes on to represent our nation at other
pageant such as Miss South Pacific and Miss world.

Cook Islands Gospel Day, also known as ‘Nuku’ takes place in October. Various religious
groups from around the islands assemble together to perform religious dramas or acts, in
remembrance of the arrival of the missionaries to our shores.

The Tiare Festival or Flower Festival is a big event, celebrated each year in November with a
different theme. There are competitions for best decorated shops, schools and government
buildings, best head or neck ‘ei, best pot plant and much more. Miss Tiare Pageant and a float
parade also feature during this fun week of festivities.

Many sporting competitions take place during the year. They include the Rarotonga
International Triathlon that attracts participants from all over the globe and the Round
Rarotonga Road Race, in which visitors are encouraged to participate. Others include the
International Rugby Sevens Tournament, Boxing Day Touch Tournament, Cook Islands
National Athletics Championships and of course the local Rugby Union, Football and Netball

Other events include the Cook Islands Tourism International Food Festival, Cook Islands
Tivaivai Exhibition, All Souls Day ‘Turama’ , Kumete Sports, ‘Vaka Eiva’ Canoe Regatta and
much more.

Contact a Cook Islands Tourism office for dates and additional information or visit

Government and New Zealand

Having been a British Dominion since 1888, the Cook Islands was formally annexed by New
Zealand on 7th October 1900. This status was changed to a separate administration in 1903.
From this point, the Cooks Islands remained under New Zealand's governance, although a
Cook Islands Legislative Council was elected in 1946.

In April 1965, the first elections were held, leading to a government led by the Cook Islands
party under Albert Henry. From this point, the islands became self-governing in association
with New Zealand. This special relationship exists today, recognised by the automatic right
granted to all Cook Islanders to have New Zealand citizenship.

Today, the Cook Islands enjoys a Westminster-style of Parliamentary Government similar to

many other Commonwealth countries. The Head of State is Her Majesty the Queen, Elizabeth
the Second.

History and people

Cook Islanders look upon themselves as true Polynesians, with a

proud heritage that connects directly with the finest seafarers of the
vast Pacific. Voyaging on handmade canoes with none of the
sophisticated navigation tools of today, they made their way
fearlessly across vast tracts of ocean in search of new lands and

According to tradition, the first voyagers to arrive in the Cook

Islands landed on Rarotonga around 800 AD. These people had set
sail from Tupua'i in what is now French Polynesia. Continuing the
Polynesian habit of seabound exploration and migration, Cook
Islands tradition also has it that the great Maori migrations to New
Zealand began from Rarotonga as early as the 5th century AD.

The first written history of the Cooks began in 1595, prompted by the sighting of Pukapuka
by the Spanish voyager Alvaro de Mendana. It took almost 150 years for the British to arrive,
beginning again with a sighting of Pukapuka in 1764. Subsequently, the infamous Captain
Bligh and his ship the HMS Bounty landed on Aitutaki in 1798.

1821 saw the arrival of the first Christian missionaries. Their influence spread quickly
throughout the Cook Islands. But whilst the arrival of Christianity did alter many aspects of
traditional island existence, the people of the Cook Islands have been able to preserve their
proud Polynesian heritage alongside their Christian faith.
One final point: the name 'Cook Islands' was actually bestowed by the Russians, in honour of
the great English navigator!

Early tourists and the flying boat era

From the early 1900s through to the 1950s, tourists

began arriving mainly by sea. In those days, Cook
Islands dance troupes also earned a widespread
reputation as compelling entertainment on board the
sailing ships that plied the Pacific waters.

Regular air services from New Zealand did not start

until after World War Two. Operating from 1951-
1960, Tasman Empire Air Lines (TEAL - later Air
New Zealand) flew huge Solent seaplanes from Auckland to Tahiti via Fiji, Samoa and
Aitutaki. From here, travel to Rarotonga and other islands in the group was by boat.
Rarotonga International Airport finally opened in 1974, leading to a corresponding increase in
tourist numbers.

Our language

Cook Islands Mãori or Maori Kuki Airani is the most widely spoken language in the Cook
Islands and has been our official language since 2003. Cook Island Maori is also referred to as
‘Te reo Ipukarea’ or “the language of the Ancestral Homeland’.

In addition, English is almost universally spoken and understood.

Should you want to explore speaking another language, here are some common words and
useful phrases in Cook Islands Mãori:

Good Morning - põpongi

Good Night - põ manea, põ meitaki
Have a nice day - rã mãnea
Good bye - ‘aere ra
Come here - ‘aere mai
Thank you - meitaki
Thank you very much - meitaki ma‘ata
You are beautiful - te mãnea ‘iakoe
What is... your name? - ko‘ai tõ‘ou ingoa?
the time? - ‘ea‘a teora?

Where is... the bus stop? - tei‘ea te ngai tãp~u anga o te bus?
the hospital? - tei‘ea te are maki?
the museum? - tei‘ea te are vairanga apinga takere?
the library? - tei‘ea te are vairanga puka tatau?
the bank? - tei‘ea te pangika?
the market? - tei‘ea te makete?
the church? - tei‘ea te are pure?
where are going? - ka aere koe k~i‘ea

How much... is this? - ‘~e‘ia teia?

does this cost? - ‘e‘ia moni i teia?
is the cup of coffee - ‘~e‘ia moni i te kapu kaope?

How old are you? - ‘~e‘ia õ‘ou mata‘iti?

Can you help me? - ka rauka ãinei ia koe i te tauturu mai iãku?
Is it safe to swim here? - ka meitaki ãinei te pa‘~i tai i konei?
Can I have a drink? - ka tika ãinei kia inu au i te vai?

I only speak a little Cook Islands Maori - meangiti ua taku tuatua maori ka kite
I don’t speak any Cook Island Maori - kãreau e kite meitaki i te tuatua maori

Counting 1-10
tai, rua, toru, ‘ã, rima, ono, itu, varu, iva, ta‘i nga‘uru

Useful words
Yes - ‘ãe
No - kãre
Stop - tãp~u
Flower - tiare
Food - kai (Rarotonga word for food), mãnga (-over the first a) (Ngaputoru an Aitutaki word
for food)
Book - puka
Water - vai
Girl - tamãi‘ne
Pretty girl - tama‘ine maneã
Woman/wife - vaine
Pretty woman - va‘ine manea
Boy - tamaiti
Man/husband - tãne

Happy - mataora
Dance - ‘ura
Let's dance - ka ‘ura tãua
Happy - mataora
Feast - umukai
Tomorrow – ãpõpõ
Moon - marama
Ocean - moana
Maunga - mountain European/foreigner - papa‘a
Plane - pa‘irere

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