Polynesian Islands and their Culture

Cook Islands

The Cook Islands are named after a British navigator named Captain James Cook, who visited the islands in 1773 and 1777. There are 15 islands that make up the Cook Islands with the majority of these islands in the northern part of the country and it's capital (Rarotonga) located in the south. The Cook Island people are perhaps well known for their dance "Ura". The dance is usually performed by a female who moves her body to tell a story, and is accompanied by a band of drummers. The Cook Island language is called Rarotongan Maori. That should not be confused with Maori, the native people of New Zealand.

New Zealand

The traditional name for New Zealand is “Aotearoa,” meaning “land of the long white cloud.” It is the southwestern most part of the Polynesian triangle. The indigenous people of Aotearoa are the Maori and the traditional greeting is “kia ora.” Individuals are often greeted by pressing one’s nose and forehead with the other person in a greeting known as the “hongi.” This is to symbolize the sharing of one’s breath or life force. Aotearoa is comprised of many different tribes, or “iwi.” Each of these have several distinct features, including a marae (meeting house), river, “waka” or canoe, mountain, “tangata” or chief, among others. New Zealand’s government is part of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Fiji

The traditional greeting for Fiji is "Bula Vinaka." Fiji is comprised of over 300 islands, half of which are uninhabited. The two largest islands that are inhabited by most of the population of Fiji are Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. Fiji is made up of 14 provinces and has over 800 different dialects. The Bauan dialect is the one most commonly used in Fiji.

Niue

Niue is often referred to as the "the Rock" perhaps because unlike most other Polynesian countries, it only has one island which measures approximately 10miles by 7miles (16km by 11km). The island is surrounded by a narrow low terrace where it's 14 villages are located. Like many of its neighboring islands, religion is very important to the Niuen people. In fact, in each village the most significant buildings are the church and the pastor's house so most of the houses are built facing these significant buildings. Niue language is called Niuen and it has two dialects. The older one "motu" is mostly used in the northern part of the island and the “Tahiti" dialect is commonly used in the southern part.

Hawaii

As the most northern part of the Polynesian Triangle (North Pacific Ocean), the Hawaiian Islands consist of eight major islands, Hawai’i, Maui, O’ahu, Kaua’i, Moloka’i, Lana’i, Ni’ihau, and Kaho’olawe. Historically, the group of islands was known to Europeans and Americans as the “Sandwich Islands", a name chosen by James Cook. Before the arrival of James Cook in 1778, the Hawaiian language was strictly oral. Natives were taught by missionaries to read their language so that they could communicate the scriptures of the Bible. Banned in 1898 when Hawaii became a U.S. Territory and then resurrected as the official language in 1978, Hawaiian contains only 12 letters: five vowels and seven consonants. The islands of Hawai’i became a state of the U.S. in 1959. Currently, many different races and ethnicities populate the islands of Hawaii and all can appreciate the “Aloha” spirit that comes through song and dance (both modern and ancient Kahiko) that resides in the hearts of all those who reside in Hawai’i.

Samoa

Before 1899 Samoa was a Kingdom in Polynesia, made up of 3 main islands (Savai'i, Upolu and Tutuila). However, long term disputes amongst its people and the intervention of foreign countries lead to the separation of these islands and consequently the hierarchy of kings. The eastern island group with Tutuila as its main island is what now constitutes the territory of American Samoa. The other 2 large islands (Upolu and Savai'i) are what makes up the territory of Western Samoa. Although the history of Samoa dates back to 1500BC, it's written language and alphabet were not established until the 1830's by the "palagi" missionaries. Today the Samoan culture is known beyond the boarders of its small islands including here in the United States.

Tahiti

Tahiti is the largest island in the Windward group of French Polynesia. Tahitians are French citizens with complete civil and political rights. French is the official language but Tahitian and French are both in use. The common greeting in Tahitian is 'Ia ora na. There was a time during the 1960s and 1970s when children were forbidden to speak Tahitian in schools. Tahitian is now taught in schools; it is sometimes even a requirement for employment. The indigenous Tahitians are of Polynesian ancestry comprising 70% of the population alongside Europeans, East Asians (mostly Chinese) and people of mixed heritage.

Tonga

Tonga is the last remaining Kingdom in the South Pacific. Tonga is known as the Friendly Islands by Captain James Cook. The word Tonga translates to "south" in English, as it is the southernmost group of islands of Polynesia. Tonga has five main divisions: 'Eua, Ha'apai, Niua, Tongatapu, and Vava'u. The Kingdom of Tonga is heavily influenced by the Christian faith. The constitution declares Sunday as the sacred Sabbath Day, thus all businesses are closed from midnight on Saturday until midnight on Sunday. The people of Tonga heavily depend on remittances from family members who live overseas (Australia, New Zealand or United States) to sustain their financial needs.

Choose an Island to learn more:


Our research team members come from a variety of Polynesian islands and cultures. Click on each island and learn a little bit about the research members' heritage.