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  • Mouria Ngati Au

Akamarokura: The Significance of the Ancient Rarotongan Investiture

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

In this post, I explore the symbolism inherent in a ceremony which has been obscured by time and change in Rarotonga due to foreign influence. As an indispensable element of Peu Maori, the akamarokura encapsulates the triadic system of enua, taonga, and marae. If you have not done so already, please read "Peu Maori: Understanding the Relationship between Enua, Taonga, and Marae" as it clarifies much of the subject matter presented here.

An indispensable element of ancient Rarotongan society was the investiture, or akamarokura, of chiefly titles (taonga), performed at or on sacred sites known as marae. These sites are described generally as an “open, cleared space used as a meeting-place or ceremonial place” (Pollex); “a place that served… a ritual focus” (Campbell 2002:222); a structure which “served to symbolize and reinforce… status and prestige” (Bellwood 1978:12). Stephen Savage recorded that the marae was a site of religious and social import, “e ngai iriirianga taonga, a place wherein, or whereon a title was vested, therefore it can be said that the marae was the chief’s ‘Letters Patent’” (Savage 1962:144; emphasis added). Examined through the lens of ancient Rarotongan native custom, or Peu Maori, which is built upon a triadic system of enua (land), taonga (and ngati or “tribe”; cf. Ngati Au 2019), and marae introduced by Tangiia Nui from Tahiti Iti sometime between the 13th and 14th century, the akamarokura ceremony constituted a ritual fulfillment of the law, which F. J. Moss described as “perpetual and cannot be disturbed” (Moss 1894:24)–in short, the marae via investiture legitimized taonga which in turn reinforces a ngati’s customary rights to enua, the foundation of a ngati’s mana. The investiture rite takes its name from what could arguably be considered the most important aspect thereof: the wrapping of the maro kura, or crimson-feathered girdle, an ancient symbol of chiefly (and godly) authority. By examining the rite as Tangiia Nui would have understood it, akamarokura becomes increasingly relevant to Rarotongan society today.

In 1970 and 1977, the House of Ariki recommended to the Legislative Assembly of the Cook Islands that their findings regarding “Maori customs” be enshrined in law. Included in their recommendations was the akamarokura, the basic elements listed as: akamaroanga (ceremonial clothing), akatainuanga (anointing with oil or water), receiving a tokotoko or staff, akapareanga (crowning), tako or karakia (chanting and instruction), and akauruuruanga (raising, elevating) in conjunction with receiving a new name/title. These performances were the responsibility of a class of men known as the kau ta’unga, generally defined as “priests” or “priesthood”. Although the investiture recommendations were attributed to the ariki specifically, the same ritual elements also apply to mataiapo tutara and lesser titles.

The selection process for the chief-elect depended on the taonga. For ariki (mataiapo “primus inter pares”), eligible candidates were determined from a restricted pool of bilateral and collateral male descendants who traced their genealogy to a founder chief patrilineally . However, Moss observed that the “confirmation depends on the mataiapos as the installation rests with them” (Baltaxe 1975:12; Moss 1893:778). Isolated, this statement is fairly vague; which mataiapo? The various recommendations by the House of Ariki are inconsistent, even going as far as to reject the inclusion of this statement by the Koutu Nui. However, there is a remarkable consistency within the evidence accrued between the 1860’s–1990’s which includes explicit statements by various ariki, mataiapo, and ta’unga; archaeological and anthropological research by individuals such as James Baltaxe, Peter Bellwood, and Roger S. Duff; and notable historical figures of the Cook Islands’ contact period including S. Percy Smith and Rev. W. W. Gill which corroborates Moss’ statement and consistently identifies three individuals in connection with the investiture of Rarotongan ariki, namely: Potikitaua, Au, and Taurua (cf. Ngati Au 2019:5-9 for detailed analysis) who are simultaneously mataiapo tutara and ta’unga, high chiefs and priests. It is reasonable to assume that confirmation rested with the titular heads of independent ngati, i.e. mataiapo tutara, which constituted the confederation–at least that was the narrative until 1977 (cf. MB 5:125; n. a. 1921; n.a. 1948). As far as investiture is concerned, the evidence is clear that the aforementioned titles were consecrated anciently to this work.

For mataiapo tutara, the selection and installation rested with their ngati and its leadership by virtue of the autonomy afforded them by the akamarokura. Although the taonga ariki are putatively corporate titles, the ariki’s mana was largely sustained by the mataiapo tutara of his confederation due to the fact they “had the most direct relationship to the land, i.e. the territorial units called tapere” (Baltaxe 1975:139). In this way, the ariki’s investiture was subtly but profoundly different from that of the mataiapo tutara because taonga ariki is, to a large extent, political in nature. For any personal title, i.e. rangatira or mataiapo akarava, the selection and installation was overseen by the corporate title to which it originated (cf. n. a. 2013:[54]-[55]). Although it is not unreasonable to conclude that a degree of autonomy was retained in such cases by the respective “tribes” of personal titles, it is important to recognize that these titles operated under delegated authority from the “mataiapos… Ariki, or other independent land owner” to whom it belonged (Moss 1894:24). Thus, while the investiture for taonga rangatira or mataiapo akarava was essentially identical to corporate title investiture, the same symbolism does not transfer.

Arguably the most critical element of the Rarotongan investiture rite is the clothing of the chief-elect, an ancient symbol of endowment: to be robed in knowledge, power, and authority like the gods. No item of clothing is more important than that of the maro kura. The origins of the Rarotongan investiture with the maro kura is undoubtedly tied to Tangiia Nui and by extension the ancient customs of the French Polynesian isles, possibly to the cult of ‘Oro. However, this appears to be a roadblock–scientific consensus dates the arrival of the ‘Oro cult to Tahiti to roughly 1770 AD, whereas Tangiia Nui, who is believed to have come from Tautira, is said to have arrived at Rarotonga sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries. Paul Wallin’s radiocarbon dating of sites linked to the worship of ‘Oro at Tahiti appear to corroborate a later introduction (Wallin 2011). However, the apparent misalignment is accounted for by Robert W. Williamson:

“I now come to the question of the marae of Oro in Tautira, which was a Teva district, so that the presence there of this marae which was, according to tradition, an old one, requires explanation, in order to remove what might seem to be an inconsistency in the evidence. One of the names of Oro's marae at Opoa in Ra’iatea was Vaiotaha. De Bovis follows up his statement, quoted above, that this marae was founded by Hiro, with a further statement that Hiro was succeeded by one son in Ra’iatea, but that his second son went to Borabora and there founded a Marae Vaiotaa. It was an Oro marae. This would probably be done by the usual method of taking from the old marae a stone with which to found the new one; and giving to the new marae of the name of the old one would be in accord with a Society Island practice. Now Corner speaks of the marae, also called Vaiotaha, at Tautira (evidently the marae which we are considering) and says that it was founded twenty generations before 1774 [AD] with a sacred stone from Borabora. The identity of the names of the three is consistent with a belief that they were closely connected and was the daughter–as I may call it–of that of Borabora, and the grand-daughter of the great original marae of Opoa in Raiatea. It was a great marae and was probably of great age; and its relationship to the other two marae points to its having been an old Oro, or perhaps Tangaroa, marae” (Williamson 1924:226-227).

Tracing the Rarotongan maro kura’s pedigree through ‘Oro is the seemingly obvious choice. However, Meredith Filihia notes that there was also a maro kura tradition which stemmed from the god Ta’aroa or Tangaroa:

“Prior to the arrival of the cult of ‘Oro in Tahiti, some ari’i were invested with the maro ‘ura which derived their significance from their connection to the god Ta’aroa […] but whatever their importance may have been, it is clear that by the time the Dolphin arrived in 1767 Ta’aroa’s significance had waned and he had been superseded by ‘Oro as the focus of worship in Tahiti” (Filihia 1996:128).

It is unclear to what extent the ‘Oro cult itself was integrated into Rarotongan religion and mythology. However, at the time of contact with Rev. John Williams, the presence of numerous idols attributed to Tangaroa suggests the cult did not have the same success it found throughout French Polynesia. Despite this, there is a remarkable similarity between ‘Oro cult customs and ancient Rarotongan customs possibly due to the mutual link to Tangaroa, who, according to Ra’iatean mythology, is said to have been ‘Oro’s father. In any case, the inherent symbolism was in one form or another transmitted by Tangiia Nui.

Within the ‘Oro cult, the practice of investing chiefs with specialized clothing is derivative of the Pa’iatua ceremony, or “the sacred wrapping of the gods… when the assembling and undressing of the gods took place” in conjunction with other sacred events such as “the consecration of a new ruler” (Gross 2016). During this ceremony, the to’o, god images were de-robed,

“their tapa and sennit cord coverings and feathers removed, their inner core pieces of ‘aito wood symbolically purified with water, rubbed with scented coconut oil and lain in the sun. The sennit cord covering of the to’o represented the boundary between Po and Ao and through the unwrapping and rewrapping of the to’o, divine mana was transferred from Po, land of the gods, to mankind. The inner god figures of the to’o were merely uncarved wooden sticks representing the divine formlessness of Po before creation” (ibid 2017).

A similar ceremony, named Kauila huluhulu, was introduced to Hawaii by Pa’ao, where a similar undressing and redressing of god images in feathers occurred (Caldeira 2003:3):

“During this ceremony, akua hulu manu undergo a process of revivification. Through ho’okupu or offerings, new huluhulu are ceremonially affixed to the akua hulu manu. The amount of huluhulu affixed to the akua hulu manu, is in direct relation to the mana it projects. These feathers… in conjunction with the ceremony and worship, reanimate and further conjure the divine with the feathered vessel” (ibid:47).

The to’o god images central to the Pa’iatua ceremony are strikingly similar to the “staff gods” identified by Rev. John Williams in Rarotonga. Peter Buck described them as “long staves of ironwood with an expanded upper end carved into a large head in profile… the middle part was covered with rolls of bark cloth” (Buck 1944:316-317). Rev. Williams noted that these god images “composed of a piece of aito, or iron-wood... wrapped round with native cloth” were also decorated with “red feathers, and a string of small pieces of polished pearl shells, which were said to be the manava, or soul of the god” (Williams 1837:116-117).

In a similar fashion, the ancient Rarotongan chief-elect is symbolically “undressed” prior to the investiture ceremony. As he progresses through the various stages of the rite, he is redressed in layers of specialized clothing. Gross noted that white was the colour of the priestly class. The importance of the colour white as a symbol of distinction was encapsulated by the coronation pillar of Hauviri marae at Ra’iatea, which was named Te Papa tea o Ru’ea, the White Stone of Ru’ea. In Mangaia, the priests of the Tongaiti tribe were known for their manufacture of te tikoru mataiapo, a white bark cloth used exclusively “by high chiefs, priests and gods” (Buck 1934:143). White seems to have been a significant colour at Rarotonga in connection to the marae. S. Percy Smith recorded a curious saying in connection with the koutu Ara i Te Tonga, “E kirikiri teatea no Arai-te-tonga” which translated is “a white pebble from Arai-te-tonga” (Smith 1903:219). Buck noted the “temple (marae) consisted of an open court… carpeted with gravel, preferably of white coral” (Buck 1944:308). Like the priests of ‘Oro and Ngati Tongaiti, it is possible the priests and chiefs of Rarotonga were dressed, fully or partially, in white cloth when officiating at or in connection with the marae.

The most significant article of clothing the chief-elect is dressed in is the maro kura. Although the maro typically used today no longer resemble the ancient crimson-feathered girdle, and while in many investitures today the chief-elect is dressed in rau ti (cordyline fruticose), the symbolism endures. According to the House of Ariki, the maro represents “the bringing together of the people in the tribe under his shelter–the shelter of peace and love” (n. a. 1977). The concept of bringing together, or binding, is an ancient symbol inherent in the maro kura and suggest a deeper meaning. First and foremost, the akamarokura was a public declaration of accession and was an important opportunity for public recognition of the chief-elect. As demonstrated, the ancient rite was inexorably linked with deity and the sacred, thus the power of a chief “was understood to originate… from ‘above’ and ‘below’”, i.e. Te Rangiteitei and enua (Sissions 1994:373). The effect of the aggregate elements was ritual (and literal) transformation: ritual purification and anointing, wrapping and clothing, and the presence of kau ta’unga and the marae are tokens of consecration. Yet, nothing distinguished a chief more than the maro kura for not every chief had a right thereto; such was reserved for only the most revered and respected taonga who were able to enumerate their link to the founder chiefs under Tangiia Nui who was said to be initiated with the maro kura. To be wrapped in a crimson-feathered girdle was to be wrapped like the gods and suggested immediate proximity to “the manava, or soul of the [gods]”.

Throughout the ceremony, the chief-elect is instructed by the ta’unga through karakia, thereby endowed with (esoteric) knowledge necessary to the exercise of his chiefly (and priestly) duty. The chief-elect is also anointed with water and/or oil. Scant evidence exists to give exact description of the application or a conclusive explanation for this ritual, however it is interesting to note that it existed as part of the ancient Rarotongan investiture rite in much the same way anointing has been a part of investiture and coronation ceremonies throughout the world and throughout history. If, like specialized clothing, it is derived from ceremonies like the Pa’iatua, it is reasonable to assume anointing carried a similar meaning, i.e. purification and consecration. On this subject, Peter Buck explained that “those who came into close association with the gods, ablutions of a purificatory nature formed part of the religious routine” (Buck 1934:187).

At Rarotonga, having completed the ritual clothing and anointing, the chief receives the tokens of dominion, the tokotoko (staff) or korare (spear), and the pare or pare kura. Savage defined the pare kura as “a sacred, crimson head-dress made from the feathers obtained from various beautifully coloured birds… only worn by… ariki or a mataiapo of high rank… a crown” (Savage 1962:237). At Ra’iatea, the final ritual involved raising the chief upon the coronation pillar at Hauviri marae where they were “seated on a great wooden stool of honour [and] raised to the top of the stone pillar. They were proclaimed ruler over the land in the presence of a multitude of people” (Gross 2016). According to S. Percy Smith, the ritual akauruuruanga or raising of the chief is performed at Ara i Te Tonga where a similar coronation pillar was erected named Tau ma keva. Here, “the ariki being lifted up… by the mataiapos… [and] as they lifted him, they repeated, ‘Akauruuru e! Ka ti perepere ta!’” (Smith 1903:219). Smith’s record of his 1897 visit to Ara i Te Tonga suggests another element of the investiture rite was some form of circuit to other marae. According to Ngati Au history, high chiefs we not only invested at Ara i Te Tonga but at Pu Kuru Va’a Nui also (cf. Ngati Au 2019:8-9). While Smith’s record states that the chief was formally vested with the title after the akauruuru, the House of Ariki’s placing it last follows a logical order. Having received the title and adopting it as his own, the chief is then raised and “proclaimed ruler over the land in the presence of a multitude of people”.

The akamarokura was in every way a ritual transformation. The chief-elect is ceremonially undressed, putting aside his ordinary clothing. He is dressed in the clothes appropriate to officiating at marae and undergoes ritual purification and anointing. As the investiture progresses, the chief-elect receives further items of special clothing signifying a gradual conjure and endowment of mana and tapu. Like the to’o or atua rakau (staff gods), the chief is wrapped with the maro kura, the crimson-feathered girdle, binding his mana and tapu to him after which he receives the tokens of dominion, the tokotoko or korare, and the pare kura.

Now dressed in the sanctified robes of a high chief, and in conjunction with receiving his new title and name, he is elevated to a supernal and revered position and is literally transformed before the people into a living effigy of a god. In most cases, the ngati was named for its representative corporate title, e.g. ngati Au being led by Au mataiapo tutara (cf. Baltaxe 1975:10). Thus, he is similarly transformed into a living representation and link of the ngati past, present, and future. Particularly in the case of taonga mataiapo tutara, the akamarokura reconciled enua, taonga, and marae into a cohesive whole, bestowing mana and tapu and activating the customary rights afforded by each pillar of Peu Maori for the ngati generally, while also reinforcing customary boundaries established thereby. And it is in this fact that the akamarokura was indispensable to ancient Rarotongan society and is the key to understanding Peu Maori. When the House of Ariki bill was introduced to the Legislative Assembly in 1966, Albert Henry declared,

“the ariki, mataiapo, rangatira and their tribes are the backbone of all nations in this world, for any nation to allow this backbone to be broken or to disappear would mean that they are relying on a foreign backbone for their survival” (CILA 1966 quoted in Sissons 1994:376).

Although misplaced, his sentiment is essentially true. It should be remembered that by 1966, what was considered ancient custom was merely the shadow thereof. Rarotongan customs had already undergone significant and radical change since the arrival of the LMS largely to the detriment of the mataiapo and the benefit of the ariki and rangatira. The description of taonga as the “backbone of all nations” was, if anything, hollow recognition especially considering only the ariki were afforded a significant position in the “new world order”. To use Albert Henry’s own words, the Cook Islands does in fact “[rely] on a foreign backbone” given the ancient customs have been supplanted despite being codified by the Cook Islands Act 1915 sec. 422 (cf. Ngati Au 2019). It is not taonga specifically, but Peu Maori which serves as backbone of each island which makes up the Cook Islands today. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the interdependent relationship between enua, taonga (and ngati), and marae and in the ritual of akamarokura, for it is through akamarokura that this triadic system is executed and given practical and symbolic meaning. Indeed, the issues prevalent in the current tenure system are instantly mitigated by the ancient custom encapsulated in akamarokura or ceremonial investiture.

Mouria Ngati Au

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Literature Cited

n. a. 1921. A letter to the Resident Commissioner of the Cook Islands, 1st August 1921. Avarua: Makea Ariki tribal title file, Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Ministry of Justice, Rarotonga.

n. a. 1948 Ko te Akonoanga teia no runga i te Iki anga Aiki i roto i te mua vaka ko Takitumu. Avarua:Makea Ariki tribal title file, Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Ministry of Justice, Rarotonga.

n. a. 1977 Legislative Assembly Paper no. 29. Avarua: Makea Ariki tribal title file, Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Ministry of Justice, Rarotonga.

n. a. 2013 Decision of Justice Isaac on App. 32/2013 and 112/2013 in the matter of an application for determination of the traditional Maori title of Maoate Mataiapo. Avarua: Land (Titles) Division of the Cook Islands High Court, Ministry of Justice, Rarotonga.

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