Cook Islands Traditional Lore Reduced To Low Status

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i


Cook Islands News

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (March 1, 2016) – With all the recent discussions over the Mato Vai water project I thought it timely to write about the low status given to Cook Islands traditional lore.

Traditional knowledge or traditional lore can be described as an indigenous model of cultural knowledge and conduct which is handed down from our ancestors to guide, teach, safeguard, protect and promote the health, safety and well-being of our people in the face of competition, uncertainty, danger and adversity and is a determinant on how we govern our day-to-day lives.

The role of traditional lore is to ensure that our people follow practices that are true, sound, and appropriate and that provide a healthy, sustainable and resilient yardstick for our interactions with our social, biological and physical environment.

A term used is ‘tikanga’, literally it means "doing the right thing, the right way, at the right time for the right purpose, ie that which is true," from the word "tika" meaning "true," "correct," "right" or "enlightenment."

It is a model of consensus rather than a model of adversarial process and all must be in agreement before acceptance of any decisions that may have a profound effect on the community’s way of life. Common law in the Cook Islands in this article describes the British Westminster judiciary system of English law which is based on amongst other things, precedence and torts and deals with justice, winners and losers.

It is a model of adversarial process rather than a model of consensus and not all must agree for acceptance: a simple majority is enough.

Traditional lore has as its basis a huge emotional component which sees culture as an extension of oneself, one’s link is to one’s language, family, village, island, waters and land.

Some of us are born on our land, our children’s pito are buried on the land. We die and are buried along with our ancestors on the land. It provides our crops and our fruit trees, it sustains, nourishes and feeds us, our traditional lore is directly related to our relationship with our culture.

Law, on the other hand, has a rigid set of rules which creates an adversarial approach to sorting out disputes between parties.

The dispute can be in front of a judicial officer such as a judge or a group of one’s peers called a jury. This approach is not about right or wrong, it is about who has the most persuasive argument to win one’s case, even if the evidence is overwhelmingly bad.

Traditional lore requires that family or villages are vicariously responsible for the poor actions of their people. In other words if you as an individual cause akama to your family or village, then everyone feels the pain of the embarrassment.

Recompense may be sought by the aggrieved party in the form of a tithe, labour, community work or other appropriate action.

English law states that the individual is responsible for their own actions. Individuals may be penalised by a fine, imprisoned, sent to complete community work or restricted in their movements or contact with others for a breach of law.

However some overseas jurisdictions such as New Zealand use restorative justice processes that combine both traditional lore and law into their decision making processes for breaches of law. In this case the individual who may be under a certain age is the responsibility of their family or parents who must bear the consequences of the individual’s wrong doing.

Traditional lore is used to bridge the gap with law so that the head stuff outcome is met with a heart stuff response so that heart and mind are normalised.

It is not uncommon for indigenous communities to embrace western law to the detriment of their traditional lore or traditional knowledge base.

Why? By embracing law, remote indigenous communities who lack resources, finance and capacity to develop their people, are drawn into a global funding process that requires that they follow the law to be successful applicants.

Whilst this is actually not such a bad thing as it establishes a measure of credibility and indicates a willingness to follow the rule of law, the rigidity of the process means that the process the indigenous community is required to follow does not allow for dynamic variables or conflicting or competing priorities for the funds required elsewhere under traditional lore.

For example a community may have grant funds allocated for a project under law; however a life or death situation in the isolated community means that funds are required to be used elsewhere under traditional lore.

Does one break the English law or traditional lore? In general terms one can state that law is the head stuff and traditional lore is the heart stuff and hence one can win the head stuff in a court of law but lose the heart stuff in a court of traditional lore.

This has led to, for want of a better definition, a Cook Islands legal grievance industry that has sprung up because one family won in a court of law despite the family traditional lore deciding that someone else was more entitled to the land.

The lack of a proper law and traditional lore interface has created a money-go-round for lawyers, real estate agents and hangers-on and traditional lore has suffered as a consequence, whilst the application of the processes of law and legal services offered for land issues by Cook Islands lawyers has created a booming business.

One of the things that is very noticeable is that traditional lore through our Cook Islands culture has now become great entertainment for tourists and this is a global phenomenon as indigenous communities have embraced capitalism to the detriment of their subsistence ways of life some would say.

In Rarotonga we climb coconut trees, husk the coconut with our teeth or a ko and generally entertain tourists with our displays of traditional lore. Everything is now a commodity and everything has a price, including people, and as the Cook Islands has embraced capitalism, the movement of people off the outer islands, firstly to Rarotonga then internationally, has affected our ability to provide subsistence farming as a sustainable industry. Tourism is now the mainstay of the Cook Islands and has had unfortunate consequences. The traditional calls of welcome and reply to visitors have become more entertainment than a properly constituted process of meet and greet which long ago determined whether you were friend or foe. Story-telling through dance has now, mostly, become a choreographed display for competition or to entertain the tourists.

Ask any visitor to the Cook Islands to describe the Cook Islands and invariably they will include a mix of entertainment, ei’s at the airport, ura girls, Punanga Nui market, the warm weather, beach, lagoon, resorts, tropical fruit, Aitutaki, Trader Jacks, the state of the roads, dogs and the high cost of living.

Ask them about what they think is Cook Islands culture and the answer is not quite as forthcoming as they try and think what this means. They might say Te Vara Nui or Highland Paradise or the Korero Maori Ura group at Punanganui Market or island nights at the various resorts as indicators of Cook Islands culture, and they are not alone in this perspective.

Ask a modern Cook Islander to describe the Cook Islands culture and most of them would struggle to provide a definitive answer. It is even more challenging when modern Cook Islanders for the purposes of this article fall into three general groups: Overseas Cook Islanders (those who live internationally), Rarotongan Cook Islanders (those who live on Rarotonga) and Pa Enua Cook Islanders (those who live on the outer islands). There are various demographic reasons for the three groupings which are not the subject of this article. What binds all these groups together is their shared identity of being labelled Cook Islanders, sharing a common point of origin, common ancestors and a common heritage.

What separates these groups are not only isolation, transport, freight and travel costs, but also their demographics and their direct or indirect exposure to the forces of globalisation and what their response is.

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