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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



The study of the arts and crafts of the Cook Islands reveals fundamental similarities and a number of differences. Some similarities were widely shared with marginal areas, others were narrowed to neighboring groups or even to neighboring islands within the group. Similarly, differences were shared with other groups, other islands within the group, or confined to one island. The information gathered in the field and from museums provides material for the study of diffusion, local variation, and invention. In considering differences due to the absence of certain elements, the question of abandonment or rejection must be taken into account. Burrows points this out (19, p. 129) in his study of the differences in culture between western Polynesia and the rest of Polynesia. The absence of an element may be due to lack of definite information.

In a comparative study, the field is restricted to material culture in which artifacts give information that has not been transmitted orally. Material, form, and technique reveal the material culture of a locality, but in the initial study of museum specimens it is essential that the localities ascribed to them should page 411be accurate. Once the technique of the various groups has been established, the errors conveyed by inaccurate labeling may be corrected. Ethnographical museums need to check the localities ascribed to their specimens in order that they may fulfill their proper function of providing scientific laboratories for the study of human culture.

Historical Sequence

Each of the Cook Islands has a tradition concerning the arrival of its first settlers. The genealogies tracing descent from these early ancestors were preserved by oral transmission and finally recorded in the writing introduced by missionaries. However, the value of Polynesian genealogies for accurate dating must be regarded with reserve. The time value of 25 years to a generation leads to conflicting dates which cannot all be accurate. Historical contemporaries are sometimes shown by their respective lineages to have lived a century or so apart. In spite of inconsistencies, genealogies do give an approximate date and sequence of historical events.

According to genealogies, the great ancestor Tangiia arrived in Rarotonga from Tahiti some time in the thirteenth century and his contemporary, Karika, is held to have come from Samoa. Previous to their arrival, however, a battle had been fought between people from Tonga and the Marquesas (Iva). For practical purposes, the native period of occupation between the arrival of the first settlers and the advent of the missionaries may be taken as about six centuries. The other islands have their own genealogical records, but a similar period of occupation may be assigned to them.

The traditions of Aitutaki, Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro state that the first settlers came from 'Avaiki which was undoubtedly the Society Islands. The Mangaian settlement myth states that the island came up from the underworld of 'Avaiki with the first settlers upon it. An analysis of Mangaian myth and religion (76, pp. 28-34) indicates that these first settlers came from Rarotonga after the period of Tangiia. Shortly after, people arrived from Tonga (?) and others from Tahiti. A general exodus of the worshippers of Tane took place from Tahiti after their defeat by the followers of Ta'aroa (Tangaroa) and the fugitives went not only to Mangaia, but also to the other islands of the group except Rarotonga. They were called Ngati-tane or Aitu by the local people. Though hostile clashes occurred, they became merged in the population of the islands. A priest of Tane-kio established his god in Mangaia, and later the grandfather of the carver Rori emigrated from Tahiti to Mangaia. The historical narratives of Atiu, Mauke, and Mitiaro state that Tahitian warriors also came to these islands in the century preceding missionary settlement. Hence the influx of settlers, primarily and secondarily, was predominantly from the Society Islands.

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In addition to the historical evidence of settlers from Tonga, Samoa, and the Marquesas, there is cultural evidence of communication with the Austral Islands. Frequent communication between the islands of the Cook group also took place.

Cultural Periods

The native history shows that, in addition to the fundamental culture that was introduced by the first settlers, there was ample opportunity for the diffusion of culture elements that may have been developed in the Society Islands after the first settlers left. To a lesser extent, later diffusion took place from the Australs, but according to the historical evidence, any diffusion from Samoa and Tonga must be grouped with the early period. In addition to diffusion, local changes took place during the six centuries of native occupation and also after missionary contact. It is convenient, therefore, to endeavor to arrange the various elements of material culture into three periods as follows: first, period of discovery; second, settlement period; third, post-missionary period.

In the first period, all the cultural elements were introduced by the first settlers from their previous home and it took some time before significant changes could develop. The climate and soil were similar to those of the Society Islands, hence nature demanded no cultural adjustments such as those faced in New Zealand, where a more severe climate and different raw material necessitated quick changes in food, housing, and clothing. The first settlers of the Cook Islands brought with them the cultivable food and textile plants and the domestic animals of their previous home, hence their food economy did not require drastic change.

The second period was spread over six centuries and it is impossible to determine when later elements were introduced from the Society Islands or elsewhere. It is also impossible to date local changes in elaboration, abandonment, and invention. However, it is really unimportant as compared with the fact that they did occur.

The third or post-missionary period commenced with the advent of members of the London Missionary Society to Aitutaki in 1821. By 1823, they had extended their influence to the other islands of the group. This was the period of greatest change, for a direct attack was made on the native religion and other social institutions that were regarded as "heathen." With the rejection of certain institutions, the material objects that went with them also disappeared, and the technology and creative art of the skilled craftsmen weakened and died out. The introduction of metals ended the use of and manufacture of stone tools, and trade goods gradually supplanted native clothing, headdresses, and ornaments. The structure of houses and canoes was also affected. Diffusion was aided by native pastors and laborers from other islands, and some page 413elements in technique that have been regarded as native were no doubt due to foreign influence.

Evidence in Allocation of Periods

The evidence on which artifacts are attributed to different periods is based on distribution and technology. It is assumed that artifacts and technical processes that were shared by distant areas belong to the first period when separation from a common home took place. Culture is not static, however, and changes have occurred in all areas. Sometimes the changes were in matters of detail that do not conceal similarities in fundamental principles. Artifacts with a narrower distribution shared by neighboring groups are referred to the second period when inter-group diffusion took place without reaching distant islands. Artifacts and techniques that are confined to the Cook group are regarded as local developments or inventions that occurred in the second period. The allocation of some changes to the third period is based on their departure from recognized native technique and their similarity to methods adopted by Europeans.

In the arts and crafts, there was an advance in technical processes from the simple to the more complex that required time. More complex articles and technical processes are thus held to have been developed at a later period than their simpler prototypes. The opposite course may occur in the later cultural history of a people, but I can see no evidence to show that degradation overtook the arts and crafts of the Cook Islands prior to the introduction of foreign goods and customs. Some crafts persisted because they continued to be useful to the people in their every day life. Though loom woven cloth completely superseded tapa as wearing apparel, the manufacture of tapa was continued for years to provide a more appropriate setting for native dances and festivals. In the course of time, skilled craftswomen gave way to a generation more practically concerned with foreign sewing machines than with bark cloth beaters, and so the craft died out. Foreign carpets and linoleum were expensive and they were not appropriate furnishing for native houses. Hence the making of floor mats and sleeping mats from pandanus leaf continued, and the plaiting craft will survive indefinitely.

The manufacture of some articles that had ceased to function in native culture was continued into the third period for commercial reasons. Such articles are the four legged seats of Atiu, which are made solely for trade, and the ceremonial adzes of Mangaia, which underwent bizarre changes to appeal to the market. Recently in Rarotonga, some stone artifacts were made for a foreign collector, but in order to produce something different, European tools such as pickaxes were roughly copied and elaborate histories were concocted for them to give them fictitious age and so increase their selling value.

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Study Plan

Instead of taking each period in its entirety, I have deemed it better to take each section of material culture already described and attempt to place the main artifacts or items of interest in their respective periods.