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Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands



Headdresses, more or less elaborate, were worn in all the volcanic groups of Polynesia. Maoris just stuck single feathers in their hair, but they added ornamental combs of carved whale-bone found nowhere else in Polynesia. The various island groups used techniques that differ so widely that they must have developed after dispersal from the common center. The task of describing the technical differences in the Polynesian area is beyond the scope of this work, so attention will be confined to affinities with Cook Islands technique.

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First Period

Flowers and scented leaves in the form of wreaths were early forms of decoration. It is probable that the use of bark cloth in the form of turbans and conical caps was also early.

Second Period

The outstanding feature of the Cook Islands headdresses is the coiled cap made of coir material. Coiled coir caps were also made in the Austral Islands. Though some of the decorated coiled caps in museums have been attributed to the Society Islands, those I have seen give technical evidence that they belong to the Cook Islands. Unless further evidence is supplied by other museum Specimens, the coiled coir cap is confined to the Cook and Austral Islands—a curious distribution, since the Society Islands share so many things with these two groups. Coiled caps without feather decorations are found in Micronesia in the Gilbert Islands. They are absent in Melanesia.

The technique of the coiled work differs in the Cook Islands and adjacent Australs. The Cook Islands technique consists of the continuous figure-of-eight, whereas the Austral technique is the lazy squaw form in which the coiling element makes a number of turns around the foundation element and then passes over the completed coil above at spaced intervals. In the Austral Islands caps the height is less than the rim diameter, whereas in the Cook Islands caps, the rim diameter is less than the height.

The Austral caps with feather work are of three types, which I associate with the islands of Rurutu, Tubuai, and Raivavae. The caps are covered on the outside and lined on the inside with tapa doubled around the rim and held in place with a few stitches passing through the cap. None of the Cook Islands headdresses has this form of tapa lining. The form and technical details of the applied featherwork differ in the three types. They are described briefly here because so many museum specimens have been attributed to the Cook Islands. However, the allocation of the three types to specific islands, except for Tubuai, rests on technical analysis and inferences from literature and not on unquestioned evidence that the headdresses were actually obtained in the islands to which I attribute them.


The evidence of locality rests on a plain cap (pi. 15, A) and a decorated one (pi. 15, B) in the British Museum, both collected by H. Cuming on a trip to the Austral Islands in 1828. He called at Rurutu and Tubuai, but unfavorable winds prevented him from reaching Raivavae. The origin of the two caps was given as "Toubouai" which definitely fixes the locality. Another decorated headdress in the British Museum and one in the Perth Museum, Scotland, brings the number of similarly decorated caps to three. The plain and page 436the three decorated caps are all made with the lazy-squaw technique and the three decorated caps are covered and lined with thick white tapa. The feather decoration on all three consists of long black feathers, split, and attached to long coir cord holders, which are tied in circles to an upright, tapa covered stick attached to the top of the cap. The feathers are in three tiers which completely cover the cap.


The type of headdress shown in plate 15, C, has been considered a product of the Austral Islands, because in eight museum specimens the coiled caps are made with the lazy-squaw technique, the rim diameters are greater than the height, and all are covered inside and out with tapa painted in a similar design. This type is localized to Rurutu because of the following description by Ellis (25, vol. 2, pp. 498, 499):

The Rurutuan helmet is graceful in appearance, and useful in the protection it affords to the head of the wearer. It was a cap fitted to the head, and reaching to the ears, made with stiff native cloth, or a cane frame-work. The lower part of the front is ornamented with bunches of beautiful red and green feathers, tastefully arranged, and above these a line of the long slender tail-feathers of the tropic, or man-of-war bird, is fixed on a wicker frame; the hinder part of the cap is covered with long flowing human hair, of a brown or tawny colour, said to be human beard; this is fastened to a slight network attached to the crown of the helmet, and, being detached from any other part, often floats wildly in the wind, and increases the agitated appearance of the wearer.

On either side, immediately above the ears, numerous pieces of mother-of-pearl, and other shells, are fastened, not as plates or scales, but depending in a bunch, and attached to the helmet by a small strong cord, similar to those passing under the chin, by which the helmet is fastened to the head. These shells, when shaken by the movements of the wearer's head, produce a rattling noise, which heightens the din of savage warfare.

Ellis' description, except for the vague part about the cap and the wicker frame, gives about as accurate a description of the headdresses as any layman could give.

The eight headdresses known to me are located as follows: two each in the British Museum (both +2011) and the Royal Scottish Museum (U.C. 439, and 439a), and one each in the Bristol Museum (E. 1185), Cranmore Museum (also E. 1185 from Bristol Museum), Cambridge University Museum (?), and Peabody Museum, Cambridge (83, 179). One of the Royal Scottish Museum specimens was recently exchanged with the Otago University Museum, New Zealand. None of these specimens had any definite history to: indicate that it was collected in Rurutu, but because of their resemblance to the Aitutaki headdress figured by Williams (81, p. 479), five of them were labeled "Hervey Islands" and two, Aitutaki. The eighth, in the Peabody Museum, was attributed to Rurutu from the description given by Ellis.

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Like the Aitutaki headdress, the Rurutu headdresses have large rosettes of red parakeet feathers composed of ring carriers, horizontal bars of colored feathers in tiers above the rosettes, and long tail feathers of cocks and tropic birds surmounting the whole. A net over the back with tufts of human hair was also common to both.

The differences, in addition to the technique of the coiled work, the relative dimensions of the cap, and the tapa lining, are as follows:

1.Folded tapa is stitched to cap to support the ends of the feather clamps, instead of a bunch of coconut leaflet midribs and part of a wooden frame.
2.Holders of wide pieces of thin wood supporting three parakeet wing or tail feathers are used with the clamps, a technique not used in the Aitutaki headdress.
3.The horizontal clamps are formed of two pieces of thin wood unlike the composite midrib clamps of Aitutaki.
4.The tropic bird tail feathers are fastened by an entirely different technique.
5.The shell ornamentation consists of pieces of pearl shell threaded on a coir cord that hangs down below the cap rim, whereas whole cowrie shells are attached directly to the Cook Islands cap.

The differences are sufficient to establish different islands of manufacture, but the affinities such as the use of horizontal clamps and rosettes composed of a number of ring carriers indicate a common origin, at least, in the technique of the featherwork.


The third form of headdress, figured in plate 15, D, is characterized by a semicircular frontal piece ornamented with rectangular pieces of white shell plaques and feathers. The shape and foundation of plaited ribands of sennit, which resemble the feather gorgets (taume) of Tahiti, are fastened to a coir coiled cap. Full headdresses of this type are in the Peabody Museum (Cambridge, Massachusetts), the Royal Museum of Art and History (Brussels), and the Ethnological Museum of the Academy of Science (Leningrad). Frontal pieces without caps are in the British Museum and the Peabody Museum (Salem, Massachusetts). The cap of the Peabody Museum (Cambridge) specimen is made with the lazy-squaw type of coiled work, and it can be accepted that the others had the same form of technique. The lazy-squaw technique indicates that the headdress belonged to the Austral Islands. Ellis (25, p. 498) in speaking of headdresses from that area states: "Those used by the natives of Tubuai, and High Island, resembled an officer's cocked hat, worn with the ends projecting over each shoulder, the front beautifully ornamented with the green and red wing and tail feathers of a species of paroquet."

Though Ellis gives both Tubuai and High Island (Raivavae) it is not likely that a small island like Tubuai evolved two such divergent forms of feather decoration. It may be assumed, therefore, that the cocked hat form of decoration belonged to Raivavae.

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It is curious that Mangaia—which shows certain affinities with the Austral Islands such as the form of stone pounders, the presence of the animal-like figure in neck ornaments, and a certain resemblance in the carving of geometrical patterns—should not have the coiled cap which is present in the other islands of the Cook group. My Mangaian informants, who were conversant with the coiled caps of Atiu, were positive in their assertion that such caps were not from Mangaia.