Travel Tou Ariki lowers his voice, focuses his unseeing eyes on the wall behind me. As he speaks about governance, about how the parliamentary system instituted by missionaries and their local cohorts shattered traditional structures of leadership, his face is pained.
A big man with large hands, gentle countenance, and succinct speech, Tou Ariki is an ariki, a paramount chief, from the island of Mitiaro. Like his ancestors, he was invested with the title based on his bloodline and the collective permission of his tribe.
Unlike that of his ancestors, though, his leadership is contingent upon modern political circumstances. The Cook Islands’ traditional leaders, the bearers of its culture and custom, now face the confusing challenge of integrating with a western system of government, a system of rulership incompatible with their own. Today’s titleholders can join one of two statutory bodies – the House of Ariki, reserved for holders of ariki titles, or the Koutu Nui, for the aronga mana, or holders of subordinate titles. But they remain on the fringes of authority.
“In our culture, there are ui ariki, kavana, mataiapo, rangatira, different ta’unga… but now we hand everything to the government to look after,” Tou Ariki says, his voice heavy. “Now there is a missing link. When you go in the ocean, there are calm days, rough days, some days [there is] no wind. Same with our life. We have to accept that, I have to accept this. I am grateful to be honored president [of the House of Ariki].”
Traditional titles In ancient eras, chiefs and titleholders were not united under one banner, lumped together the way they are today, in the House of Ariki and Koutu Nui. Each ariki was head of his own tribe, within his own vaka or village, on his own island. Traditionally, only males were permitted to hold chiefly titles. (Today, there are both male and female ariki.)
While leadership structures varied between islands, generally hierarchies were dominated by the ariki, the highest-ranking chiefs, who were said to be imbued with divine power. “The authority of the chiefs,” wrote the late professor Ron Crocombe, a longtime scholar of Cook Islands history and customs, “was supported by the belief that they were descended from the gods.” Their power was absolute. They were the custodians of all natural resources, the settlers of all disputes, and the overseers of all labour.
“In those days, the chiefs were the law,” said Tupe Short, a member of the Koutu Nui who holds the Tairi Te Rangi Rangatira title. “They made the law.” Beneath Rarotonga’s ariki were heads of sub-groups within the clan: mataiapo ruled over major lineages (and, in certain cases, were outside the ariki’s jurisdiction), rangatira and kiato over minor lineages. Komono were deputies for mataiapo, and then there were priests and ta’unga, experts in particular disciplines, such as ritual, fishing, spiritual practices, or building canoes. In the pa enua, titles carry different names but the same functions.
“These titleholders are subordinate to the ariki,” said Tupuna Rakanui, clerk of the House of Ariki and Koutu Nui. “They look after the affairs delegated to them by the paramount chief, but there’s only one ariki in the tribe.”
Most of these chiefly titles survive into the present. Today, titles are still passed through family lines. Successions are approved by those belonging to the kopu – the lineage – within which they occur. Often, titles are hotly contested; investiture ceremonies usually end in passionate shouting.
They are ceremonial affairs. In traditional costume, a titleholder-to-be wears a royal robe (tiputa), girdle (maro kura), shoes, and crown (pare kura)– all woven by hand – and carries a fan (ta’iri kura). Seated prominently on an atamira, a royal seat, he or she receives a recitation, or karakia, invoking the mana of the ariki. The karakia is a sacrosanct practise.
“The karakia, which has been passed down word for word for generations, is learned by the ta’unga… The words are supposed to be sacred and secret and uttered only by the priest, not to be revealed to all and sundry,” explained local historian and museum curator Jean Mason. “When he performs at the ariki’s investiture, he must not be interrupted nor can he forget the lines, or hesitate during the recitation: these are omens of a short reign for the ariki (through death or usurpation)… The karakia used to be the more crucial stage in investitures… but I notice in the past 20-30 years fewer and fewer people have bothered… with the karakia and the main reason is ‘We’re Christians now.’”
On Rarotonga, being successfully invested with most titles involves the biting of a pig’s ear. Excepting the practice of the karakia, titles and the ways in which they are handed on have changed very little over the years. What’s changed is the measure of power the titles possess.
Shift in power The introduction of a parliamentary system marked a dramatic shift in Cook Islands history.
In 1888, Britain claimed the Cook Islands as a protectorate. Resistance was nominal. To the Cook Islands chiefs (or, more accurately, to one of them), aligning with Britain was a way to avoid being colonized by France, which was paying close attention to Polynesia.
About a decade later, the Cook Islands was annexed to New Zealand. The Cook Islands Act, ratified in 1915, gave rise to a formal government and judiciary, but initially power remained vested in the hands of the ui ariki. The legislative council, established in 1946-47, was comprised mostly of ariki or others they had appointed. “The legions of power,” Rakanui said, “were still with the ui ariki.”
In 1957, the council was re-organised into a legislative assembly. In 1965, this assembly formally ratified the Cook Islands Constitution. This was a turning point.
“How they managed to convince the ui ariki to accept the Constitution, I have no idea,” Rakanui said. “Because when they endorsed that document, they actually gave away their power. [The year] 1965 opened the door for any Tom, Dick, and Harry Cook Islander to contest the powerhouse of Parliament.”
In 1966, then-prime minister Sir Albert Henry pushed the House of Ariki Act through Parliament in an effort to formally recognise ariki, to include them within the parliamentary system. The law did not, however, give ariki the authority to create or veto laws. It stipulated that they could consider, and comment on, legislative decisions.
“While supportive of custom and respect for traditional leaders, and their symbolic importance for national unity, [Henry] saw any real power for the ariki as inconsistent with their modern role,” writes Jean Tekura’i’imoana Mason in Akono’anga Maori: Cook Islands Culture. Still, most traditional leaders are grateful to Henry.
“That’s his legacy,” said Vereara Maeva-Taripo, secretary for the Koutu Nui. “Thank God for that. At least now we are being recognised.”
House of Ariki Today, the House of Ariki enjoys formal privileges, including a taxpayer-funded budget, a permanent office, and a marae in the heart of Puaikura. Technically there are 24 ariki throughout the Cook Islands. But just 14 stone pilings arise from the House of Ariki marae, each representing a chief who holds an undisputed title. Tou Ariki is hopeful that by 2015, there will be 24 pilings. The House of Ariki does intervene in some disputes over chiefly titles, but formally, these arguments are settled in court. The kaumaiti nui firmly believes western courts should not arbitrate matters that had traditional ways of working themselves out. Like Tou Ariki, Rakanui believes the House of Ariki Act is overdue for an update.
“Any intervention by the House of Ariki on matters relating to land, customs, traditions, the welfare of our people has to be by request from Parliament, and yet there is a constitutional amendment that says once a decision is made by the aronga mana, you cannot question it in a court of law. There are a lot of contradictions over here that need to be resolved. The House of Ariki feels it’s past time we amend and review the House of Ariki Act.”
In 1972, the House of Ariki Act was expanded to make room for a second national body of traditional leaders: the Koutu Nui. Its legal function is to consider and make recommendations to Parliament and the House of Ariki on matters “relating to the customs, traditions (and usages of the indigenous people) of the Cook Islands.”
A titleholder can choose whether or not to become part of the Koutu Nui; the only prerequisite for membership is the possession of an undisputed title. “Arguments have got nothing to do with the Koutu Nui,” said Vereara Maeva-Taripo, who holds the Paenui Rangatira title and has been a member of the Koutu Nui for 30 years. “It’s amongst the family and for them to settle their own problems.”
Tekeu Framhein, who was invested with the Apai Mataiapo title in 1975 and has been, at one time or another, the body’s president and vice president, believes all titleholders are duty-bound to join the Koutu Nui. (Today he holds the honor of patron, in recognition of his dedication to its growth and contribution to national affairs.)
“It’s important that titleholders don’t just sit and accept what’s going on, but that they go and join,” Framhein said. “By joining the Koutu Nui, you meet the other mataiapo and rangatira of the Cook Islands, and you learn the traditions of the Cook Islands.”
Meeting the other members requires more effort than it might in the House of Ariki. Estimates vary, but the number of Cook Islanders eligible for membership in the Koutu Nui probably exceeds 200. “We don’t limit our numbers,” Maeva-Taripo explained. “Whoever is happy to join, should. The more, the merrier.”
The Koutu Nui sees itself as the working arm of the traditional leadership. “Sometimes we call ourselves vaevae orooro – the messengers of the paramount chiefs,” Maeva-Taripo said. “We are actually the people who do the work, not the paramount chiefs. They are the figureheads.” Members of the Koutu Nui are community enforcers, liaisons between the people and their leaders. “That’s our role – we are the watchdogs in the community,” Maeva-Taripo said. “We try to get to know everybody in our community.”
The executive committee – comprised of a president, a vice president from each village on Rarotonga – meets monthly. It organises meetings, workshops, and seminars, most of which center on the preservation of Cook Islands customs in an increasingly modern context. “Today it’s a mixture of tradition and modern ideas, because we do have to blend the two, especially for our younger generation,” she said. “We encourage them to join, because this is really where they can get all the knowledge and the wisdom of the old practices.”
Very rarely is the Koutu Nui formally consulted for its opinion. Still, Vereara says with a proud grin, it makes its voice heard. “The government hardly invites us to any of their discussions, to be honest,” she said. “But, for example… we happened because of our big mouths to be involved in [the drafting of] the National Sustainable Development Plan. We spoke up. We contributed.
“We have been very vocal over the years,” she said. “I remember the Environment Bill – we were opposed to some of the clauses in the bill, and that was a real thing between us and government.”
The Koutu Nui makes sure to brush up on its current affairs, including pertinent issues relating to the marine park, ra’ui system, seabed mining, foreign fishing licences, and applications for permanent residency.
“When there was talk of a marine park, we invited [the committee] to come and talk to us, to tell us what this is all about because we didn’t understand,” Framhein said. “We went back and told our communities.
“We discuss things of concern to the Koutu Nui, and to the people of the Cook Islands,” he continued. “We pass it on to the House of Ariki – this is because we have to, before it can go to Parliament.”
The Koutu Nui has another strategy for being heard: one of its members occupies a high-ranking position in almost every government ministry. “Environment services, health services, agriculture services – one of us is posted in each of these boards,” Framhein said. “We force our way in. If we’re not invited, we invite ourselves. The government can’t say no to us because we are the chiefs of these islands. They have to listen. We are the voice of the people.”
‘The ui ariki is still there’ Despite challenges to its authority, traditional leadership continues to command great collective respect. It also bridges divisions wrought by modern structures of governance.
“Now, if I’m in politics and I call the village, only my supporters come,” Tou Ariki said. “But when the ui ariki calls, everyone comes.” He believes there is hope for the restoration of chiefly power, a more thorough blending of traditional and modern governance. He is encouraged that in 2012, the government legislated an annual, national holiday in recognition of the ui ariki and aronga mana.
“There is still work to be done,” Tou Ariki says, “but they are starting to recognise the status of the chief. And I think our people are beginning to appreciate that there is still value in our customs and traditions.” To him, the principles of governance in Cook Islands custom are profoundly simple.
“The land,” Tou Ariki says, and motions toward the mountainous interior of Rarotonga. “The ocean,” he continues, as though these are the only words he needs to summarise the essence of Cook Islands governance. “The guardians of these resources were traditionally the ui ariki. The ui ariki represent our people. This foreign concept of governance took that right away from our traditional leaders. It will take time to make people understand that (rulership) is really based on the indigenous values of land, titles, the ocean.
“Who are the people? They are the chief’s people, not the government’s people. I think they are misunderstanding the whole thing but we are doing our job.
“All those people that are in politics, they all come from the tribe. When they lose their seat, they come back and they belong with the tribe. When they go to Parliament they say, ‘We are the boss. We wrote this, we wrote that.’ But when they lose they are ordinary people picking up the rubbish on the road. And who’s still there? The ui ariki is still there, because their time is not limited. When they go down in the ground – that is when their time ends.”