Local children of the Cook Islands
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Woman of the Cook Islands

Traditional leadership in the Cook Islands refers to the hereditary chiefly system which has undergone numerous changes since the arrival of agents of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in the 1820s.

The powers of the ariki (chiefs) may have diminished somewhat over the past two centuries, and today their role is mainly ceremonial, or being involved with lands and title matters.

However, despite this, the institution of the aronga mana (traditional leaders) has survived the test of time, and is commonly referred to, along with the church and central government, as one of the three pillars of modern Cook Islands society.

There is little known about the specifics of the chiefly system in the centuries before European contact.

However it is understood that in the pre-contact era, the toa (warrior) ruled by the law of his spear, and he was ably supported by a hierarchy of lesser chiefs – mataiapo, rangatira, komono and taunga.

The ariki was usually the first-born male, well schooled in military combat, possessed leadership (and supernatural powers!), and was expected to make decisions (especially on land) on behalf of the members of his tribe. Land, which was acquired by conquest or marriage, was of utmost importance and the ariki had a big say in the allocation of land to support one's tribe.

The Missionary period

However things changed with the arrival of the LMS from their base in French
Polynesia. The chiefly system was refined, and greatly influenced, by the Tahitian missionaries (who made initial contact on Aitutaki in 1821) and their British colleagues who joined them later.

In fact the evangeria (mission) established the first form of local government which was intricately woven in with the traditional leadership. It was to be a harsh system of rule, with church and state becoming one, for most of the nineteenth century.

During this period on Rarotonga, there were instances of the aronga mana (who were staunch church members or ekalesia) being appointed as judges or police to oversee moral breaches of the island's 'blue' laws.

The blue laws were introduced by the missionaries in an attempt to acquire and maintain control of the people. It was recalled by Manarangi from the Vakatini branch of the Makea Ariki family, that revolt by the people (which including repeated arson on the house of one judge) was triggered by the brutality in enforcing the harsh new laws.

At one time, it was reported that there were 300 'church' police in the Avarua district alone - about two-and-a-half times the total number in the Cooks today! The police, who were appointed by the ariki, spied upon and harassed people, and then split any resulting fines with the chief, and sitting judge!

Meanwhile on the other hand, missionaries (like Papehia who married a daughter of one of the ariki, and Rio), Europeans (e.g. Rev Buzacott / Parakoti, Salmon / Tamanu) and members of their flock, increased their prominence by acquiring titles, through their strong connections in the community.

(The term kavana, which is the equivalent of a mataiapo in the Mangaian ariki hierarchy, is believed to be derived from the word, governor). Such was the clout of the mission that at one stage in the late 1800s, at least three of the five ariki titles on Rarotonga, were held by women.

The mission believed that women were easier to control. Given the close links between the LMS and Great Britain, and the fact that Queen Victoria was in the prime of her reign - to the outsider, this may not have come as much of a surprise.

But these appointments at the time would have been akin to electing a woman as the Pope! When the LMS arrived on Rarotonga in 1823, it is understood that there were three ariki, each in charge of the three vaka (districts) on the island.

However there is mention of there being only one ariki, and then another mention of there being seven, and a final mention of no ariki at all, in the Te Au O Tonga (Avarua) district before the arrival of the gospel. There may have been more ariki/toa on Rarotonga pre-1800 but it can only be assumed that there were chiefs who either, were not recognised by the church, or who rejected the new order.

Role in government

While the church appeared to hold the upper hand during the late 1800s, the ariki did get to have a say on matters of national importance while serving in the federal parliament while the country was a British Protectorate (1888-1901).

It was during this period that another Makea ariki title (there were three!), that of Vakatini appeared - bringing to six, the number of chiefs on Rarotonga, recognised by the mission and the administration.

The parliament was abolished following the country's annexation to New Zealand in 1901, and the ariki's mana (power) began to dwindle as their duties were taken over by officials of the colonial government, or to be specific, by one man.

A veteran of the New Zealand Maori wars, Colonel Walter Gudgeon took over as the British and resident commissioner during this time, and he was given full executive and legislative powers. Gudgeon, who was also appointed chief judge, was responsible for establishing the land court in 1902, and it was his view that the ariki were merely trustees for the land.

With commoners now permitted to challenge their superiors and gain title to land, the land court was a setback to the ariki in political, social and economic terms.

House of Ariki

Ariki were permitted as members on the various island councils after the passing of the Cook Islands Act 1915. A legislative council was set up in 1946 and only the six ariki on Rarotonga were given seats.

The chiefs were also offered ex-officio places in the legislative assembly which was
established in 1956. After self government in 1965, the House of Ariki was established (in 1968) to give some form of recognition to the country's traditional leaders.

Its main duties are to advise parliament on land matters, Maori custom (which is still being defined!), and welfare issues relating to those residing in the country. Realising the important link between the ariki and his / her mataiapo, rangatira, komono and kavana, parliament approved the formation of another body, the Koutu Nui in 1972.

There have been very few bills which have dealt with land and Maori custom since then. Both houses (Ariki and Koutu Nui) meet annually and are consulted by government agencies and the public at large, on areas ranging from the environment to tourism.

Recently the Koutu Nui has been instrumental in implementing the traditional raui (protected area within the reef where no taking of seafood is permitted), creating reserves within of some of the lagoon areas around Rarotonga.

The traditional leaders were also very vocal during the process leading up to the passing of the Unit Titles legislation in October 2005. With their mana being taken over by the government, churches and non-government organisations, most Cook Islanders are content to see the political role of their traditional leaders confined within their districts, and inside the House of Ariki and the Koutu Nui.

Selection of the ariki

Only those ariki invested according to 'ancient custom' have been permitted
a seat in the house. However this hasn't stopped two previous chiefs who did
not go through investiture ceremonies from sitting in the House of Ariki.

It has also not prevented supporters from investing their choice of ariki (or
mataiapo / rangatira for that matter). The Makea Nui title - which was supreme during the mission period - has been vacant for the past decade after three investitures, and having been dragged through the courts.

In 1992, a seventh ariki, Putua, was invested on Rarotonga, following a short period of wrangling over the Tinomana and Pa titles.

Nomination of an ariki is generally done by members of the kopu ariki (chiefly family) - that is, those who have blood connections to the chief. As to who should be the next in line for a title has always been a contentious issue.

Today, the first-born male of the senior line is not necessarily elected to the title. There have been examples when the title following death, has been passed on to one's siblings (as in the case of Makea Nui in the 1860s), or to another kopu (line), or by word of mouth by the previous ariki (Pa Ariki).

According to a paper on Maori custom which was put together by the Koutu Nui
in 1977, confirmation, installation and investiture on the ariki's marae, is dependent on the mataiapo.


There are a series of rituals which are performed during the investiture, which include passing on a staff or spear to the ariki; being girdled with a special tapa cloth (maro); anointing the claimant which is now carried out by the modern day version of the priest - the pastor; the crowning of the ariki with a head-dress; the biting of the ear of a cooked pig, and the carrying of the new chief akauru'uru'anga).

The occasion is concluded with huge feasting. The 1977 papers also mention about the 'sins of the ariki' and the right to remove an ariki from his/her title. This avenue was pursued through the courts in 2004 to unseat a titleholder but was unsuccessful. But that is another story.

(Most of the information contained in this article relates to the aronga mana on Rarotonga, the main island in the Cook Islands. Recommended reading - Land Tenure in the Cook Islands - RG Crocombe)