The people of the Cooks call themselves Cook Island Maoris. Their language is almost identical to that of the Maoris of New Zealand. This is because Rarotonga is believed to be the island from which the New Zealand (Aotearoa) Moaris paddled in the 1300s. Because the Cooks are administered by New Zealand now, most Cook Islanders live and work in New Zealand. In fact, out of 60,000 Cook Islanders, only 16,000 live in the islands.
The huge number of expatriates is clearly the result of the land policy in the Cooks. The CI government does not want the archipelago to go the way of Hawaii and New Zealand where the native populations were forced off their own land and where the original inhabitants of the islands are now its poorest citizens. So, the national laws state that property cannot be sold to outsiders. It can be leased, but at the expiration of the lease, the property reverts back to the original owner along with all buildings on it (and it’s illegal to knock down a building on leased land, even if you put it up). So, everyone in the Cooks has a place to live. Property is handed down from generation to generation (and the plots get smaller as the land is divided between children). But the property is worth almost nothing on the open market because no one can sell it. As a result, people on the islands live mostly in simple whitewashed limestone houses. And everyone who can work off-island does so - leaving kids, old folks, and those who can earn a living from local tourists on the islands.
The Cooks are not poor islands. A visit there is not like going to Haiti or Tijuana. But they are not wealthy islands either. It’s not like going to the Caymans or Bermuda. They look like the rural Polynesia that I’ve seen in photographs of Hawaii from 100 years ago. People live simply. They grow food in their backyards and hope for letters from their children at university in Australia or working in New Zealand or Salt Lake. Most people attend church on Sunday, and dress and sing with enthusiasm. Children and young people tend to be quite beautiful – as most Polynesians are. Older folks tend to be chubby because most Polynesians have the thrifty genes that store fat – after generations of living in an environment where fatty foods were almost unavailable. Everyone tends to be relaxed.
The people in the out islands, such as Aitutaki, regard Rarotonga (about 11,000 people) as the roaring metropolis. The people in Rarotonga see New Zealand as the big time. And a lot of New Zealanders see Australia – a country with a population smaller than that of greater New York City - as the big deal. It’s all relative.