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What is Genealogy . . . Cook Islands Style?

“Genealogy is a list of human creations,
all kinds of previous manifestations.
Some were good blokes,
others were jokes,
Pick your friends but you can’t pick your relations.”

Genealogy is a person’s pedigree. It is a list of one’s ancestors, family history and genetic heritage.

The question is often asked : “How can traditional Polynesian genealogy be accurate and reliable when the people of pre-European times had no written language and so matters of history and genealogy were based solely upon human memory and oral teachings?”

While this question is often asked in good faith, it is one that is loaded with an element of misunderstanding as to the way pre-European society operated on the various remote islands of the South Pacific. There is nothing wrong with that. But it does raise the issue of credibility and the accuracy of traditional Polynesian genealogy in general, and to be more specific at this point, the genealogy of the people of the Cook Islands in particular.

In pre-European times, the people of these islands had a basic form of written language that was both comprehensive and surprisingly detailed. But more about that a little later. In response to the above question, the simple answer is that : “Traditional Polynesian genealogy is as accurate and as credible as, for example, is the traditional British upper class genealogy within the overall history of the United Kingdom”. In other words . . .  Traditional Polynesian genealogy is no more accurate, or no more inaccurate, than that of other genealogies which exist in other parts of the world.

There are however, a number of basic characteristics which are common to all genealogies, irrespective of their lands of origin. The first is the accepted basic principle of 25 years per generation. Most historians appear to agree on this arbitrary time frame. So with this concept, there is little dispute.

The second characteristic is that the various “peoples” of the world developed their own unique way of recording their traditional histories. Simply because one may not understand the methods another culture used to record and preserve their genealogy, is certainly no foundation so say that “their” method of recording lacks credibility, is faulty, or is inaccurate.

Various cultures developed their own structures of society according to their environment and based upon their needs and circumstances. They all had the same priorities and basic human needs including that of food, shelter, survival and the need for sex in order to reproduce. They also had the same desires, to varying degrees, to ensure their traditions and history was adequately recorded, and in this regard, they developed their own unique methods of keeping such historical records.

Throughout the centuries in Great Britain, for example, it was only the Nobility and Royalty who bothered to place any emphasis on recording genealogy and family history. The general population did not care about such matters because family history had little or no relevance to their daily lives. It was of no economic or social value to be aware of one’s genealogy and so most of the British population grew up not knowing, and not wanting to know, aspects of their heritage.

This attitude towards genealogy was normal for the majority of Races throughout the world.

Even to the present day, most human beings on earth have little or no knowledge as to their genealogy back more than three or four generations at the most. However, in Polynesia the situation was different . . . and in the Cook Islands the situation was slightly different again.

A Society based on Genealogy

Just as the Nobility of Britain placed importance on genealogy, so the people of the Cook Islands also placed great importance on their own traditional genealogy within their culture and civilisation as well. It was of critical importance to their whole structured existence that accurate records were kept on matters relating to genealogy.

One of the reasons for this was because such things as traditional titles and the social standing of various families in the community along with arranged marriages, were all dependent upon this information being readily available at any given time just the same as it was for the Nobility of Britain.

In fact the whole structure of the various tribes and island communities in the Cook Islands society depended upon this knowledge and information in order for their very existence to function and operate in the way that it did. Their society was based upon and built around genealogy as being the “heart” of their way of life.

The main difference between the culture of Britain and that of the Cook Islands, was that in the former, the recording of genealogy and family history was of importance to but a small portion of the population that made up the upper class. On the islands of the Cook Islands, however, it was of great importance to the total population as a whole. It affected the lives of everyone, irrespective of their social standing within their tribal community.

Another major difference between the two cultures was that in Great Britain, such information was written down on paper and these papers were then handed down from generation to generation. However, in the Cook Islands, this information was stored in the minds of specially selected men known as “ta’unga, or tribal priests. It was they who instructed and taught men of the younger generation by way of traditional chants and so passed knowledge and history down through the generations by way of word of mouth.

In pre-European times, each Ariki, Mataiapo (sub-chief) and senior family elders, had their own personal ta’unga. As a result of this, each tribe had several ta’unga with each being responsible for different areas of expertise. It was the role of these men to commit to memory various traditions including that of genealogy and to then relate that information whenever called upon to do so.

A popular misconception of today is that a ta’unga was nothing more than a witch-doctor or a wizard, when in fact such a person played a much greater role in the society of that time.

Their minds were the “Books” of the people . . . and their “knowledge” –  was the “Library of the tribe”.

The ta’unga was the central pivot within traditional society. That was why these men were accorded such a high status within their respective communities. They were the “knowledge men” of the tribe and the greater their knowledge, then the higher their personal status was within their tribe.

The ta’unga never ate fish. This was considered to be “slippery” food and so they did not eat it for fear that knowledge would “slip” from their minds if they did. The food they ate was taro. Some of them would eat nothing else as this vegetable was looked upon as being “brain-food” . . . and so was the best “food” that a ta’unga could eat.

A present day “Koromatua” or “traditional ta’unga” Danny Mataroa
A present day “Koromatua” or “traditional ta’unga” Danny Mataroa

How was Genealogy recorded?

The manner in which the ta’unga recorded history was done in two ways. The first was to commit to memory by way of a chant, which in many respects is identical to a singer in today’s world. A good vocalist with a wide repertoire would know off-by-heart at least 100 songs or more. If for example, that person was to sing the song : “Help me make it through the night”, once or twice a week for ten years or more, then that vocalist would consistently use the same words : “Take the ribbon from your hair etc.” The singer would not recite “Take the ribbon out of your hair” or “Take the ribbon from in your hair”. It would always be sung with the same precise discipline : “Take the ribbon from your hair” . . . it would never change.

The concept used to pass down traditional history of the Cook Islands was exactly the same.

The words of various chants never changed. They were never amended. Not even in a minor way because the chant, like a song, would always be recited in the same form as a matter of oral routine.

It was common on these islands to see two or more boys chanting to each other. Sometimes this was done in a very aggressive way as several youths would chant back and forth to each other for long periods of time.

To the early Missionaries, this chanting was looked upon as a “heathen” activity and so they did all they could to eradicate its practice. What these boys were doing was nothing more than chanting their genealogy, their family history and their various ancestors to each other. In today’s terms . . .  one could say they were actually – “comparing notes”.

The second method of recording genealogy was a written form of expression that was done by way of woodcarvings. Prior to the arrival of Christianity, people did not carve on wood just to make “pretty things”, but rather, the woodcarvings were used to record matters of historical importance.

Each little carving on a major piece of work had a meaning and a story attached to it.

The ta’unga then used these small carved inscriptions to remind himself of particular “points” when speaking in public. He would then work his way down a particular caving and consequently explained each little illustration as he went. By using this method, a ta’unga would work his way through a particular historical account from beginning to end as initially recorded on a woodcarving.

In traditional times it was a fundamental belief that each living person was a descendant of one or more of their traditional gods. Each tribe and each family had their own specific paramount god or gods, as well as various associate gods who were either brothers or sisters or some other form of relation to their principal god or gods.

These deities were worshipped on the marae, of which there were many scattered throughout the Cook Islands. It was at this place that the wooden carvings of these gods were kept in image and idol form. The paramount god would always be placed at the top of any carving and the generations that followed were then carved in minute detail descending down the carving as representing generation after generation.

It was these carvings which constituted the written language of the Cook Islands Maori. Some of them were actually very lengthy and full of detail. So it was from these carvings that a ta’unga could read the various inscriptions as if reading from a blackboard, and then tell the story or relate an aspect of history that it represented.

However, when the missionaries arrived and the people became converted to Christianity, not only were all the various marae destroyed, but so to were the carvings and the “written” history of the island as well. Over a period of time, the traditional historians who had been able to read and interpret the carvings, died out and so much of their knowledge died out with them as well.

As the “Culture of Christianity” became the “Establishment”, totally dominating all aspects of life and society, the traditional history of each island became less and less relevant to people’s daily lives. Given that the “Christian Culture” had no provision for the recording of pre-Christian traditional history, then much of the history of “our people” was lost and has gone forever.

While the Missionaries destroyed various marae and woodcarvings by way of fire, those of good quality were not destroyed. But rather, these were stored and later sent to Raiatea under the pretext that the European Missionaries there would destroy these idols along with those collected from other islands within the region.

However, this was not the case.

They were actually sent back to England where many were put on display in various museums, while others were sold off to the wealthy as “South Seas Trophies”. The funds generated were then used to help finance the various mission stations the London Missionary Society had operating in the South Pacific.

Once the woodcarvings and the marae concept had been destroyed, then a tribe’s ability to have a recorded history was partly destroyed. When the various ta’unga were discarded and replaced by “a Missionary”, as the most important person in the community, then another part of a tribe’s ability to record history was discarded as well.

From Ta’unga to Koromatua

However, “family pride” and respect for “family ancestors” was a powerful incentive not to let this aspect of traditional history be lost altogether. It was still a vital component within the overall civilisation on each of the islands. The various ta’unga of the past were therefore replaced by the “koromatua” or “knowledge men” of the tribe.

So in the early years of Christianity, the concept of oral traditions and chants in regard to genealogy remained very much alive and relevant to their communities. Christianity may have altered the minds and hearts of people with the way they lived their daily lives, but it did not change their “spirit” and it certainly did not diminish the importance they placed on family history and tribal genealogy.

While a considerable amount of knowledge was committed to memory by the new “Christian Knowledge men” and survived for a generation or two, as they later died out, then much of their knowledge died out with them. This was because the emerging generations did not absorb and commit to memory, the depth and breadth of history that their elders, parents and grandparents had achieved.

As generations passed on over the years, then bit by bit, many genealogies and aspects of oral history were slowly eroded away and so were forgotten and subsequently lost . . . forever.

It has reached the point today where many people with blood connection to the Cook Islands, have great difficulty reciting their genealogy back beyond their grandparents – let alone, back in time to say the later years of the pre-European era.

It is sometimes said that recent generations are not interested in genealogy. Their family history is of no relevance to their daily lives and they are said to take the view that they do not believe their heritage has any bearing on what their future may unfold to be.

Sadly for most, this statement is nothing more than a “smoke-screen”. It is an “excuse-in-reply” from those who are shy to admit their ignorance of the past and so they pretend not to be interested as a way to “cover-up” their lack of knowledge about their traditional heritage. This is sad really.

The reason so many of today’s generation are in this position of not knowing very much at all about their genealogy, is not so much a result of them being lazy to learn or not being genuinely interested. But rather, it is in general terms the fault of the parents and grandparents who, in many cases, failed to educate their children about their own family genealogy. They failed to interest the younger generation in such matters, and/or to encourage their siblings to be interested in their family history.

Question :   How do you get young people to be interested in genealogy?
Answer : You have to bring the genealogy “alive” and by doing this, it creates interest in the minds of young people to the extent they want to learn more and hear other interesting “stories” about some of their ancestors. That is what used to be done in pre-European times. It worked then, so there is no reason why it should not work with the younger generation of today.

Anecdotes and Stories

For genealogy to be of any significance and value, then it must also be accompanied with a corresponding record of notes or verbal accounts to explain as much information as possible about those names on any given genealogy. Who these various people were? And what were some of the things they did during their lifetimes? The more information, and the more anecdotes that can be attached to a Genealogy Chart, then the more interesting and relevant that particular chart becomes.

That is when people of all ages start to get interested in their historical past. This is when a Genealogy comes “alive”– and that is how it should be. Because those ancestors were real living people. They did real things during their lifetimes. It is because of them, their subsequent marriages and production of children that resulted in a living person of today being a biological product of all those various historical identities.

To conclude this article in a personal sort of way :
“My ancestors for generations may all be dead . . . but I am alive,
I am a genetic product – from each and every one of thee.
That being the case, my ancestors are still very much alive,
All alive . . . and living deep inside – of me.”

. . .  and any DNA Test will prove that – beyond all reasonable doubt.

Howard Henry.
Anthropology Officer
Cook Islands National Museum
Ministry of Cultural Development
P.O. Box 8, Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands.
Email:  howard.henry@cookislands.gov.ck
Phone: 20 725; Ext. 216; Fax: 23 725