Early Polynesian settlers extended the boundaries of their dominance and chieftainship by settling around the harbour and fresh-water streams of Avarua. Present day evidence of tribal settlement points to evidence of the three main tribes domiciled in Avarua; including Makea, Karika and Vakatini tribes and their various family lines or clans.
When missionaries arrived from the early 19th Century onwards, they persuaded tribes to move from the fertile inland valleys (where crops were grown) onto the coastal plains nearer to harbours and the beachfronts. Nearly all of the limestone buildings have been destroyed by weather or development, with few examples of this form of European construction remaining. While there are even fewer examples of Polynesian construction in evidence except in the cultural villages. Avarua contains three 'palaces' as the homes of high chiefs are referred to. While these chiefly residences aren't open to the public, a roadside glimpse provides a useful overview of the purpose and position associated with the public profile of these residences.
Avarua CICC church is an excellent example of coral-block construction which was introduced by early missionaries who arrived onto Rarotonga around 1823 to introduce the gospel. christianity and printing forms. The Avarua theological centre contains a wonderful example of an early missionery settlement. At the rear of the property, visitors can see the restored missionery homestead and other coral-block buildings used in the training and development of church administration and laguage translations
The Cook Islands language is predominantly Rarotongan spoken on the main island, while each of the outer islands retains its own dialect, but with common words or phrases spoken in Cook Islands Maori. Language is very important to Cook Islands people and it expresses the chants, and songs of their ancestors. One way to hear the local language spoken is to attend a Sunday church service at one of the more traditional Cook Islands Christian Church services. Sunday church services are a good way to view the costumes worn by women and men, who reserve their best wear for solemn occassions including hand-made hats woven from traditional fibre.
Dress is used to express Polynesian links among local people. Best dress form usually requires that men wear a floral pareu shirt and long trousers, while women wear 'muumuu' style flowing dresses similar to those of indigenous Hawaiian and Tahitian women; reminescent of the mother Hubbard's costumes. Dance and cultural performances are likely to be displayed in more traditional forms of costume-making using fibre made from native hibiscus, coconut, seeds, shells, fresh flora and leaves.
Cultural performances can be enjoyed at several night-clubs and cafes located in Avarua. Additionally the Sir Geoffrey Henry Cultural Centre in Avarua (very near the Avarua CICC church) features song and performance during festivals, competitions and on formal occassions (forums, functions and conferences). The National Auditorium seats around 800 people and is a popular venue for big functions and festivals, including the annual Te Maire Maeva Festival held late July/early August to coincide with the Cook Islands Constitution celebrations of self-governance (from New Zealand as one of its former territiorial island states).
Both the National Museum, located within the grounds of the Sir Geoffrey Henry Cultural Centre, and the nearby Cook Islands Library and Museum Society curate small displays of artifacts from early missionary and colonial government days. Additionally, the National Museum hosts special programs and projects from time to time e.g. material cultural art like the Tivaevae/Tivaivai which has morphed into a modern art-form since its introduction as a handcraft or quilting technique taught by missionary wives and their female companions. The Cook Islands especially is recognised as some of the finest artists using this form of material culture to express their family legacy, social interests, artistry and pride to the fellow nationals and rest of the world.
Avarua harbour has long been useful as the arrivals point for Polynesian settlers and warriors, sailing and trading ships from early European discoveries and adventures, cargo shipping and passenger arrivals, visiting yachts, ocean and fishing excursions, paddling, pleasure-craft and electronic-directed activities, swimming and competitive sports. One of the best ways to understand the links between harbour and human is to enjoy the annual Vaka Eiva paddling festival which takes place during November. Polynesians are recognisably some of the best ocean voyageurs and celestial navigators in the world. Their competitive prowess on the water in paddling competions harks back to days when non-motorised vessels were used to explore uncharted waters and neighbouring islands (inhabited and otherwise).
Wood carvings provide strong links with the past and present. With an abundance of tropical woods, Cook Islanders are adept at carving products which are used as musical instruments, objects d'art, domestic utensils, paddles and fishing canoes, decorative forms as well as for traditional artefacts, and story-telling too. Several of the souvenir and gift shops in Avarua sell, display and commission carving works unique to the Cook Islands. Beware of copies or mass-produced items among the authentic ware; ask about origin of the carvings if in doubt.
Punanga Nui market-place located at the western end of Avarua, towards Avatiu contains a wider range of Cook Islands arts and cultural forms in the one place. Music and songs are an important medium for expressing cultural norms and patterns. The Cook Islands produces a huge range of songs, cultural attitudes, history, daily events and activities. Much of the music and poetry will be told in Cook Islands Maori. A major focus of music and song is romance, life stories, humour and ancestry. Cook Islanders love to entertain and be entertained; all part of the culture.
Sports and competition drive much of the cultural interests on Rarotonga. Cook Islanders are hugely competitive; although they appear not to be outwardly enthusiastic in doing so at times. Once on the sports field, each team or individual will come into their own with unique ways of intent including showmanship, laughter, and ways to beat an opponent. Attendence at any sports fixture helps to gain an understanding of what the Pacific way is all about. All good natured serious fun rolled into one!
Cook Islands history books, novels, legends, manuscript copies, archival records can be sourced in Avarua at the commercial bookshops, either of the 2 libraries located in Avarua, or at the National Archives based in Takuvaine valley. All documents of this nature are copy-right of the Cook Islands.
There are numerous other aspects of culture that haven't been identified in this overview. Additional information will be added in future. Food and the unique Cook Islands drumming devices have yet to be discussed, among other forms of culture.
This link may be useful to those wishing to further research some aspects of Cook Islands culture - http://www.ck/books2.htm. It includes biographies as well as fiction and non-fiction. Cook books featuring traditional and modern recipes are also listed. One of the most comprehensive historical volumes to be well documented, by prominent lawyer, Ross Holmes, of NZ & Rarotonga, are available at Bounty Bookshop and the Library Society on Rarotonga.