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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



Though the invasion of western culture has wrought many changes, the native culture of the Cook Islands has retained numerous elements of the past. It may not be amiss to touch briefly on religion and social organization before dealing with the survivals in material culture.

The entire population belongs to some sect of the Christian religion, most of them to the Protestant faith established by the London Missionary Society. Others are Roman Catholics and Seventh Day Adventists. The London Missionary Society established a mission in Aitutaki in 1822, and the missionaries compiled an alphabet for the local dialect and taught the people to read and write. The Bible was translated into the Rarotongan dialect and printed in London. A theological school was established in Rarotonga for training promising men from the various islands, and after graduation they were ordained as pastors. Pastors are located in the main villages throughout the islands and they exercise a great deal of influence among their congregations. The services are conducted in the native language, and the hymns are sung usually to native tunes. The people excel in part singing. Of the ancient ritual and religious paraphernalia there are no survivals.

Since assuming authority, the Government has interfered as little as possible with the social organization of the people. The status of the ariki and mataiapo chiefs is fully recognized, and succession is according to native law. A few cases of succession have been referred to the High Court by the natives themselves because the families of opposing claimants could not arrive at a mutual agreement. The arikis and leading chiefs represent their people on the Island Councils established by the Government, and no ordinance is passed without a majority approval. Land tenure follows the native rules of inheritance, and ownership is decided by the Land Court on the native historical and genealogical evidence. The chiefs still let land to the commoners for cultivation, and the tenants pay their rent (atinga) with part of the produce of the land. Apart from small areas acquired for Government buildings and schools, native land is inalienable though parts may be leased with Government consent. The procedure with regard to births, marriages, and deaths conform to the church pattern, but birth celebrations, marriage gifts and feasts, and wailing over the dead retain a native atmosphere. The squatting position in childbirth and the cutting of the navel cord after the placenta has been expelled are survivals of custom. The custom of placing the head of the pig before the high page 497chief at feasts as his ranking share is still observed. The ceremony of the installation of an ariki on the site of the. royal court at Arai-te-tonga was carried out for the late Makea Tinirau. He was dressed in various native garments of tapa, and the ariki headdress (pl. 7, C) was placed on his head with an ancient invocation by the direct descendant of a line of high priests. I witnessed the installation of a female successor to the Ngamaru ariki title of Atiu. Though the august lady was clad in silk garments bedecked with ribbons, her guard of honor wore coiled sennit war caps and carried the typical Atiuan war clubs. Family cohesion and tribal loyalty are as strong as ever. In social matters, the chiefs lead and the people cooperate.

In material culture, the elements which have survived are somewhat scattered. The native types of houses are becoming scarce, but they survive on the cultivations or in some of the cooking houses. Enough are made to keep alive the technique of the framework and the thatch sheets both in coconut and pandanus leaf. Sennit is usually used for lashings, but the occasional use of nails creates a discordant note. The cooking house remains separate from the dwelling house, a practice that suits a tropical climate and that many European settlers have copied. The introduction of European furniture has not interfered with the use of pandanus floor mats. The sleeping mats with decorated borders are still made and are valued as gifts.

The continued use of the kilt or skirt (pareu) of one piece of cloth may be regarded as the survival of an adaptation. It is a convenient form of dress when working or fishing, and it is so well established that traders have had special flowered patterns in various colors made in England especially for the trade. Many Europeans wear the pareu out of business hours because it is comfortable and cool; and white women, attracted by the patterns, use the material for making beach costumes. Sandals made of wild hibiscus bast are still made to protect the feet from the sharp coral points of the reef. They cost nothing but a little labor and are better for the purpose than anything the traders sell. Though the old elaborate ornaments are no longer made, both sexes delight in wearing garlands and wreaths of flowers, berries, and scented leaves. The nightshade (poro'iti) is grown near the dwelling houses to provide the red berries that are deftly cut to a variety of shapes to form pendants to the flower wreaths. Necklaces of shells and seeds are made for wear but more often for sale.

The vessel used for fishing is still the outrigger canoe made with a dug out hull which may be joined in two or three pieces. Certain changes such as the shape of the bow and stern have already been described. Some nails, screws, and bolts replace sennit lashings, and staples are often used in place of boring holes in the outrigger float for the suspensory cords that help to keep the float attached to the branched booms. In spite of these minor changes, however, the outrigger canoe is a notable survival and it is likely to remain stable, for a page 498single individual can handle it more easily than a European boat. The shallows in the lagoon and the nature of the reef also make the outrigger canoe preferable to any other type of craft. Fishing receives a good deal of attention from the men, and, though the lines and hooks may have changed, the fishing methods are strictly native. Coconut-leaf torches are still used for night fishing, with spears within the lagoon and with flying-fish nets beyond the reef. Fish weirs are used on some islands, particularly Aitutaki, and the various native forms of nets used in the lagoon and the reef channels still survive. Fish traps with self acting funnel entrances are made, but it is probable that the younger people will not continue the technique.

The greatest number of survivals are connected with the food complex. In spite of their liking for bread and cabin biscuits, the people live mostly on the produce of the land. Every family has its cultivation with coconut trees, breadfruit trees, and bananas. Plantains are usually obtained from the upper valleys where they grow wild. All the elements connected with procuring and preparing coconuts for food—climbing bandages, husking sticks, coconut graters, and fiber strainers—are still in everyday use. Coconut cream is used in cooking as extensively as of old, and the cream mixed with salt and water is the favorite sauce into which food is dipped at meals. Recent additions to the sauce are the juice of a fresh lime and pieces of sliced onion. Platters and baskets are made from coconut leaves for every day use. The forked breadfruit picker is as useful as of yore.

Of the root plants, the taro and sweet potato are grown extensively, the yam to a lesser extent, and arrowroot has been replaced by the introduced manioc, which gives a greater yield. The taro continues to be grown in the terraced patches irrigated by side channels from an upland stream. In planting dry land taro, the old form of planting stick is still in use. Sweet potatoes are planted in mounds (a'u) as of old.

The favorite means of cooking continues to be the earth oven with its leaf covers. Trade matches have superseded the fire plough, but the people still know the technique and probably use it in the cultivations when the match supply runs out. They conserve matches by lighting a large piece of dry coconut husk which burns slowly. The favorite pudding is still made of pounded taro with coconut cream; thus, each family keeps its stone pounders as a necessary part of the kitchen equipment, as wooden bowls are kept. The fire tongs of coconut-leaf midrib are still used.

The feasts, usually given by chiefs to mark some social event, are occasions for the most lavish display of native foods. All the tenants, according to their status and holdings, contribute food ranging through all the root crops and fruits to pigs fattened for the occasion. The pigs are cooked whole in the earth ovens with the belly downward, the opposite to the Samoan method. The cooked food is carried in coconut-leaf baskets slung from carrying poles to the assembly place before the chief's house. There it is laid out on banana and page 499coconut leaves to make a goodly show. The people assemble in their best modern clothes, bedecked with wreaths and flowers which supply an old time atmosphere. The chief's orator discourses appropriately and, though he may be a deacon of the church, he quotes from mythology, traditions, genealogies, and chants that take the people back into their past and stir their hearts with feelings of pride in their ancient descent. The food is officially divided into portions and distributed to every native family and European visitor so that all get a liberal portion. Amidst the sound of laughter and singing, the people eat in thorough enjoyment and perfect happiness. Food that cannot be consumed is wrapped up in leaves, put into coconut-leaf baskets, and taken home. Social gatherings bring the people together and help to keep alive the spirit of kindliness, hospitality, cooperation, and liberal sharing so characteristic of the Cook Islands people. Though many material things have passed away, the people have adapted and adjusted themselves to changing circumstances, and out of it all a kindly and tolerant native culture has survived the selfishness of western civilization.