Ngatuaine Maui
Anthropologist, Ministry of Cultural Development, Cook Islands

According to the oral traditions of the Cook Islands, sacred rituals were commonly performed on what is known as a marae or sacred ground. Each tribe has its own marae where ceremonies such as offerings of prayers, tributes to the gods and the induction of traditional titles on family members were once carried out. It also acted as a meeting place for important tribal matters.

Entry onto the marae compound was usually restricted to those with titles or prominent members of the tribe. During ceremonies, the remaining parties would surround the marae complex and observe the proceedings from the exterior side of the boundary. A priest referred to as taunga karakia would perform prayers and incantations as he was deemed ‘the spokesperson of the gods‘. From the outer perimeter of the grounds, the tribe would participate from time to time by joining in with chanting, or by offering their support to the prayers of the taunga karakia.

Many of the rituals that were once performed on the marae are no longer practiced. Prayers and tributes to the ancient gods have now been replaced by prayer services in historic Christian churches and other religious venues that were introduced to the Cook Islands almost two hundred years ago.

However, induction of a chief or sub-chief is still performed on the marae. The induction of a high chief occurs once every twenty years or so, whereas the induction of sub-chiefs occur more frequently, mainly on the island of Rarotonga. It is at the death of the reigning chief that his successor is inducted. Although each tribe has its own specific procedures when carrying out an induction, there are still many similarities among the various tribal groups of the Cook Islands.

Chiefly titles are hereditary and are passed on to the first-born male. However, if this is not possible then the immediate family convenes to make a joint decision on the successor. Once a decision has been reached, the announcement is then made to the tribe, nearby villages, and the entire island. Up to a year may be spent preparing for the induction ceremony, crops are planted, induction garments are crafted, and other preparations are carried out.

On the day of induction the chief is usually dressed in traditional garments and carried by warriors on a pa’ata or platform to the marae. The tribe follows closely behind the pa’ata reciting a traditional chant that is only used for this special occasion.

Upon arrival to the marae, the taunga karakia welcomes the procession to the sacred grounds. The high chief is then lowered to allow for him to walk on the sacred marae site to where a seat carved out of stone, made especially for the person who holds this prestigious title rests.

The taunga would perform his duties and bless the event before the chief bites the ear of a wild boar to signify his acceptance of the title and his responsibility to protect and care for the people of his tribe. To conclude this customary event, the chief is then carried once more on his pa’ata to a new location, one where all parties observing and supporting the ceremony from the exterior can be involved in the celebration of their newly inducted chief.

This sacred ritual is still very much alive and a part of the customary traditions of the indigenous population of the Cook Islands. For everyone, tracing your genealogy to a chiefly title is a crucial part of knowing your identity. The historical accounts of chiefs are bound by the great warriors of ancient times. For this reason, the cultural heritage of the marae from the Cook Islands should be preserved for future generations to understand and appreciate their cultural identity.