Volume 92 1983 > Volume 92, No. 2 > The Cook Islands haircutting ritual as practiced in New Zealand, by T. M. Loomis, p 215-232
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The central purpose of the following discussion is to provide a contemporary account of the haircutting ritual as practised by Cook Islanders in Auckland. In addition, I consider the important role of the ritual leader/orator and how such an individual's authority is augmented by various, overlapping traditional statuses and present-day functions within the ethnic community. I also attempt to clarify the salient issues in the current debate over the form and meaning of the haircutting, and the dominant position the “elder” attempts to play in determining the outcome of these disagreements. The discussion also examines the cultural rationale by which ritual participants are recruited, and by which the kindred is ranked according to status.

Although there are now some 14,000 Cook Islanders living in Auckland, probably no more than one person in four participates regularly in “ethnic” organisations or activities. Nevertheless, there is strong intermittent pressure from kinsmen and community leaders to adhere to customary norms, and everyone tries to get along to a function once in a while. One such event which has increased in popularity over recent years is the pakotianga rauru ‘haircutting’ ritual. 1 At either end of a continuum of ritual-performative events, Cook Islanders distinguish those which are church-centred (e.g. Sunday worship, funerals) from those which are largely secular occasions (e.g. sporting competitions, Saturday night socials). The pakotianga rauru lies at the midway point as one of the kōpū tangata ‘extended family’ events like the wedding (o'ora) ‘gift giving’ and 21st birthday often held outside church premises but at which church leaders are invited to officiate.

A 2% random survey of Cook Islanders in 1981 found that 60% of respondents attended one or more haircuttings in the previous year. Allowing for inflated responses, a more realistic estimate would be a less than 50% participation. Nevertheless, the ritual does take account of issues and individuals not directly engaged in the performative event itself. Part of the ideological and dramaturgical “work” of the haircutting is to address these wider audiences and contexts.

Generally, single māpū ‘young adults’ tend to avoid haircuttings more than any other age grouping. Youths born in the islands are more likely to attend than - 216 those brought up in New Zealand. Presumably they are more amenable to pressure from parents and extended kin who themselves have only recently arrived, and who are concerned to get status within the migrant social organisation. There is also a slight tendency for migrants who arrived during the large influx of the 1970s to take part on a more regular basis than those who immigrated earlier. However, migrants who arrived only in the past year or so are less active, because they have not had time to establish themselves firmly in wider kin networks and organisational memberships. Typically they have not acquired sufficient resources to initiate participation in the reciprocity complex. Overall, much depends on the family's economic circumstances, and the level of their commitment to church and extended kin functions.

Whether or not the haircutting ritual is traditional is a subject of debate among Cook Islanders, particularly orators and elders. In fact, these influential leaders make use of this ambiguity of meanings and origins to extend their authority by way of public rhetoric and ceremonial performances. The way in which these manoeuvres take place, the emergence of unconventional values and the cultural transformations presently occurring are considered elsewhere (Loomis n.d.). One such change has been the increasing elaboration of the haircutting ceremony itself in terms of its dramaturgical format, audience size and the amount of gifts and money contributed. 2 What follows is a description of a contemporary ritual which occurred in 1980. It is atypical in that it involved two boys instead of the usual one, and the kōpū tangata of the mothers took a central role in sponsoring the event.

A Haircutting Ritual in Auckland

Preparations for the umukai (feast) and haircutting began several weeks before the ritual. The ritual was organised by the kōpū tangata2 (see Baddeley 1978:146) of three sisters, two of whose first-born sons were having their hair cut. They in turn elicited the assistance of the kōpū tangata2 of the two boys (A & B). 3 The relationship between the three kōpū tangata may be seen in Fig. 1.

The Three Kōpū Tangata Co-operating in the Haircutting
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To be more precise, the kōpū tangata3 ‘extended family’ of the sisters sought the aid of their spouses' two kōpū tangata3 along with several other au ngutuare ‘households’ particularly “close” to the sisters for the purchasing and preparation of food and decorations for the feast. Recruiting the several hundred participants in the ritual was done on the basis of each individual's recognised genealogical connection with the boy. That is, invitations were sent to most of each boy's known kōpū tangata1 members plus affines and certain significant guests.

The haircutting was therefore a co-operative venture between the two kōpū tangata2 of the boys. But more in keeping with the motives of principal actors, it was the shared kōpū tangata2 of the sisters (kōpū tangata C) which sought to establish closer links with the kōpū tangata2 of their spouses (A & B) through building up ritual obligations and by means of public oratory on the theme of becoming “one big family.” For Cook Islanders such connections are usually reckoned not directly through affinal links, but “down” to the boy and then to his father's cognates. From the perspective of kōpū tangatas A1, B1 and C, members are obligated to help and to attend not so much because the kin of son's or daughter's spouse requires help, but because this important event in the life of son's son/daughter's son—the future of the family—draws them together in common purpose. Such arrangements are somewhat more complex than the normal haircutting, in which it is usually the mother's and father's au tua ‘sides’ of ego's kōpū tangata2 who co-operate in sponsoring the event.

The most intense activity took place the night before the haircutting at the home of the mothers' parents in central Auckland. Large amounts of chicken, pork and taro were cooked by MF and his male helpers in an umu ‘earth oven’ behind the house, while the women worked in the kitchen preparing various vegetable and sweet dishes. 4 Most of the food had been bought by the ngutuare ‘households’ of the two mothers, but an MZ of the two boys kept a mental record of other kinsmen preparing smaller amounts of food at their homes. She was worried because some 400 to 500 people were expected, and the families could not be certain until the last minute how much food would be given. It was essential to have plenty for the guests to eat and take home with them afterwards, to show the generosity and appreciation of the sponsors.

Papa Tuiono arrived early in the evening to keep an eye on proceedings and offer advice where he thought it was needed. He had been selected as “master of ceremonies” by the families because of his reputation as a good orator. This includes his versatility in English, useful when Papa'ā ‘European’ guests are present. He is a Tiākono ‘elder’ in the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church. Such persons act as contact points for informal welfare services, family crises and communication within the ethnic community, as well as important brokers between Cook Islanders and various New Zealand institutions. Tuiono was also the natural one to turn to and was shown considerable deference during the proceedings, because his sister is married to one of the boy's FFs (Fig. 1). The descending generations of the kōpū tangata call him pāpā rūáu or “Papa” ‘grandfather’. Furthermore, he is the secretary of the Enua Manu (Atiu Island) association in Auckland. Because his wife, Tangi, is Manihikian, he is also - 218 secretary of the Manihika Enua association. Since the fathers of the boys are from Atiu and the mothers from Manihiki, he is their putative leader as well as ranking kinsman.

Saturday morning at their homes, the boys were dressed in white shirts, ties and new suits and their hair was tied into hundreds of strands with tiny white ribbons. At the Mūtēkī home, several women finished preparing and packing the vegetable and sweet dishes. Three or four men rose early to uncover the umu and bundle the meat into boxes. Some of the other male relatives went to collect a truck and trailer which they used to take the food to a nearby community hall later in the morning. At the hall, kinswomen and friends of all three kōpū tangata received food from the umu and individual households.

Papa Tuiono arrived at the hall about mid-morning to make sure final arrangements met his standards. The men of the host families set up the tables in long parallel lines with chairs on either side. The “head table” was set across the hall below the stage, for the seating of the boys' immediate families and honoured guests. A row of chairs was placed below and to one side of the stage for the M.C., church elders and members of the pūpū īmene ‘choir’ from the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church who were to lead the singing.

On the stage, a hired band of Manihikians played Island tunes and European pop ballads as guests arrived. In front of the band on slightly raised platforms were two armchairs, draped with brightly coloured materials made for the occasion by various relatives. Hand-made iti ‘lace pieces’ and larger tīvaevae ‘bed quilts’ with large floral motifs were spread over the chairs and on to the stage, giving the appearance of splendid thrones. Around these thrones, the presents from the guests were piled before and during the ritual, adding to the overall effect of opulence.

The mothers and their sons, aged five and six, arrived about one o'clock, the time scheduled for the beginning of the haircutting. Like the rest of the participants, they were operating on what some Cook Islanders refer to jokingly as “coconut time.” The boys were seated in the chairs and white sheets were placed around their necks to catch the hair and money contributed by the guests. Both boys are mata'iapo ‘first born children’ of their ngutuáre ‘immediate family’. (The term is not to be confused with the same word for the titled head of a sub-lineage.) Though one patrilineal grandparent was not present at this meeting, FF and FM often make contributions towards the costs of the ceremony and try to attend, since the boys are considered future leaders of their respective kōpū tangata.

Papa Tuiono busied himself about the hall, making sure everyone was in their places for the beginning of the event. During the preparatory activities, the haircutting itself, and the subsequent division of gifts, it was his responsibility to carry off the complicated operation while avoiding major conflict between the three kōpū tangata. This requires considerable planning and skill on the part of the M.C.

Papa Tuiono began the haircutting ritual with a customary formal greeting in both Cook Islands Maori and English to the gathering of some 600 people. 5 He also made reference to the ancestors, greeting them directly: “Kia orāna te au - 219 tupuna i roto i teia rā” ‘Greetings, life to the ancestors here today.’ This is more a literal than memorial reference. For many Cook Islanders, the ancestors are with us all the time, either as forebears whose memories one must not disgrace by one's own misadventures, or in the form of active vaerua ‘spirits.’ There is no clear boundary between te ao nei ‘this world’ and te ao ra ‘the other world,’ the living and the dead. The two realms interpenetrate, and spirits may intervene in human events. Some people hold these beliefs more strongly than others. Some consider them quaintly superstitious, while others believe they are dangerous, un-Christian relics from the “dark ages.”

Next, Papa Moe, a minister of the Pacific Islands Presbyterian Church, offered a prayer for the boys and their families, asking God's ákatapu'anga ‘blessing’ on them and for the success of the gathering. After a hymn led by the choir, Papa Moe delivered a short ákamāroîroî ‘homily, strengthening speech’ in which he exhorted the boys to be good and obey their parents. He also called on the boys' two families and the audience to work together and help one another. He referred to the strength of the ancestors' faith in God, which has kept the Cook Islands community together and made these kōpū tangata strong over the years. He urged all present to keep their faith, to study the Bible and to be guided by the Holy Spirit. He encouraged the families to bring up the boys to study the ways of God as well as the ways of the world.

Papua Tuiono thanked Papa Moe and added a few words of his own, speaking alternately in Maori and English unlike Papa Moe, who spoke only in Maori. He highlighted the significance of this dual haircutting, the mothers being sisters and the fathers friends. He stressed how this occasion would not only strengthen relations among the three kōpū tangata but also make for closer relations between the people of Manihiki and Atiu islands living in New Zealand. 6 Next, he spelled out the procedures for the cutting and gift-giving, and then proposed a toast:

Ladies and gentlemen, before we commence our haircutting this afternoon, I would like to propose a toast. This toast, you're not going to drink anything (no wine or spirits present). You're going to sit where you are. But the toast is for you to remember. I'm going to propose this toast for these two young . . . ah . . . “girls” here. To greeting to come as a boy later.
And to be a good citizen of this country (New Zealand), and of the Cook Islands. I want them to be good.
Second, I want to propose the toast for the parents to look after these two boys. To remember what we gather here today. To try to support them. With the help of the parents, I'm sure they will succeed.
Third, the same toast for the grandparents. With their help, I'm sure they'll be a good citizen for New Zealand and for the Cook Islands.
The fourth, for all of us. I want you to be one family! [See Figure 1.] To support these two young children, to come as a boy today. Secondly as a good citizen, to help us (in the future). Now, I would like to ask the band to play the music while you are sitting down. You don't have to drink it, but you are going to share with these. That is the toast. Thank you.

After the toast, Papa Tuiono outlined the procedure to be followed, and began - 220 reading rapidly through his list of guests invited to “make a cut.” Most people came up on the stage with a white envelope carrying a monetary contribution, their own family name written on the front. Some also brought wrapped gifts not previously placed on the stage, for the added prestige of publicly giving their present. Each participant approached the boy whose hair he had been invited to cut and gave his gifts to kinswomen who were assisting. The boy's mother then handed the person a pair of scissors with which he snipped a strand of hair tied by a white ribbon. After saying a few words to the boy or his mother, he left and returned to his seat with the strand of hair which he kept to remind him of the occasion.

It was expected that everyone making a cut would contribute something; one should never come empty-handed. Often a participant would place his envelope or cash upon the sheet covering the boy, or put it directly into the boy's hands. By the end of the ceremony the boys' hands were bulging with money. Names and amounts given are not read aloud, as one boy's FZ said “for fear of embarrassing the donor.” 7 Though it is entirely up to the individual, kin close to ego usually give both an envelope and a gift. The expectation is that their monetary contribution will be large, commensurate with their greater affection for the boy and their willingness to help him in the future. Gift items are usually of the sort that the boy can use in his daily life or that others can use on his behalf, such as bed-quilts, sets of cups or glasses, appliances and clothing. 8

When all the names had been read, Papa Tuiono observed that there were still some strands remaining. It would not do to leave the two children “half girl and half boy.” He urged anyone whose name had not been called to come forward and make a cut. Leaving extra strands is insurance against the risk of offending anyone who may feel they have a right to take part but have been neglected to this point. It is also a way of securing donations from guests who choose to attend but have not been included on the formal list. On the other hand, uncut strands signify invited guests who did not turn up, or an over-ambitious sponsoring family. They can cause embarrassment to the family, and are dispatched quickly by a male kinsman at the end of the ceremony. When the boys' hair had been trimmed, in one case by a FB and the other by MB, Papa Tuiono thanked everyone for their generosity, and enthused about the success of the event.

Next, he asked Papa Moe to say pure kai ‘grace,’ and everyone was encouraged to begin eating. There was little hesitation among the guests to get to the tables and pile paper plates high with food. Anyone who tarried was in danger of losing out. People returned to their seats to eat their fill and talk with friends and relatives. Many returned to the tables to get extra helpings to eat or take home. During the feast, Papa Tuiono circulated about the hall, making jokes, encouraging people to eat heartily and generally making sure everyone enjoyed themselves. The M.C. should ensure that the occasion is a harmonious one and that everyone has a good time. Just as supplies were dwindling ominously, kitchen helpers swept dramatically into the hall with cardboard boxes full of extra meat, taro and doughnuts. At some haircuttings there are speeches by ranking guests following the kaikai, but on this occasion there were none. Participants were simply left to say their farewells and depart.

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At the close of the feast, Papa Tuiono joined the two boys and their immediate families at the head table where they had their own meal. When he left, he and his wife were piled high with food, including whole cakes and boxes of chicken, pork, taro and kumara, as “payment” for his part in the festivities. Orators acquire considerable prestige for a job well done, but are not paid in cash. As in other rituals, the family is expected to make a donation to the church, the work of the elders, and for the church hall if one has been used.

Sunday, the day following the haircutting, various members of the three sponsoring kōpū tangata met with Papa Tuiono and divided the money and gifts. As agreed beforehand, the money was apportioned equally between the two boys, to be placed in bank accounts in their names for future use. The gifts were more of a problem. Although there had been prior agreement to divide everything equally, one of the boys had received more presents than his cousin. Some of his close kin argued that guests donated the gifts with the boys' names on them, clearly intending the items for each respective boy. They were from that particular person or family, to be used and remembered by the boy. The donors would be hurt if their present were given to someone else. It was finally agreed that each boy should retain his own gifts.

The Role of the Elder in Ritual and Social Organisation

With the waning of the authority of traditional ariki ‘chiefs’ and au ta'unga ‘priests’, lineage and church elders have come to play an influential role in the leadership of Cook Islands social institutions and the maintenance of shared culture. Since they are at the forefront of the current debate over the traditional nature of the haircutting, we would do well to consider briefly their position in the migrant community. In New Zealand the media and various European politicians, bureaucrats, academics and voluntary agencies have identified certain Cook Islanders as “community leaders.” Such a conceptualisation often glosses important distinctions in role function and the basis of authority between individuals as well as the way in which one person may subtly shift roles depending on context. Thus, for practical as well as heuristic purposes, it is useful to distinguish between the heads of kōpū tangata, énua ‘island’ leaders and tiākono ‘church elders’, though in practice these roles often overlap. Some leaders assume their positions because of recognised status in one or more lineages, particularly proximity to a hereditary title (taonga). Others have gained prominence because of their longevity in New Zealand, and thus through their efforts to help new arrivals. In the process, several of these people have assumed significant “brokerage” positions with respect to the wider New Zealand society. Others have become church elders through steadfast service, strong faith and loyalty to the church. Some individuals have gained a reputation as island or village leaders, through inheriting ritual or lineage titles. These people are important contact “nodes” within a network of people of shared island or village origin, providing information on meetings and projects, and sometimes access to jobs and housing.

Some of the most influential leaders manage to combine a number of these statuses. There are those who would deny rather vigorously that traditional rank and other factors enter into leadership choice, particularly with respect to church - 222 elders. Nevertheless, Nokise (1978:131) confirms the importance of “external social factors”, particularly traditional status positions, in the selection of church leaders. Factors influencing the choice of emerging new leaders include facility in English, the status of one's work position and proven qualities as a mediator. As Hooper found:

Informants agree that the ideal person to ‘call the people’ of a settlement to give to their church, would be someone of traditional rank who was also a member of the church committee; and there are indications that such people are frequently elected to the position of organiser (1961:184).

Many of my informants agreed that it was difficult to get Cook Islanders from various islands and villages to work together under an “outsider,” and they were better motivated to work towards a project under their own leader. The same holds true in church activities, ritual gatherings and community activities like cultural performances. It is readily apparent that these various statuses are mutually reinforcing when one surveys the more prominent community leaders. Most are church elders who are also identified with particular islands or districts, and who also hold traditional ritual or lineage titles. 9 Many of these leaders are also lay preachers, holding a “licence to preach,” and most are popularly recognised as outstanding orators. As one person stated, it is natural for them to be good orators because it “is in their blood.” These elders are often called upon to officiate at important rituals and public events like the haircutting.

The English term M.C. (master of ceremonies) is often used interchangeably by Cook Islanders for orator or va'a tuatua ‘spokesman for a titled person.’ The gloss is unfortunate, since much more is implied in the notion of a skilled orator than just being compere of a public occasion. A good orator must be an effective speaker and organiser. Above all, he must have mana, charisma and style. He must be able to capture the attention of his audience with his voice, movements, and command of traditional legends and pe'e ‘chants.’ A good orator of the “old school” will often begin his speech with a pe'e which identifies the parties involved in the gathering on the basis of mythical grounding. He may have ancestors who were also good orators, and is usually considered a tūmū korero ‘culture expert.’ As a producer/director of dramaturgical events, he must know intimately every detail of preparation and presentation, and ensure it is handled adequately. Any person may speak at public gatherings, and such occasions are good training for becoming a recognised orator. But it is also a risky business, and most orators delight in not only displaying their own perspicacity but in showing up other speakers. This enhances their own standing and the mana of those they represent.

Thus, the M.C., orator, tūmū korero and va'a tuatua roles are not precisely synonymous. Many play the M.C. for a less important kōpū tangata event who are not good orators; their careers are often short. Many are good orators but are not official spokesmen for traditional titles; they may also have less knowledge of tradition. All these roles partake of aspects of the other, and the best M.C.s in Auckland are those who are good orators and can use legendary and biblical references with facility. Church elders, clergy and politicians are granted wider recognition and support depending on how well they embody these qualities.

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The Cultural Rationale of Haircutting Invitations and Participation

The cultural logic by which the haircutting is recruited is based on interrelated and often contradictory principles of kinship (piriánga) ties, connectedness and rank. To begin with, the category kōpū tangata (literally, ‘people of the same womb or belly’) is used by Cook Islanders to refer to a range of potential kin links, as well as to those which have been actualised situationally. This only appears “confusing to the outsider” (Baddeley 1978:146) when the analyst is searching for “groups” or “units” or distinct categorical separations in the minds of the people. For Cook Islanders, kinship links do not exist a priori, apart from social interaction in concrete situations. Even if an individual claims to be related as 'anau ‘by birth’ to certain close kin ‘piriánga vaetata’—for instance M, F, MB, FZ, siblings and grandparents—such a relation itself is a social construction which is reproduced (or neglected) in daily social practice, and dramatised in ritual. All “kindred” (Freeman 1960) as action sets are relatively temporary and contextually established. There are no social units, including even the “nuclear family”, which are not in some fashion constantly having to be replicated and thereby potentially transformed in social interaction. The interesting kinship relations, then, are those which have been actualised at a given place and time for a specific purpose. From this it follows that the focus of analysis must be on shared cultural principles of kinship identity and relatedness among Cook Islanders which provide the guiding clues when choosing whether or not to actualise possible relationships. And also, the occasions and purposes around which various typical patterns of kinship are constituted.

Crocombe (1971a:14) has emphasised that “social distance” in kinship is the primary determinant of who participates in land rights and co-operative labour. Social distance is judged on at least four principles: common descent, common residence, extent of participation and compliance with important social norms. To a certain extent, the same principle holds true for all social encounters between Cook Islanders. Reckoning social distance is important in establishing the membership qualifications and status of an individual, and in deciding who will be invited to a particular meeting, ceremonial or ritual. For the individual, it is germane to the weighing up of one's obligation to another individual or group, as against the gains to be made.

The first principle of descent is given pre-eminence, and deserves further elaboration. Cook Islanders understand descent through the metaphor of manga ‘branching’ down from the ancestors; or alternatively, as layers (au papa)—hence papáanga—one's genealogy. They differentiate piriánga vaetata ‘close kinship’ from piriánga mamao ‘distant kinship,’ again by a spatial analogy referent to the same ancestral branching model. There are no precise cognitive delineations between near and far. Close kinship is readily traced, while distant kinship is that for which the exact connection is obscure. Genealogical proximity is reckoned by tracing back through the branches until a common ancestor is found between two individuals.

In the islands the other three factors modify descent in reckoning social distance (Crocombe 1971). 10 In New Zealand, though modes of organising social relations other than genealogical connection have become increasingly important, - 224 many Cook Islanders get help in finding jobs, housing and welfare services through kinship links. Here extent of participation in Crocombe's terms assumes added importance. Close kin are those upon whom one can rely in gaining access to the essentials of life. For those who choose to engage in ethnic group activities such as haircuttings, generous participation and active compliance with cultural norms are as important for establishing social distance and status as descent. Common residence tends to be of secondary importance. Elders find it difficult to regulate delinquient youth or “bad” families whom they seldom see. Some more affluent families, as well as those who are financially destitute, choose to avoid participation to escape demands on their resources.

Nevertheless, genealogical proximity is still an important beginning point for calculating social distance. A person may claim membership in as many kōpū tangata as he has ancestors (Baddeley 1968:154). In effect, the possibilities are virtually limitless. He can establish kin links and take part in any kindred action grouping he chooses, provided his claim to membership is accepted by others. That is not to deny the obligatory nature of kinship, and, in particular, claims imposed by powerful people which customary ideology and public pressure compel one to accept. Similarly, an individual can choose to activate certain rights (e.g. access to resources, assistance and status) but these in turn involve obligations. Such obligations are more binding on close kin than distant ones; close kin are expected to make a greater effort (Baddeley 1968:151). Conversely, the further a person is from ego, the more he is welcomed and honoured in ritual discourse. Because his contribution is unexpected. He has gone out of his way to take part. As an oro metua explained: “If I am very close, then of course I am needed—my help, food, money, everything. It is expected. It is very bad if I don't help. You make yourself lost! You cut yourself off.”

From these principles, we can better understand the processes by which the audience at the haircutting is constituted, both through formal invitation and in the decision of individuals to attend. The individual makes his choice on the basis of social distance from the boy having his hair cut. Of course, other factors influence his decision to attend and identify with the kōpū tangata, as well as what to contribute. These include previous obligations which he should reciprocate, pressure from kinsmen, priorities on his own resources, competing demands on his time, the weight of obligatory custom mediated through kin, personal feelings towards the boy and sponsoring family and possible future benefits to be obtained. The sponsoring family must decide whom to invite, and most of the same principles discussed adhere. An important factor in their decision is whether the family has an unpaid kaioô ‘debt’ to a particular kinsman, irrespective of how close they are.

Status Ranking of the Kindred

The composition of the guest list is complicated by the fact that it is also the public sequence of dramaturgical participation which is a display of the internal status ranking of the kindred. Conversely, it is the kindred itself which kōpū tangata leaders, elders and orators are seeking to construct by means of the ritual. The kindred seldom exists for long as a corporate unit in New Zealand, due to - 225 competing bases of social organisation, and requires the continued catalyst of such performative dramaturgies.

In this haircutting Papa Tuiono worked closely with each family to arrive at a final list of people to invite, and the arrangement of that list into an order of names to be read out when people come forward to make their cut. Most guests received a printed invitation with their number on it, although some heard of the event from kin and friends and simply decided to attend. In arranging the list persons holding a taonga ‘title’, or their representatives, are accorded highest status, including ariki and those who are closest to the direct line of descent from the ancestral mata'iapo title of the boy's kōpū tangata (Baddeley 1968:Kōpū tangata).5 Furthermore, age-grade factors emergent in the Cook Islands classificatory kinship system complicate any neat linear reckoning of status rank. In principle at least, FFB outranks FB since he is an elder of a previous generation; ego would call the former pāpā rūáu ‘grandpa’ and the latter metua tāne ‘father’, the same terms for his natural grandfather and father.

Then there will be those manuîri ‘guests, strangers’—a Samoan pastor, a Papa'ā city councillor, or ego's F's European supervisor—who are outside the kinship network but whose status in wider New Zealand society entitles them to a higher position on the list. Depending on what status the sponsors may decide the person warrants in the ritual, or the impression they wish to make on them in lieu of favours outside the ritual context, they may give these manu'iri precedence, particularly over kinsmen of F's same age-grade and lower and more distinct kin of earlier generational levels. Finally, there are those factors particularly to do with participation which will modify and complicate ranking based on descent. A kinsman distant by descent reckoning may well have been extremely generous with his assistance on past occasions in order to establish closer ties. He will be expected to be recognised accordingly as “close” kin. It must be reiterated that these are a repertoire of customary strategies rather than hard and fast rules (Bourdieu 1977:16).

In preparing for the haircutting, Papa Tuiono and representatives of the kōpū tangata finally arrived at an intermeshed list of over 400 individuals ranked according to their relationship to each boy and to one another. Each family list was eventually read out in an alternating fashion down the ranks of guests. Clearly, to arrive at a properly ranked list requires an extensive knowledge of papa'anga ‘genealogies’ and of the Cook Island population in Auckland. In fact, the list included a number of people from elsewhere in New Zealand, although none from the islands as is sometimes the case. This was another reason for choosing Papa Tuiono as M.C. For just such purposes, he keeps a small library of hand-written genealogical books at home, and studies and adds to them constantly. 11

Nevertheless, sending out the invitations and more especially the ritual reading aloud of the names are times of danger. This is particularly so towards the top of the list where there is more mana involved and therefore more at stake. There is always ample room for a “mistake” to be made, and disputation to occur if a guest should feel he has been slighted. This may occur when uninvited guests turn up who require public recognition with little forethought. Or when an individual - 226 decides to use the occasion of the ritual to press home a claim to status or rights rendered contentious in another context (e.g. land rights back in the islands, or a title claim the family has been arguing about). These are moments of risk of 'akamā ‘shame’ to the sponsors as well as the individuals involved, and require considerable diplomatic and performative skills on the part of the M.C. Sometimes an indignant guest will wait until the end of the reading for greatest effect. He will then rise to his feet and say something like “Am I dead, that you do not recognise me?” Others are more direct. One church elder in Auckland is the claimant by disputed piriánga ‘connectedness’—he was adopted in at an early age—to an ariki title back in the islands. He often uses public gatherings among Cook Islanders to reassert his claim to the title. At one haircutting, he was invited to cut in seventh place. When he learned beforehand that he was being invited as a representative of the title, and that non-titled persons were ahead of him, he refused to attend.

The Determination of a “Proper” Haircutting

In considering the contemporary debate over the form, origin and meaning of the ritual, I include excerpts from a 1981 Radio Pacific talkback programme on the haircutting which provided an unprecedented glimpse into some of the issues and actors involved in the debate. The programme is—or was until it was cancelled—quite popular, particularly among first generation Cook Islands migrants. On this occasion, Papa Teariki Tuiono, the orator and church elder, was appearing as a tūmū korero ‘culture authority.’ The programme provided him with the opportunity for presenting a number of rhetorical summations on “tradition” and “proper” procedure, for pressuring listeners to take part more in Cook Island activities and reiterating his claims to leadership status. The fact that several disagreements erupted is indicative not only of a lack of consensus about the haircutting, but also of the willingness of some callers (not all of them elders) to openly challenge Tuiono's authority.

Tuiono began the programme by asserting categorically that the pakotiánga rauru is a long-standing tradition and a “sacred practice” in the islands. Many laymen and elders would share this opinion though perhaps more equivocally than Tuiono. Papa Puia, who telephoned to support Tuiono, told me on more than one occasion that the ritual was an ancient custom. Another orator spoke of it as “a custom of ours practised since early times” and brought to New Zealand. Several individuals involved in sponsoring haircuttings also believed them to be traditional, and that most families in New Zealand if not in the islands try to hold one. At least three radio callers who were not recognised leaders agreed about the origin of the haircutting.

On the other hand, some people, like a prominent Pukapukan leader, believe it is borrowed from Niuean practice and is a recent innovation in New Zealand. It is felt that Cook Island custom is diluted by the indiscriminate borrowing of foreign ideas. Others doubt the veracity of claims about the origins of haircutting because they have not experienced the ritual themselves in the islands or because they dispute elders' claims to authority in such matters. A more cynical radio caller said if it was in fact a “sacred tradition,” it should be kept in the islands since people came to New Zealand to earn money, not to give it away.

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Another problematic issue, especially for those who wish to carry out a “proper” haircutting as defined by various tūmū korero, is the question of the appropriate age of the boy. Among those who hold to the precontact heritage of the rite, there seems to be a vague consensus that “traditionally” the boy's hair was cut when he was older. Some contend that the ritual used to occur when the youth was in his early 20s. The intention was to keep him single and as chaste as possible until he got married to a selected bride. Papa Tuiono recalled a young Atiuan man who had his haircut one day and was married the next. But most, sharing the traditionalist perspective, believe the haircutting took place when the boy was 12 or 13, or perhaps as old as 15 (Syme 1978:11).

While some informants recall the haircutting in the islands being like a small birthday party, others contend it was not until people migrated to New Zealand that the ritual began to take place when the boy was five or six. This is felt to be an unfortunate turn of events, since it alters the meaning of the haircutting. Various elders are confused about the significance of the haircutting because of the problem of the boy's age. It is a change supposedly dictated by necessity, since a boy with long locks will be too embarrassed to begin schooling. Otherwise his peers will, according to Tuiono, think that “he's a girl” (i.e. effeminate). Tuiono, in fact, takes for granted the obvious necessity of such adaptation and accommodation to the dominant culture. Like most elders, he assumes all Cook Islanders wish to “fit in.” He is shaken and embarrassed when a Cook Island Maori organiser argues the boy ought to be encouraged to take pride in his heritage and wear his hair long at school. Tuiono realises this is also an important value, one supported by a liberal policy of multiculturalism in New Zealand. He, like so many authorities, is caught publicly on the horns of the dilemma.

The status of the initiate is another bone of contention. Some, like Papa Puia, contend that in the islands the haircutting is only for the eldest siblings, usually of titled ariki, mata'iapo and rangatira families. Baddeley (personal communication) discovered opinions contrary to this in Rarotonga. The ritual was not just for titled heads, and not even for the first-born (mata'iapo) of a family, but for any son. Many people in Auckland would concur with Papa Tuiono that the pakotiánga rauru is for the matai'iapo of the kōpū tangata; that is, the first-born male of each nuclear family. Two radio callers, one identifying himself as a Rakahangan, stated that the custom on their island was to cut the hair of the first and last boy. In Auckland, however, there is a widespread notion that a family holding a ritual for more than one son is greedy.

Perhaps the most contentious issue, and one in which elders as tūmū korero come to the fore, is the problem of what constitutes a “proper” haircutting. First of all, we would do well to remember that a significant minority of Cook Islanders simply are not interested either in the haircutting or in making an effort to sustain the reciprocity system. It is these people, or those who might be tempted to join them, to whom the rhetoric within and about the ritual is addressed. Tuiono says on the radio programme that people today neglect their heritage and jokes they “take the short-cut to the barber-shop.”

Most informants claim there is little difference in the basic structure of the ritual between the islands and New Zealand. The most consequential shifts in - 228 New Zealand seem to be the sending out of formal invitations numbered according to rank, and the greater emphasis on cash donations. Some state it is only a minor event in the islands, but has become a “big thing” (apinga ma'ata) in New Zealand. Formerly in the islands, the primary item of prestation was food both in precontact society and under colonial rule. It was readily available as a resource due to widespread subsistence agriculture. On the northern atolls, the social order was, if anything, more intricately structured around food distribution than in the higher southern islands. As such, food was the subject of complicated categorical ordering and a means of status accumulation. 12 In New Zealand food is given as a matter of course to assist with the production of the event. Such assistance is appreciated but usually taken for granted. In a wage labour economy cash is more readily available (and increasingly so in the islands), and its donation the source of prestige. The more the better. 13 Even so, for older migrants the money is considered the symbolic equivalent of a prestigious food donation in the islands. An older kinsman may be heard to demean the size of his monetary gift by stating, “Te oronga nei au koka puaka ngota,” ‘I am just giving a little pig.’

It is the transition to monetary gifts that has increased the popularity of haircutting and opened it to abuse. As one person stated, it has become “like a dowry.” For many, there is a clear distinction between a “proper” and a “cheap” haircutting (Loomis n.d.). In a proper haircutting the family will not cut the hair of the boy until he is older. They will let the locks grow long. That is, they will take time to save up money for food and a hall and decorations so they and their kinsmen will not be ashamed. They will have a qualified M.C./elder who knows the correct procedure.

While some distinguish proper from cheap haircuttings, others are more cynical. As an outer island elder said, people sponsor a pakotiánga rauru because they “expect to make money from it.” A radio caller stated the same sentiment to Tuiono: people do it just to make money. As far as he was concerned he was going to hang on to his money and not waste it by contributing to such things. The gift-giving has become so opulent it now rivals the o'ora ‘prestation rite’ following the wedding ceremony, which some elders, being aware of growing objections from their followers, state they are trying to discourage.

In fact, a “cheap” haircutting is one which bears all the hallmarks of having been done just to make money. That is, the boy's hair is not long enough (not enough preparation and forethought), not enough food is available at the feast, there is a lack of a proper M.C. or suitable venue, or the family cuts the hair, or there is more than one boy. As Papa Puia remarked with poignant metaphor, holding a cheap haircutting is the equivalent of “selling the hair of the child to make money.” This is particularly applicable to families who break what some think to be the tapu on the boy's gifts and cash donations. The contributions are for the boy alone to use, for his benefit and future advancement. Kin who appropriate these are stealing from the boy; stealing from their future leader (taking his power). Just as families who hold cheap haircuttings are stealing from their invited kinsmen, exploiting them with little intention of recompensing them in full later.

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Donations to the boy and the sponsoring family may be made for a number of reasons. They may be made under the common maxim that kin help one another and demonstrate their aroá ‘love’ in action not just words. Or it may be in order to “repay” a prior contribution from the boy's family. Or as an attempt to establish closer relations with the family, or to expand one's influence. Whatever the prime motivation, the gifts and money constitute a kaio'u ‘indebtness, also credit’ for the boy and his family, to be reciprocated as they see fit on a later occasion. The family implicitly acknowledges this obligation by keeping careful records in a book of the contributors and their gifts, so that approximate equivalents may be recompensed in future. The contribution comprises the “social cost” of maintaining close kinship relationships. This in turn is counter-balanced by the resources which accrue in the form of freely-given assistance, food, gifts and money. The ritual event reproduces and transforms networks of kindred stretching across the city, and sometimes to other parts of New Zealand and the islands. Metaphorically, we might say the strands of hair from the boy signify the reciprocal exchanges which bind participants together economically, symbolically and by kinship piriánga.

These obligations are signified by the family record book, which is usually bound by a ribbon after the event, and set aside for a future time. When the boy approaches adulthood, he enters the stage of his life where he begins to act as an individual with respect to invitations, events and requests for assistance from other kin, the church or énua ‘island’ associations. For these, he will need reference to the record of those who previously accorded him assistance, so he can judge what obligations he needs to reciprocate. The haircutting book is at least an initial guide to the manner in which he acts out his responsibilities usually as the mata'iapo. However, no Cook Islander would admit to employing such accounts legalistically, tit-for-tat to “return” what another has given. For, as Bourdieu (1977) observes, that would no longer be a “gift,” but an affront. Usually, the individual will try to repay more in kind, cash and assistance to build up further prestige for himself and his family, and to ensure that the process of reciprocity continues.

While the intention of this article has been primarily descriptive, I have attempted to address a number of analytical difficulties which present themselves when attempting to explain the dramaturgical format and cultural logic of the haircutting ritual. In particular, I examined the role of the community “elder” in ritual and social organisation, arguing for the necessity of distinguishing various roles and statuses, and the way these often overlap and reinforce one another. In terms of the organisation of the ritual itself, I considered the cultural rationale of who is invited, and the conventional values by which participants are ranked, in the haircutting dramaturgy. I stressed relative differences in practice between the islands and Auckland, particularly with respect to the heightened significance of participation in determining social distance. I suggested also that confusions over the meaning of kōpū tangata, and who is a kinsman, arise from the analysts' seeking to identify groups or units, rather than paying attention to principles of identity, and the occasions and purposes around which these are actualised. - 230 Finally, I pinpointed some of the salient issues and parties involved in the current debate over what constitutes a “proper” haircutting and the way in which elders use this ambivalence in meaning and form to legitimise their own claims to authority and confront potentially threatening alternative perspectives.


This paper is based on field work carried out between October 1979 and March 1981 in Auckland and the Cook Islands. Financial assistance from Adelaide University in the form of a University Research Grant, computer facilities and departmental travel funds is gratefully acknowledged. I should also like to express my appreciation to Susan Barham, Adrian Peace, Andrew Lattas, and my colleagues in the postgraduate seminar at Adelaide University, and to Jo Baddeley, who has done extensive research in the Cook Islands, for comments on earlier versions of this paper.

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  • BADDELEY, Josephine, 1978. “Rarotongan Society: The Creation of Tradition.” Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Auckland.
  • BOURDIEU, Pierre, 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice (Richard Nice translator). Cambridge University Press.
  • CROCOMBE, R., 1971a. “Overview,” in R. Crocombe (ed.), Land Tenure in the Pacific. London, Oxford University Press, pp. 12-16.
  • FREEMAN, J. D., 1960. “On the Concept of the Kindred.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 91:192-221.
  • HOOPER, Antony, 1961. “Cook Islanders in Auckland.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 70:147-93.
  • LOOMIS, Terrence M., (n.d.). “Transformations of the ‘Traditional’ Cook Islands Haircutting Ritual.” A paper presented to the Symposium on Transformations of Polynesian Culture, XV Pacific Science Congress, Dunedin, New Zealand, February 1983.
  • MARSHALL, D. S., 1971b. “Sexual Behaviour in Mangaia,” Psychology Today, 4:43-4, 70, 74.
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  • NOKISE, Uili, 1978. “A History of the Pacific Islanders' Congregational Church in New Zealand, 1943-1969.” Unpublished M.Th. thesis, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
  • SYME, Ronald, 1978. The Lagoon is Empty Now. Wellington, Millwood Press.
1   I prefer the term “ritual” rather than “ceremony” to indicate that, while the haircutting does not explicitly seek to manipulate the supernatural, the work of the dramatic performance is essentially transformative in intent with respect to the status of the boy, the interrelationships of participants and the way they view their social world.
2   Hooper (1961:173) makes no mention of the haircutting ritual during his field work 20 years ago. He did observe that the birth of a mata'iapo ‘first-born male or female’ was marked by a meal at the home of the parents, which a few kin and friends attended with gifts for the child. Elsewhere, he states that the 21st birthday is the most important ceremony of a person's life cycle (ibid:171). It was these two events which most commonly involved the co-operation of the kōpū tangata (ibid:172). In a personal communication, Hooper confirms that he neither saw nor heard of a haircutting being done during his field work. It was his impression that the ritual as practised recently was of Niuean origin.
3   Following Baddeley, I am employing the term kōpū tangata2 in Freeman's (1961) sense of a “kindred-based action group” comprised of ego's consanguines who accept the obligation to assist on a given occasion. Baddeley tends to play down the “temporary” nature of such groups.
4   Cf. Baddeley (1978) for a description of an umukai preparation including men's and women's work and food categories. Matching food items is still relevant in New Zealand, though work tasks and gender associations have undergone certain changes.
5   This was some 200 more than expected, which was just as well as the hosts had provided for extra food.
6   As will be obvious from Figure 1, the haircutting ritual establishes further ties between kōpū tangata which are already linked by the marriage of the daughters of kōpū tangata C to the sons of kōpū tangata A and B. Part of the work of the ritual is to transform the disparate audience into one kōpū tangata A-B-C, i.e. one action-oriented kindred.
7   Unlike the more competitive atmosphere of the Niuean haircutting.
8   On the basis of family records from a number of rituals, cash donations average about $10 from those living in New Zealand and $2 from those residing on the islands. For individual families to prepare or purchase a food donation costs on average approximately $8-$10. The cost of gift items can vary widely, but those items mentioned as fairly typical can be purchased in retail shops for about $10-$15. Thus, the average household contributes between $10 and $30 on such occasions.
9   Among orators of some repute, Teariki Tuiono is a church elder, a leader of the Enua Manu (Atiu) people, and of the va'a tuatua ‘spokesman for a titled person’ line of Atiu and trained in custom and oratory. Tuaine Takae is a church elder, leader for the Manihiki people, and also in direct line of descent of a va'a tuatua title on Manihiki. Ratu Daniela is a church elder, leader of Aitutaki Enua and Reureu village people in Auckland, and incumbent to the title of va'a tuatua for Teurakura Ariki of Aitutaki. George Crummer is a prominent church elder, holds an important New Zealand public service position and recently assumed the Tangiia Mata'iapo title in Rarotonga. William Cuthers is a church elder, a Rarotonga leader, and va'a tuatua in the Utanga family line, the customary speakers for Karika Ariki. Jim Puia is a church elder and in (disputed) line for the Makea Ariki title of Rarotonga. The list could be extended considerably.
10   For instance, with extended kin living close together, elders can pressure wayward or more distant kin to take part in kōpū tangata activities and enforce compliance with social norms.
11   There is a continuing controversy among orators and tumu korero regarding the adequacy of one another's public recitations of these genealogies, probably because they have to do with claims to status and rights of groups and individuals.
12   Even in Auckland people still practise “matching” certain food items in donating to a feast. Essentially, the sets correspond to giving a balanced meal; for instance, pork and taro. One would not give pork and fish, or taro and kumara. Also, there seems to be an implicit “hot/cold” (male/female?) division still extant (Baddeley 1978, Marshall 1971b).
13   Though many informants deny the link between the amount given and prestige value, it none the less exists. Large donations to visiting tere parties are met with impressed, exuberant cheers. At church uapou events, men and women dance waving their cash contributions for all to appreciate.