The Palace of Pa Ariki

When the doors of Takitumu Palace opened to the public in December 2014, it was for the first time in history that a paramount chief had made an official residence accessible to locals and tourists alike.

It’s the only chiefly palace in the country that actively encourages all to visit and learn the rich history of Pa Ariki and the district of Takitumu in its museum. The entire concept of welcoming all is the vision of Marie Pa Ariki – paramount chief of Takitumu.

For the past 25 years Marie Pa Ariki has overseen her Takitumu people as paramount chief – a title she inherited from her mother Terito who passed away in 1990. Marie Pa was just 42 years old.

The palace, is a sprawling unpretentious, one-story building set back from the main road by a large, manicured lawn and gardens in Turangi, a quiet hamlet of Ngatangiia village. It has three wings to represent the three villages in Vaka Takitumu – Matavera, Ngatangiia, and Titikaveka – just the way her mum had wanted.

“I am proud of the palace,” says Marie Pa, ‘because it was always my mum’s dream’.

Each wing of the palace serves a different function. On the left is a residence, intended to accommodate visiting chiefs and dignitaries; the centre is a museum, a window into both the life of Marie Pa and Polynesian traditions; on the right is a health and wellness centre. The health and wellness centre was inspired by Pa’s passion to change the habits her people developed when they turned away from living off the land and toward imported food.

“I know it’s not my job and I’m not a doctor but I’m very concerned about my people,” she says. “You know, they’re dying too early. We have stopped using the things our ancestors did. Our ancestors were healthy. Today the people say, ‘we’ve got our tablets,’ but that is not enough”.

Several years ago, Aunty Pa decided to make the health of her people a priority. She felt her chiefly obligation to do something. Pa also felt personally the weight of non-communicable disease, as it had taken from her too many friends, relatives and neighbours. She thought back to her childhood, when she’d drink coconuts and play netball, and then thought about how drastically times have changed. It concerns her deeply how kids are drinking Coke and watching TV. For three months, she went to the National Archives every day and read public health reports that revealed to her how quickly rates of diabetes and heart disease had skyrocketed in the Cook Islands. She threw the weight of her rank behind a media campaign, and would speak often to the newspapers about the nutritional benefits of coconuts and local produce.

The health and wellness centre in the Takitumu palace is an extension of that movement. Spread across tables are pamphlets explaining the risk of diabetes, healthy-eating cookbooks, and guides to the nutritional value of local food. This is Pa’s way of chipping away at attitudes toward eating; one brochure on the table calls health education in the islands ‘grossly inadequate’.

The museum is a gateway to the building’s other wings. It contains a large assortment of things Pa has collected over the course of her 25-year reign and on her travels throughout the Pacific. There are magnificent tapa cloths, polished boar pig tusks, newspaper clippings, a photo with Nelson Mandela. There are also photos from the days she spent sailing across the Pacific on a traditional voyaging canoe. Marie Pa was the first woman to join the resurgent movement in the early 1990s to reclaim navigating and voyaging as part of modern Polynesia.

The memorabilia in the palace pays tribute to Pa’s life and passions – her campaign against diabetes, her milestones, the 33 mataiapo (chiefs) and 14 rangatira (sub-chiefs) that fall under the title of Pa Ariki. Marie Pa calls them her pillars of support, all of whom were invited to bring photos and artefacts they thought worthy of display in the museum.

Pa Ariki wants to find funding to turn the wellness centre into a fully functioning health clinic, so the people in her village don’t have to travel to the other side of Rarotonga for medical care. Already she’s had expressions of interest from doctors and nurses, and even a podiatrist; she just needs to find the funding to pay them.

Three Cook Islanders are providing therapeutic massages at the centre. Husband and wife team Danny and Nga Maitoe have been doing traditional massaging for over 30 years on Rarotonga. Inano McMurchy a practising massage therapist is qualified in a range of different types of massage. All use natural, traditionally made coconut based oils.

Chantal Napa manages the Pa Ariki Palace. She shares the vision and enthusiasm of her aunty Pa Ariki, whom she affectionately refers to as ‘mum’ in conversation. A visitors book has been signed by hundreds since the doors of the palace were officially opened – Chantal says opening the place to the public was ‘breaking ground’ for the country. “In the past the palaces of our Ariki were only ever used for ceremonies, formal functions…that sort’ve thing. Marie Pa has changed all that so anyone can come through the doors”.

Marie Pa also has a vision of building the Cook Islands’ first retirement village and intends to donate some land for the project. Traditionally families cared for their elderly, but as modernity and depopulation corrode engrained social structures, some old people are forgotten, says Pa. She wants them to have a place to live and interact with other people and receive care if they need it.

In the meantime, Pa Ariki is focusing on bringing her palace to the people. She wants locals to feel comfortable going in for a wellness check-up or a massage. Pa would love primary schoolteachers to bring in children for field trips. In July 2015, Aunty Pa celebrated a quarter-century of her holding the Pa Ariki title. She hopes Takitumu will recognise the palace as one of the significant achievements of her reign.

“Being an ariki, people look up to me,” she says. “They expect me to work in with our people. I’m not perfect, but I have tried my best to work in with our people.”

Fact File

The museum and wellness centre are open weekdays from 10am to 2pm. It is situated on the main road in Ngatangiia.

Marie Pa Ariki 1
Ruins of the old Palace
Interior view of the museum
Tivaevae (quilting) on display