Misconceptions of Cultural Identity in the Cook Islands

An interesting, thought-provoking feature that was written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne appeared in the Cook Islands News this past weekend. Wynne looked at the misconceptions of cultural identity in the Cook Islands, particularly in regard to the cultural experiences that Cook Islanders present to tourists.

It is a lengthy article, but an important one that must be shared. I believe this misconception is not only happening in the Cook Islands but throughout all of the Pacific Islands as well.

Please click here to read the entire article. Below  I will pull out many main points of the article. However, I recommend that you read the entire piece. Wynne starts out by using Hawai’i as an example…

Hawai’i has recently taken a look at its so-called cultural icons to determine for themselves what is authentic and what isn’t. Why have they done this? Well mainly because the advent of global tourism inadvertently reclassified Hawai’ian culture and turned it into a marketable commodity. Somewhere though, along the way they awoke to the fact that much of what was being pitched as Hawai’ian was in fact nothing to do with their culture at all. Immediately the icons of coconut bras and grass skirts as well as fire dancing and Tiki bars came under close scrutiny. How could Hawai’ian people have been duped into thinking the reflection they saw was actually them and not this cardboard copy for tourist consumption?

Meanwhile around the world today, global tourists have become more discerning and searching for that point of difference. They do not succumb so easily to the “Disneyfication” of indigenous tourism and are coming to understand that the show or item they are watching maybe isn’t as authentic as the showmen would have them believe.

Maybe the time to question authenticity is upon us and maybe those that peddle “cultural” experiences need to take stock of what this could mean for them. Can we be informed at what we see today? What has become tradition, is it actually culture, and can we be informed so as we can clearly make that distinction?

Have we contributed to misconceptions by the way the Cook Islands is marketed and presented to outsiders? Travellers, who see holiday brochures with photos of grass skirts, coconut bras, Samoan fire-knife dancing and Tahitian hula dancers, wearing pareu material, naturally get the impression these are understood Cook Islands cultural traditions. Have we ever wondered how the island night ever came to being and the many parts of that island night that we can now challenge its authenticity?

island night

An “Island Night” dance

Mimi Kirk in an article she wrote for the Smithsonian Society in 2007 said: Rather than simply a performance geared for tourists, the dance is something Hawaiians did for themselves for centuries, at religious ceremonies honoring gods or rites of passage and at social occasions as a means of passing down history” and that films Like the 1961 Elvis movie Blue Hawaii, were stereotypes that threatened to become the only readily available representations of hula, an age-old Hawaiian cultural practice enacted through chanting, singing and dancing.

So we see a push back from those that wish to preserve some integrity with regard to what is truly Hawai’ian and that which is purely for the tourist industry. That which is entertaining, but not necessarily culture. This call to protect and preserve culture away from tourist eyes may well be the point of difference that we as Maori here in Rarotonga and Pa Enua can offer the discerning tourist, as opposed to the boozy, party bus traveler that just wants to see a young woman dance with very little clothes on.

Wynne goes into detail how some stereotypes at island night entertainment shows such as, fire dancing, coconut bras, pareu material, and greetings were not actually part of the Polynesian culture. He even writes about how these misconceptions came about. Wynne concludes his piece-

I guess my question is this: Can we be more than just virile warriors, or dusky seductive maidens to others and especially when we define ourselves? Can we have the courage to portray ourselves as we truly are or with at least as little cultural Photoshop editing to that image as possible? Whether others find it entertaining, or sexy should be of little concern; surely. Or do we keep doing what we have done until one day we no longer recognize ourselves anymore. Tourism as a source of income for our economy is a reality. This is not about knocking it, but ensuring that we represent as true to form as we can ourselves, our history and all that entails our culture.

The discerning tourist, as I have already stated, wants more than just a cabaret show dressed as culture. They are actually looking for the people, the culture untouched, and a credibility and honesty that can’t be accessed at Disneyland.


An Island Night Fire Dancing




About islandculturearchivalsupport

Island Culture Archival Support (ICAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of records pertaining to the cultural identity of island peoples in Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia whose national and public archives, libraries, cultural centers, and business organizations are underprivileged, underfunded, and understaffed. The specific purpose for which this nonprofit corporation was formed is to support the needs of these South Pacific cultural heritage institutions by helping to preserve and make accessible records created for business, accountability or cultural purposes. The organization will endeavor to add value by providing resources or volunteers to advise, train, and work among island residents to support their efforts in building their future and preserving their collective memory through the use of modern archival techniques.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s