The Cook Islands, with its population of about 19,000, is the largest group of Polynesian people who have yet to be represented at the Polynesian Cultural Center, although a number of Cook Islanders attend Brigham Young University Hawai'i and work at the PCC. The traditions of the Cook Island Maori, as they call themselves, trace their ancestry on the southern islands back to Tahiti and the Marquesas over 1,000 years ago, with Samoan and Tongan migrations settling in the northern islands. Cook Island tradition also says some of the New Zealand Maori migrations originated in their islands.
The Spaniard Mendaña spotted the northern Cook Island of Pukapuka in 1595, during his same journey from South America to the Philippines that he also discovered the Marquesas and Tuvalu. The Cook Islands are obviously named after British explorer Capt. James Cook, who sighted them in 1770, although the islands didn't become a British protectorate until 1888. By 1900, Great Britain transferred administrative control over the islands to New Zealand. In 1965 the people chose a self-government status in free association with New Zealand. Consequently, a relatively large number of Rarotongans or Cook Islanders live in New Zealand.
The majority of the population lives among the eight elevated southern islands, with its capital on Rarotonga. There are also seven low-lying, sparsely populated northern islands.