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The Material Culture of the Cook Islands (Aitutaki)


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The Cook Islands.

The Cook Islands proper are situated between the 18th and 22nd parallels of south latitude, and the 157th and 160th meridians of west longitude. They comprise eight islands: Rarotonga, Mangaia, Atiu, Mauke, Mitiaro, Aitutaki, Takutea, and Manuae (Hervey).

Map of the Cook Group.

Map of the Cook Group.

Takutea and Manuae are small. Manuae and Te-Au-o-Tu are enclosed in one reef, and were originally named the Hervey Islands by Captain Cook on his second voyage. The name of the Hervey Islands is frequently applied to the Cook Group.

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The above islands are usually referred to as the Lower Group, to distinguish them from the Northern Group, both groups having been annexed and placed under the New Zealand Administration in 1900. The Northern Islands are Palmerston, Suwarrow, Danger (Pukapuka), Manihiki, Rakahanga, and Penrhyn (Tongareva).

Both groups are administered from Rarotonga, Judge H. Ayson being the Resident Commissioner. The population of the Lower Group is about 7,791. Of late years it has shown a slight increase.

The Royal Mail steamers running between Wellington and San Francisco call monthly at Rarotonga, both coming and going. During the winter months a Union Steam Ship Company's boat calls at Rarotonga and the various Islands of the Lower Group to ship fruit.


Aitutaki is the most northern island of the Lower Group, and is 140 miles north of Rarotonga. The wharf at Arutanga is located by Admiralty chart as Lat. 18° 52' 32? and Long. 159° 46' 30?. The island is surrounded by a barrier reef, which on the south-east is five to six miles away from the land. Within the lagoon on the east are several islets, whilst on the south-east is the isolated islet of Maina, associated with the history of Ruatapu. The area of Aitutaki is 3,900 acres, and it contains a population of 1,373.

There is a ridge of hills on the west, which rises to a height of 360 feet. The soil is fertile and produces the best fruit in the group. The passage through the reef on the west side, known as Te Rua-i-kakau, admits the use of whale boats in loading cargo, and thus gives Aitutaki a commercial advantage over all the other islands except Rarotonga.

There are seven villages: Amuri, Ureia, Arutanga, Reureu, and Nikaupara on the west, and Vaipae and Tautu on the east. Arutanga is the seat of administration, and has a wharf which is opposite the boat passage referred to above. All the villages are on the coast, except Vaipae and Tautu, and all present a neat, clean, and picturesque appearance. Formerly the villages stood back on the high ground, but the population shifted down after the advent of Christianity.

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South PacificCook Islands Island of Aitutaki

South Pacific
Cook Islands


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The people are Polynesians, and possess all the cheerfulness, kindness, and unstinted hospitality of their race. They have not been spoilt by the commercial side of civilisation.


The discoverer of Aitutaki was Ru-enua. In Havaiki, he noted that the valleys were crowded and the hills were covered with people. With his four wives, four brothers, and twenty unmarried tapairu women of high rank, he set sail in the canoe, Ngapua-Ariki, to seek a new home. As various dangers were encountered, he allayed the fears of his crew by confidently stating, "We shall not die. Am I not Ru, the man who was girdled with the red belt of chieftainship and who knows the things of the air and the things of the sea." During a storm, after the sky had been obscured for some time, he thus addressed the Sea-god. Tangaroa—

"O Tangaroa, in the illimitable spaces of the unknown,
Clear away the clouds by day,
Clear away the clouds by night,
That Ru may see the stars in the sky,
To guide him to the land of his desire."

On the sixth day of the voyage, and the ootu night of the moon, Ru sailed in through a passage in the reef on the north-east side of the island now known as Aitutaki. The passage was named Ootu, from the night of their landing. A sacred place, or marae, was built and named Te Hautapu-o-nga-Ariki. The island was named Utataki-enua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana. The name was derived from utauta, a cargo, and taki, to lead. It refers to Ru leading the valuable human cargo over the sea. Another name given to the island is Ararau-enua-o-Ru-ki-te-moana. Ararau is to search for land at sea with a canoe, and the name applied to the island refers to Ru's search on the ocean. The first name was shortened to Aitutaki, and the second to Araura. Araura should be spelt as Arahura, and it is difficult to see how it is connected with ararau. The meaning of ararau is significant of a period when many voyages of discovery were undertaken. All true Aitutakians trace their descent back to one or other of the twenty tapairu women of high rank who accompanied Ru.

The second voyagers of note were Te Erui and his brother Matareka. Te Erui set out from Havaiki in the canoe Viripo. An unexpected hurricane, hurihia, dismasted page xxhis vessel, but he managed to get back to Havaiki. On being told by a priest that the cause of the disaster was due to the naming of his canoe, he immediately built another canoe. The vessel, on the advice of the priest, was named Te Rangi-pae-uta, and the two masts were named after the gods Rongo and Tangaroa. Thus, with divinity sitting in the belly of his sail, he braved the sea once more in his quest of land. He landed on the west side of Aitutaki, at a point on the reef known as Te Rua-karae. Here he was opposed by one of Ru's descendants, who said, "Tera te moana uriuri o Hiro. Haere ki reira kimi henua ai." ("There lies the purple sea of Hiro. Go there to seek land.") The request went unheeded. After slaying various opponents, Te Erui cut a channel through the reef with his adze, Haumapu, and finally settled down at Reureu. The channel which is credited to Te Erui's engineering ability is Te Rua-i-kakau, the boat passage which has been such an inestimable boon to Aitutaki. The various historical spots mentioned are shown on the map of Aitutaki.

Ruatapu, the third voyager of note, came from Taputapuatea to Rarotonga, and then successively to Raro-ki-tonga, Mauke, and Atiu. During these voyages his canoe had the name of Te Kareroa-i-tai. At Atiu, the canoe name was changed to Tuehu-moana, and in it he sailed to Manuae and then Aitutaki. At Aitutaki he sailed through a passage near the north end, called Kopua-honu, and renamed, after him, Kopu-o-Ruatapu. He is credited with having brought the cocoanut and the flowering plant known as tiare maori. After quarrelling with his son Kirikava over fishing nets, he came on to Ruatea, near Black Rock. From there he attracted the attention of the ariki Taruia by means of certain toys, and they became friends. He excited the curiosity of Taruia with tales of the islands he had visited, and finally persuaded the ariki to accompany him on a voyage to see the beautiful women of the islands (nga wahine purotu o nga motu.) Ruatapu purposely sailed before Taruia was quite ready, and to the latter's appeal to wait he called back, "I will go on to Rarotonga and be on the beach to welcome you in." On the other side of the islet of Maina, at a spot called Rau-kuru-aka, Ruatapu purposely capsized his canoe, Taruia shortly afterwards appeared, and to Ruatapu's appeal to wait until he had righted his canoe, he replied with no small satisfaction, "No; I will go to Rarotonga and be on the beach page xxito welcome you in." Ruatapu waited until Taruia was out of sight. He then righted his canoe and, returning to Aitutaki, he had himself made ariki of the island. Ruatapu is a well-known Maori ancestor of similar parentage, and with whom a canoe-sinking incident is also associated in tradition.

Whilst chronology is outside our scope, it may be mentioned that Ruatapu lived at about the period of the coming of the great Hawaiki migration to New Zealand in 1350, approximately. Taruia was a contemporary of Ruatapu. From Taruia to Te Erui some genealogical tables give 13 generations. This would take Te Erui back to somewhere about the year 1000 A.D., whilst Ru-enua preceded him again.

There were other voyagers of note who marked their achievements by naming various places on the reef, the lagoon, and the island. Incidents in the history of the first three were represented dramatically to the author, with the accompaniment of song and dance. Thus the village of Amuri played "The coming of Ru" and "The fishing quarrel between Ruatapu and his son," whilst the village of Reureu danced "The song of Te Erui's adze." Such dramatic representations help to preserve the history of the past, and, being uninfluenced by European stage managers, they interpret the true spirit that moved the old-time voyagers to dare and succeed.


The speech of Aitutaki is a dialect of the Polynesian language. It is very similar to that of New Zealand, and, except for a word here and there, both branches can readily understand each other. Maori seems to have retained more of the older words in active use. These were readily recognised and understood by the older people of Aitutaki, though a different word was in common use in their own dialect.

The early missionaries, who introduced writing, unfortunately did not represent the H sound in the alphabet they prepared, owing to its not being well aspirated. A similar error occurred in the spelling of Maori place names in parts of New Zealand. A case in point is Wanganui, which should be Whanganui. Mr. Stephen Savage, who has been for many years with the Cook Islands Administration as Interpreter and Registrar of the High Court and Native page xxiiLand Court, agrees with me that the H sound has been wrongly left out of the written language. In the dictionary that he is compiling he proposes to put in the H where it is pronounced.

The Cook Islanders pronounce the H in much the same way as the Maoris of Taranaki and Whanganui. It is not so well aspirated as in other parts of New Zealand, but it is nevertheless present, and should be written. That an error has been committed in the past is no just reason for perpetuating it. It is only fair to the inhabitants that their language should be represented as correctly as possible.

In the intensive study of the Polynesians, students of comparative etymology have enough difficulty, without being led astray by errors in the written words that have received the sanction of usage. Words with an H sound have nothing to distinguish them in the spelling from similar words that are without the H sound. There is not even a comma to mark where it should be. The following table of a few examples will draw attention to this anomaly.

Aitutaki words, without the H, and with the sounded but unspelt H.

As now spelt. Meaning. Correct Ponnunciation [sic: Pronunciation]. Maori Equivalent.
Aa. What? Aha. Aha.
Aa. To feel. Haha. Whawha.
Aae. To tear. Hahae. Hahae.
Ai. Coitus. Ai. Ai.
Ai. String figures. Hai. Whai.
Ai. Fire. Ahi. Ahi.
Aiai. Evening. Ahiahi. Ahiahi.
Oa. Canoe topside. Oa. Oa.
Oa. Friend. Hoa. Hoa.
Oonu. Deep. Hohonu. Hohonu.
Kakau. Handle. Kakau. Kakau.
Kakau. Clothing. Kakahu. Kakahu.
Pai. Voyaging canoe. Pahi. Pahi.
Paraaraa. Flat. Paraharaha. Paraharaha.
Tairi. Fan. Tahiri. Tawhiri (to fan)
Ua. Rain. Ua. Ua.
Ua. Female. Uha. Uha.
Ua. Fruit. Hua. Hua.
Ua. Thigh. Huha. Huha.
Vaa. Mouth. Vaha. Waha.
Vaine. Woman. Vahine or Wahine. Wahine.

It will be noticed that the Maori Wh sound is represented in Aitutaki by the H. Who could tell from the appearance of Aa that it represented the Maori word Whawha? The Maori causative Whaka is represented by the written Aka, which should be Haka.

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A further example of the unnecessary difficulty that may arise is seen in the words Aso (Samoan), Kaho (Maori), and Kao (Aitutaki). All have the same meaning—the elements in the framework of a house to which the thatch is attached. Aso and Kaho are identical in derivation, because it is known that the Samoans have dropped the K and changed the H into S. The identity of Aso with Kao, however, is not so evident until we know that Kao should be written as Kaho.

Another error likely to occur is that students, from a comparative study of words, may think that an H has been dropped from a part of a word where it never really existed. Large1 has stated that the forepart of a canoe is called the aumi in the Cook Islands. Because the join that fixes the forepart of the hull to the main hull in the large Maori canoes was called the haumi, it was held that the two words were identical. But the aumi vaka means the bow of the canoe, as opposed to the stern, muri vaka, and never means the join. The Maori haumi means the join, whether for the bow end or the stern. Conjecture as to the change of meaning in two supposedly identical words would be saved if the Cook Islands H were written in its right place. Then, instead of aumi being haumi, it would be correctly written as aumihi. Between aumihi, the bow, and haumi, the join, there is no connection either in meaning or in derivation.

Another difficulty is that a word may be accepted as it is written because the meaning suits. The canoe of Ru-enua ran aground on a sandbank inside the Ootu channel. The bank was named Tai-moana. Without the services of an historian, this name would be accepted as correct and appropriate. The meaning of ocean tide would be taken to indicate that it was due to the tide that the canoe grounded. The correct pronunciation, however, is Tahimoana, and records the fact that the crew disembarked to scrape or sweep away the sand to re-float the canoe. Instead of ocean tide, the word meant the sweeping away (of sand) in the sea.

After consultation with Mr. Savage, various old men in Aitutaki and Rarotonga, and the Ven. Archdeacon H. W. Williams in New Zealand, the H has been written in the words in which in my opinion the sound occurs. In place names and proper names I did not care to make the page xxivchange, but have left it for official investigation. In some cases, however, the H has been inserted in some proper names and gone into print, before corrections could be made. Readers acquainted with the present written language of the Cook Islands have only to leave the H out to recognise the words in their old form. The question of representing the H by the' was duly considered. This signifies the glottal closure in which the sound is suppressed and the letter representing it is elided. It is held, however, that the H sound is actually present in the Cook Islands dialect. The sound of the word for flat is more truly represented by paraharaha than by para'ara'a.

The V Sound.

In some words the written V is sounded distinctly as W. Such are the words vaka and vahine, which are pronounced as waka and wahine. In other words the V is distinctly sounded as V. Mr. Savage holds that the W sound was originally used in all cases, and that the change to V occurred through the influence of religious teachers from Tahiti. As Archdeacon Williams is of the opinion that V was the original sound in the Polynesian language, I have not ventured to make any alteration in these pages.


The inhabitants of the Cook Group call themselves Maori as do their kinsmen in New Zealand. As, however, the term Maori has been definitely associated in ethnological literature with the New Zealanders, it is used in this connection in these pages to avoid repetition of the longer term.

Scope of the Work.

In historical traditions Rarotonga is probably the richest island in the group. For material culture, however, the loss of the pandanus removed facilities for studying the very important Polynesian craft of plaiting, as well as the technique of the pandanus house roof. Mangaia has peculiarities in material culture that prevent it from being regarded as typical of the Cook Group. It requires special attention to itself. Of the remaining two larger islands of the Group, Aitutaki and Atiu, the choice of the type island was decided by the Union Company's inter-island boat not calling at Atiu on its first run after my arrival in Rarotonga. In this all too brief page xxvexpedition, Aitutaki furnishes an introduction to the material culture of the Cook Islands. This work can only be regarded as an introduction. The comprehensive study of the group must of necessity be based on field work in each island. Apart from individual local differences of a minor nature, different islands have retained elements of the common culture that have disappeared in others. Thus Atiu and Mauke have specimens of the double canoe that have completely vanished from the other islands of the Group. This work therefore deals almost entirely with the material culture of Aitutaki as a type island of the Cook Group. Where material has been lacking in Aitutaki recourse has been made to material available from Rarotonga. The unforeseen necessity of seeing these notes through the press in New Zealand before leaving to take up further Polynesian research work with the Bishop Museum, Honolulu, has prevented the author from searching all the published literature that may bear on Aitutaki, or from endeavouring to obtain information regarding artifacts from Aitutaki that may be in other museums beyond that of Auckland. The excuse is offered in all sincerity that this work is an introduction to a subject that could only be so dealt with after a five weeks' residence on one island. So little was known in detail regarding the material culture of the Cook Group that it was felt that the publication of the present data would serve a useful purpose in providing material for the present intensive study of the Polynesian race.

At the end of each chapter there is a brief comparison with New Zealand. The points enumerated are merely the main points that have struck the author. Comparisons have been particularly made with New Zealand because the Cook Islanders are the nearest neighbours to New Zealand. Furthermore, tradition and genealogical tables link them and the Society Islanders as the nearest of kin to the Maori. Lastly, in work undertaken for the Board of Maori Ethnological Research, it is natural that the subject should be viewed from a New Zealand angle. Detailed comparisons with other Polynesian areas have been avoided, on the principle that the comparative study of the elements of Polynesian culture should await the completion of the survey of areas that is being carried out by the Bishop Museum.

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