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ETHNONYMS: Mangaia is the only commonly used name for this island; it derives from a ceremonial ax used to remind people of the horrors of war. Some residents use "Auau Enua," which means "Our Land."


Identification and Location. Mangaia is in the Southern Cook Islands group, 110 miles (177 kilometers) southeast of Rarotonga, just north of the tropic of Capricorn at 21° 54' 30" latitude S., longitude 157° 58" making it one of the coolest Polynesian islands. It consists of one island that has an area of 20 square miles (51.8 square kilometers), making it the second largest of the Cook Islands, slightly smaller than the capital island, Rarotonga. Along with Atiu and Mauke, Mangaia features dramatic makatea, or raised coral reef center, but has no beaches or lagoon.

Demography. Residents estimate that about five times the number of Mangaians reside overseas as live in their homeland, which had just over a thousand permanent residents in 1988-1989. This number may grow by a few hundred in the austral summer as people visit their relatives at Christmas. The very old and the very young make up most of the population, with those of working age being largely absent. Paid employment on the island is scarce.

Linguistic Affiliation. Mangaian is an eastern Polynesian language similar to the other languages spoken in the southern Cooks. A few distinctive Mangaian words remain, but mostly people speak Rarotongan Maori, the national language, and New Zealand-accented English. Mangaians claim some settlement from Tahiti.

History and Cultural Relations

Recent research has placed the settlement of Mangaia at 2300 b.c.e. Residents claim that the core population originated on Mangaia but that there were settlers from Tahiti and Rarotonga. Some genealogies identify such outsiders as arriving in the past. Traditional stories emphasize the indigenous Mangaian combating the arriving stranger, who in the end is incorporated into the local group.


Mangaians divide their island into six sections. The two main settlements are Oneroa, the site of the marine landing and a few government offices and the oldest church, and Ivirua, which has a church but no government offices. These two settlements date back to ancient times. There is an airstrip that is marginally closer to Ivirua than to Oneroa.


Subsistence. In earlier times Mangaians grew the traditional Polynesian crops of sweet potatoes, taro, yams, and bananas, finding fish easily at the end of their reef. This diet still is eaten but is supplemented by imported foods from New Zealand, which can be bought at small Mangaian-operated shops.

Commercial Activities. Although there are daily flights to and from Mangaia, there is little conventional commercial activity. Shops are small, featuring imported goods from New Zealand, with some stocking videos for rent, cigarettes, and the like. There is a bakery that operates sporadically and other small business serve the local population. Owing to the lack of a beach or lagoon, tourism has not developed. There are a couple of family-run guest houses and a governmentrun house at Oneroa. People take tourists to caves, and there is a freshwater lake with eels. Remittances sent by family members overseas on a regular basis or in response to appeals for funds for the construction of local community buildings such as churches and meeting halls constitute the main source of income.

Industrial Arts. A few residents make traditional Mangaian artifactsthe poi pounder is a favoritebut there is no other production of consequence because of high shipping costs and the lack of tourism. The ceremonial ax from which the island takes its name is made by carvers on Rarotonga, copied from photographs of an original now in the British Museum. No one on Mangaia makes this handicraft. Some people still construct small fishing boats for themselves or on a contract basis.

Trade. For a period in the 1980s Mangaia was supposed to become "the pineapple island"; the local school features a sew-on patch with a pineapple, and some of the older literature refers to this hope. Pineapple fields are extensive but are largely untended as there is no reliable shipping method. The wet taro of Mangaia is especially appreciated by Cook Islanders living overseas, and in spite of the high shipping cost, small qualities are sold as far away as the markets in Auckland.

Division of Labor. As in other parts of the Cooks, men prefer that their women attend to household duties while the men work outside. Because there is little outside activity, most of the work done is domestic. Women and men both garden, but fishing usually is a male activity. All the traditional leaders are male, but for many years a queen was the top authority.

Land Tenure. Mangaians view land tenure as a family issue. The land has never been surveyed, and people continue to reject this aspect of modern life. The management of land and sea resources rests with the Arongamana ("people of power"), a group of family-based chiefs that is a unique feature of Mangaia. The Arongamana determines who manages land and what one does with it. Even inheritance is not solely under the control of a family group but must be approved by the Arongamana. The Arongamana consists of representatives from every family on the island.


Kin Groups and Descent. Mangaia had a moment of anthropological fame in the early 1960s when Harold Scheffler of the United States and Edmund Leach of the United Kingdom debated the nature of the Kopu, the main named kin group. The debate was over the issue of whether descent was unilineal or ambilineal; there was evidence in the older literature for both. As in most of Polynesia, there is a patrilineal bias, but descent can be traced from a variety of ancestors, depending on the circumstances. For example, claims to land tend to have a patrilineal bias, but Anga Mate ("work of the dead"), where one prepares and carries out of a funeral, may be less strict. As the island is large and the population is small and in light of considerable emigration to New Zealand and, more recently, Australia, there is little pressure on resources and thus few disputes.

Kinship Terminology. Rarotongan kinship terminology (a Hawaiian system) is used by Mangaians today; it is generational, with all the members of one generation sharing the same term and all the members of the preceding and succeeding generations bearing the same terms of reference and address. The Kopu might best be translated as "clan"; literally, it means "belly" or "abdomen" in general Mangaian speech.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Older people still prefer arranged marriages that favor adjoining lands and common interests on the part of the parents. Owing to the extensive migration and overseas residenceperhaps as many as 80 percent of Mangaians do not live on the islandthere is a greater emphasis on the nuclear family now than there was in the past, especially in regard to the choice of a marriage partner.

Domestic Unit. The domestic unit tends to be the nuclear family, but because residence is determined by land inheritance, as guided by the Arongamana, there is close family cooperation. This extends to the large numbers of Mangaians residing overseas, who cooperate on community projects such as the repair of community buildings, including churches and local meeting halls.

Inheritance. Although there was a debate in the anthropological literature in the early 1960s about the Kopu, it seems most likely that people leave their wealth to their offspring on an essentially equitable basis. The Arongamana must sanction land inheritance.

Socialization. Socialization in the twentieth century was influenced by popular music from Rarotonga as well as from overseas, which still can be heard on the Cook Islands government radio station. Many small shops have videos for rent, with a preference for Hong Kong-inspired fight movies and other violent forms of entertainment. There are three primary schools and one high school for the resident population. As a result of migration since World War II, Mangaians often study on Rarotonga or in New Zealand, frequently finding work in a large city and settling there. A major aspect of socialization is the desirability of migration.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. The traditional council of chiefs (Arongamana) is a surviving artifact of traditional Oceania, perhaps the only one of its kind in Polynesia. The Arongamana constitutes the social organization of Mangaia as well as its political organization and is the main instrument of social control and conflict resolution.

The Arongamana consists of appointed representatives of kin groups and was the sole governing body of the island before the arrival of missionaries in the early nineteenth century. Normally, appointment to the Arongamana is for life, but persons can look after a title during the absence of the legitimate titleholder.

Mangaia is divided into six Puna (districts) calculated from the "umbilical," or ideological center point of the island, which is called Rangimotia and is known as "Te pito o te 'enua," or "the navel/umbilical of the land." Each of these districts is subdivided into kin-based tapere (land sections). People say that each of the six districts has six title holders but quickly add that one has five titles and that the least populated has eleven. The distribution of these titles by district is as follows:

Ivirua, with six Rangatira with tapere
Karanga, with five Rangatira with tapere, plus "the stick" (there is a legend about this)
Keia, with six Rangatira with tapere
Tamarua, with ten Rangatira with tapere
Tava'enga, with six Rangatira with tapere
Veitatei, with six Rangatira with tapere and one without ("the seventh")

Each tapere has as its head a Rangatira. This term, but not the idea, was imported by the missionaries. Rangatira, or Ui-rangatira (plural), was imported by missionaries from Rarotonga. The preEuropean Mangaian term for this office was Kairanganuku, which means "organizer." The titleholders of each district agree to designate one of their number as their Kavana (representative) on the islandwide Arongamana. Most people acknowledge that "Kavana" is a transliteration of the English word "governor." The original title for the six Puna heads was Pava. Some people believe that the Arongamana consists of all forty titleholders, while others restrict the definition only to the six Kavana titleholders. Each title is tied to a specific piece of land. The Ariki, who is called Numanatini regardless of his or her personal name, has no land and lives on the tapere of one of the titleholders. Numanatini was the chief when the missionaries came, and his descendants have occupied the position, keeping his name as well as using their own names. In the twentieth century there have been two Numanatini, John Trego and a queen, Pa Ariki Louisa Numanatini. The Ariki in 2001 was Nooroa Numangatini, also female.

The Ariki thus is actually outside the Arongamana system and is more a focus for debate and discussion or a coordinator for islandwide meetings.

The function of the Arongamana is to determine the use of the island's resources, principally land but also marine resources, especially the shoreline. When a person marries, he or she must seek land from the titleholder. If a newlywed is not satisfied with the allocation, he usually can appeal to the district titleholder. If an agreement cannot be reached, a person may take his case to the full Arongamana meeting, before the Ariki, which is the court of final appeal. The Arongamana also meets to discuss which crops should be planted and when and to determine which resources should be used and when. The duty of the titleholder as an individual and as a collective is to look after the island. Thus, the focus of governance is resource allocation and management, with other matters dealt with on the district or family level.

Conflict. People say that the reason for the formation of the Arongamana derives from the terrible conflicts detailed in stories of murder and cannibalism that are a feature of the Mangaian heritage. The earlier solution was a meeting at the Marae Orongo, which was built away from the main part of the island on the reef and, consequently on no one's land. When conflict arose, people would meet at Marae Orongo in a circle. In the center of the circle would be placed a large ceremonial war ax, the Mangaia, from which Europeans took the name of the island. The purpose of the Mangaia was to remind people of how horrible war and killing are and encourage them to solve problems peacefully. People say that the Arongamana was invented just before Europeans arrived and was intended to serve as an ongoing forum for conflict resolution.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Mangaians have a reserve of belief in local spirits that inhabit particular parcels of land to which they are related. Modern religion on the island revolves around the Cook Island Christian Church, which descends from the London Missionary Society. In the second half of the twentieth century there were incursions by Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists as well as by a small group of Pentecostals. There are a couple of followers of the Bahi'a faith, which also has some adherents elsewhere in the Cook Islands. There has been a small enclave of Catholic believers since the nineteenth century.

Religious Practitioners. Traditional local kin group priests attendedmarae (community group centers) in ancient times. There was one marae that was of no individual community and was located on the outer reef. It was called Marae Orongo and served as a place where conflicts between people could be discussed and resolved.

Ceremonies. Persisting throughout most of the Cook Islands and in Mangaia is the hair-cutting ceremony that grants a boy membership in society. For some the ceremony, which always is public and a source of pride for the boy's parents and other elders, takes place late and is almost a puberty ceremony. For others it occurs on the borderline between infancy and childhood. This is supposed to be the first time the boy's hair has been cut, and so in the case of older initiates, the ceremony can be quite long. These hair-cutting ceremonies are of sufficient importance that people often practice them after moving to New Zealand or Australia.

Arts. Apart from the elaborately carved ceremonial war ax from which the island takes its name, there is little in the way of carving. The Mangaia, which is supposed to remind people of peace, is a squaresided tower with a polished stone blade bound to the head. Its shape and size prove that it never was used in battle. There are fine examples of the Mangaia in American and European museums, and copies are made, but not by carvers on the island.

Medicine. Mangaians traditionally had a pharmacopoeia of traditional herbs similar to those used in other parts of Eastern Polynesia. There are small government-run clinics in the main population centers, with a single nurse who travels between them on predetermined days. People with greater health needs travel to the capital island of Rarotonga.

Death and Afterlife. Modern Mangaians are Christians of various Protestant denominations, along with a small number of Catholics. A belief in spirits of the dead who inhabit their ancestral lands persists. For the most part, these ancestral spirits do not bother people but can produce difficulties if they become upset. Signs of spirit difficulty are failing health, misfortune, and crop failure. There is a good deal of variation in how seriously people take their belief in spirits, from the careful to the dismissive.

For other cultures on the Cook Islands, see List of Cultures by Country in Volume 10 and under specific culture names in Volume 2, Oceania.


Buck, Sir Peter (Te Rangi Hiroa) (1934). Mangaian Society. Bulletin 122. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.

Christian, F. W. (1924). Vocabulary of the Mangaian Language. Bulletin 11. Honolulu: Bernice P. Bishop Museum.


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