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  • Mouria Ngati Au

Letter to the Editor 17.07.19

Updated: Aug 30, 2019

The following was submitted Wednesday, July 17th, 2019 to Jonathan Milne, editor for the Cook Islands News national newspaper, in response to Thomas Wynne's article "In Sickness and in Health.

Dear Editor,

Mr. Wynne’s piece “In Sickness and in Health” states: “… one cannot look at our history from 1915 to 1965 and dismiss the critical role… our Ariki and Mataiapo have played in where we are today”. Mr. Wynne has written a couple pieces recently concerning the relevance of taonga ariki. However, if we are to truly examine their relevance today, we must understand who they were within the system which created them, i.e. Peu Maori–ancient custom.

Due to publishing limitations, I will restrict my comments to a few key points within our history to illustrate how the ariki have been afforded such a revered position in society today. However, I have written a more comprehensive piece which details their rise in society and addresses the absence of any explicit examination of Peu Maori by the authorities to date–please see

By 1915, the very fabric of Rarotongan social organization had undergone significant and radical change since the arrival of the LMS in 1821. A part of this change was the perception of ariki. The continued exchange between the LMS and ariki had a measured effect on their social status and it wasn’t until this period that ariki was made synonymous with “royalty”– their interpretation of Rarotongan social organization took on patently “monarchical” feudalist characteristics. As such, they perceived the mataiapo as a subservient class to the ariki, the supreme ruling class, who were perceived to be “kings”. Gudgeon recorded that the ariki “[had] been taught to regard himself as king by divine right and they have all seen clearly enough that to make themselves absolute they must assert a right to all the land”.

In his book “Land Tenure in the Cook Islands”, Crocombe remarked: “[There] was no land which was not associated with a particular title and no title which was not associated with certain areas of land”. Likewise, “no rank title and no [corporate] descent group was conceivable apart from the lands associated with it…”. The fact that virtually all land claims heard by the Native Land Court frequently alluded to land in association with title, lends credence to the assertion that Peu Maori is predicate upon three pillars, namely: enua, taonga + ngati, and marae. Col. Gudgeon gives a unique and singular example of the lengths some ariki went to make good their claim:

“[For] the last seventy-five years the chiefs and Arikis of Avarua and Arorongi have lost no opportunity of depriving the people of all knowledge of their genealogy and family history, even fining those old men who, by means of their grandchildren, attempted to write a record of the family history, and confiscating the books for their own use”.

As far as undermining competition is concerned, forced suppression of the opposition is tried and true. If one is unable to enumerate, let alone has the knowledge to enumerate, one’s correct ancestral link to ngati and taonga, one cannot assert a legitimate claim to enua under Peu Maori, something which was codified by the Cook Islands Act 1915 sec. 422.

However, Peu Maori has never explicitly been examined by the authorities, in any period of our post-contact history, to date. Herein lies the issue: the absence of any attempt to understand the underlying principles of ancient Rarotongan social organization proved favorable for the synthesis of self-serving models of ancient custom. If any meaningful discussion is to take place concerning the relevance of taonga today, a thorough examination of the relationship between enua, taonga + ngati, and marae needs to take place.

Mouria Ngati Au.

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