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Ethnology of Manihiki and Rakahanga



The great desire of the single biological family (puna) was to have male issue (kapi tane). The intensity of this desire led to incestuous marriages in the beginning of the history of the atolls. The general Polynesian attitude toward children was that females, through marriage, were likely to be lost to the local group or subtribe, whereas males, owing to the prevalence of patrilocal residence, strengthened their own community. In prominent families the desire for male issue was increased by the law of male succession to rank and title. A young married couple occupied by love and appreciation of each other's physical perfections probably dwelt less on the idea of male issue, though the desire must have existed. To the parents of the couple, however, the desire for male issue was dominant. The romantic side of the marriage did not affect them. The chiefly parents of the husband looked forward to a grandson to carry on the line, to succeed to the title, and to inherit the estate. A granddaughter would merely be a wife for some other family. The feeling was naturally shared by the husband's family and page 38 tribe. The desire for male issue, curious though it may seem, was also shared by the parents of the wife and her tribe. They were actuated by the wish to see one of their blood occupying a high position, even though it be in another tribe. Although the sex of the wife may have been regarded as a mistake at the time of birth by her people, once she was married to a high chief she assumed importance in their eyes. She was the potential mother of a chief who would be of their blood. Considerable friction occurred from time to time between the families of two wives married to one chief, owing to the interest taken in the first son born of each marriage, and led to the establishment of a land distributor (tuha whenua) in the 6th generation and of the dual ariki in the 11th generation.

When the news reached the parents of the newly married couple that the wife was pregnant, general satisfaction was expressed. Both mothers-in-law commenced to plait garments of split hala leaves (papa) for both the prospective mother and child. As the time of confinement arrived, the parents-in-law prepared to give a feast in celebration. If the child born was a male there was great rejoicing. The news was called (ka karangatia) throughout the village. A feast was the material expression of the general rejoicing. If the child was a girl, however, the disappointing news filtered out, but there was no public announcement. The food prepared was eaten, but there was no feast. It was stated by my informant that after the birth of a daughter the husband sometimes left his wife in disgust.

The accouchement was carried out in the squatting position. The patient sat on the floor reclining against a relative of experience. When labor pains came on the patient was pushed up into the squatting position, and she supported herself also by holding to a rope hanging down from a rafter. The support assisted her in bearing down. Older female relatives assisted her by massaging the back and lower limbs between pains. The child was received on a plaited mat held by an assistant.

The placenta was taken away and placed in a hole dug for it at some appropriate place. A little earth was filled in, and a coconut was planted above the placenta. Mr. Savage informs me that the coconut is always referred to as the weri of the afterbirth of the child. As the plant grew it was observed from time to time. Its manner of growth was supposed to indicate the nature of the growth of the child. If growth was vigorous the child would be healthy and strong, but if it was poor the child would be correspondingly weak and ailing.

When the umbilical cord was tied and cut, the short end which remained attached to the child was termed pito and when it dropped off the umbilicus was also termed pito. The short length of cord that dropped off in natural course of time was differently disposed of for the two sexes. The male page 39 pito was taken to the ocean side of the island and cast into the sea. This action, Mr. Savage informs me, was referred to as “titiri ki te moana roa” (casting into the long ocean). It was a form of sympathetic magic to insure that the child would develop into an expert fisherman or find success if he made voyages on the long ocean. The female pito was taken to the lagoon side of the island and cast into the lagoon waters. This was termed “titiri ki te tai roto” (casting into the inland waters). Man's sphere was in the ocean waters outside the bounding reef, but woman's sphere was in the waters of the lagoon. The treatment applied to the female pito insured that when she grew up the girl would become an expert diver in procuring pahua (Tridacna) and would be able to remain under water for a long time.

In addition to the placental tree (weri), one or more coconut trees were planted by the parents or an elder of the family on family land to commemorate the birth of the child. Such trees were regarded as the special property of particular children, to whose exclusive use they were reserved. The custom and the trees, which were to provide a beverage for the children in years to come, were termed wai (water, coconut fluid).