This melange of magical and mystical Cook Islands is shrouded in traditions and legends handed down from generation to generation since the arrival of the Polynesians - believed to be around 800AD. The Northern Group of islanders are thought to be from Samoa and Tonga and the Southern Group largely from the Society Islands and the Marquesas; and are part of what was believed to be the last great wave of Polynesian migration from Asia, which began as far back as 1500BC.

It was also around 800 to 1000AD that Raiatea in the Society Islands became established as the centre of culture and religion in the Pacific and dispatched voyagers to Hawaii, the Tuamotu Archipelago and also the Cooks, to rule over the islands. It was they who brought the religion, cultural traditions, medicine and the language – which was Maori.
Born of the Sea
Our History
Cook Islanders are born of the sea. True Polynesians are known as the finest seafarers of the Pacific, voyaging across its huge waters searching for new lands and beginnings. Their bravery, skill and sheer strength far outpace those of the legendary adventurers from Portugal or Spain, the Dutch or the English.

The navigational proficiency of the first Polynesians is an intrinsic part of their gene pool. Not surprising considering their natural playground of the Pacific. The popularity of canoeing and paddling today reflect the times of the great vakas landing on the islands’ shores and as such are regarded as sports that are a rightful part of their inheritance.

Closely linked in culture and language to the Maori in New Zealand, the Maohi of French Polynesia, the Rapuni of Easter Island and the Kanaka Maoli of Hawaii – about 87% of Cook Islanders are Polynesian Cook Island Maori.

Although, those in the northernmost island of Pukapuka regard their heritage to be more connected to the Samoan people. And most of the Cook Islanders do have some other ancestry brought about by the European voyagers that have landed on the shores. For instance Palmerston, with its unique history and English genealogy, is English speaking thanks to William Marsters. Pukapuka has its own language which is similar to Samoan rather than Maori. Naturally, most of the inhabited islands have their own accent and dialect.

Great Entertainers of the Pacific

It is the natural charm of the Cook Island people that lures visitors in. Friendly, high-spirited and welcoming – they are the great entertainers of the Pacific and regarded as the best dancers and drummers in Polynesia. Festivals are an important part of the annual calendar, where the competition between the islands to produce the most outstanding performers is part of the national pride.

Constitution Day is remarkable, but the most exuberant of all is the Te Maeva Nui Festival at which a multiplicity of performances, including dancing, drumming, singing, float parades, competitions and other cultural and sports events occur. This festival draws in crowds of people from all the outer islands and the rest of the world.

Strong Family Bonds

The inherent traits of genuine care for others and love of family are apparent no matter the island background. The bond of family is vital and everyone is a part of a clan that is connected to the tribal chiefs (ariki).

Land and title inheritance also come from the same gene pool, which has influenced the way of life for centuries. Reunions, marriages, births and deaths are marked as special family occasions which ensure a continuation of the bloodlines.

Extended family is an integral part of the Cook Island existence with children often living with grandparents and nephews and nieces living with aunts and uncles. Adoption of family members is also widely encouraged. So knowing where you fit in the family tree is a vital part of being a member of a Cook Island dynasty.

Ariki Influence

The ariki who ruled in pre-European times are still regarded as the leaders and their titles earn them respect throughout the Cook Islands. As the first to adopt Christianity, it was their influence which encouraged the Cook Islanders to adopt the faith. It was also their approval which helped establish the British and New Zealand colonial rule.

Queen Makea’s popularity is legendary for introducing great export prices and cutting the national debt. It led to her becoming an ariki after which four of the five in Rarotonga were women. Even with the introduction of democracy and self rule, the traditional system is one that provides a strong safety net for the vagaries of political variances.

All of the inhabited outer islands have island councils – each with their own mayor – except Nassau which is governed by Pukapuka and Suwarrow which, with its caretaker-only status and also governed by Pukapuka, is not really counted as an inhabited island in this context.


The Mataiapo is also a hereditary chiefly title and as heads of sub-tribes, they are subject to the ariki as far as the entire tribe is concerned and owe traditional allegiance. Otherwise they are largely independent as their own family group heads and assist the ariki in land matters and traditional ceremonies.

Traditionally they were appointed by the ariki in recognition of their ability and service as were the rangatira – also a sub-chief – and in ancient times were usually the brothers and sisters of the ariki.

Allure of the Islands

The Cook Islanders, like any true blooded Maori, enjoy pomp, splendour and big ceremonies with traditional customs and much feasting – an investiture is no exception.

Despite a strong exodus to New Zealand and Australia particularly, which has left a population of around 11,000, the Cook Islanders’ customs and traditions are an intrinsic part of daily life – making hospitality and a warm welcome a natural occurrence.

The beauty and charm of the Cook Islands themselves is matched by the friendliness of the people who think nothing at all of offering a lift, striking up a conversation on the beach or extending an invitation to dinner. Embedded in the culture, and consequently the people, this outgoing spirit is a celebration of the fact that something as uncomplicated as a warm smile is always there – underlining the allure of the Cook Islands.
Cook Islanders - The people of the Cook Islands
Cook Islanders - The people of the Cook Islands
Cook Islanders - The people of the Cook Islands
Cook Islanders - The people of the Cook Islands
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