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Ethnology of Tongareva

Social Observances

Social Observances

Individual Greetings

The reserve of Western culture, marked even by speech avoidance until after a formal introduction, does not exist in Polynesian custom. The person who does not greet another on meeting with a salutation and a smile is likened to something without power of speech, a block of wood or a stone. It is proper etiquette to greet everyone one meets. The greeting now common is the Rarotongan “Kia orana” (May you be well). In ancient times it was customary to call out the person's name followed by a long drawnout ē. Sometimes the name was preceded by the exclamation aue, as “Aue Mahuta ē.” The greeting was accompanied by welcoming waves of the hand, termed sarasara, and noddings of the head. When people had not met for some time and circumstances precluded the regular community ceremonial, the greeting was followed by pressing noses.

The pressing together of noses, termed songi (Lamont, “shungai,”) was the orthodox form of greeting between two individuals who had not seen each other for some time. It was not accompanied by the clasping of hands, in the western manner, but individuals might place their hands over each other's shoulders to steady themselves. When the visitor is seated on the ground those approaching stoop down to exchange the greeting. The head may be bent slightly to the side so that the noses cross obliquely. This is merely to make sure of hitting the mark, for as the eyes are closed at the moment of approach, it is embarrassing not to make correct contact. Lamont (15, p. 135), referring to the songi salutation after a pehu (ceremony of weeping) at Omoka, states: “We were examined again; our dress was regarded with wonder; and as their olfactory nerves seem to be particularly sensitive we had to submit anew to the ordeal of smell.”

On pressing noses, the breath is held. The custom can, in its present form, no more be regarded as smelling than the Western custom of kissing can be regarded as tasting. The custom which still survives as the orthodox form of greeting in New Zealand is now used in Tongareva only by those who are close of kin.

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Two vocal forms of farewell are used which are often confounded by Europeans. As the greetings refer to the opposite actions of going and remaining, they cannot well be combined in one form. A person calls to the visitor as he is leaving, “a hana koe” (you are going), to which he may add the polite invitation, “a hoki mai” (return again). The person leaving calls, “a noho koe, a noho” (you are staying, remain). The words are accompanied by hand and head movements expressing friendship or affection.

Reception Of Visitors

The reception of visitors was an important social event. In Western culture the civic, public, or community welcome is reserved for people of distinction. The individual meets his own relatives or friends and from day to day meets other people without in any way ruffling the smooth surface of the community into which he has penetrated, and of which, for the time being, he is an unrecognized member. Such a lack of interest is apparently natural in a community which is individualistic and in which blood kinship does not form a community bond.

Because of the kinship bond which is the basis of the social structure in Tongarevan society, a Tongarevan of any rank cannot visit a local group and enter unobtrusively. The very form of transport in traveling demands that he should have assistants to paddle his canoe. If he is a chief, he must be accompanied by fitting companions in addition to his own family. The arrival of canoes in itself attracts the attention of the community, which is interested to know whether the visit is friendly or hostile. This leads to investigations at the landing place. On landing, the visitor cannot go immediately to his nearest relative or friend. The relative of a member of the community is a relative of the community, and the guest or friend of a member bears a similar relationship to the group. The individual greetings that take place through accidental meetings at places away from the community assembly place of either cannot be observed when visits are made to the occupied territory of a local group. The visitor, after the preliminary reception at the landing place, must receive a community welcome or reception before he can mix freely with his friends or relatives.

The reception of visitors has been built up into a ceremonial complex. Some of the elements of the ceremonial may be omitted when chance meetings take place, and it appears from Lamont's accounts that the order in which they occurred varied slightly in different islands. The member of a local group who has been absent on a visit to another island was received ceremonially on his return. The full welcoming complex consists of introductory speeches, speeches of welcome, community weeping (pehu), in- page 73 dividual greeting by pressing noses (songi), dances (kapa and saka), and the feast.

The few words that European strangers may exchange when they are introduced, or that friends may use to express their sentiments on meeting after separation become in Tongareva a regular set speech accompanied by gesticulations that may even take the form of a short dance. The speech is complimentary, expressing gratification at meeting and referring to the blood kinship and ancestral ties, when they exist. This procedure may take place when persons meet away from the group meeting places. Thus, Lamont (15, p. 190) recounts that as he was returning to Mangarongaro from a visit to Motu-unga:

…we met several people, who, on seeing us, raised a shout, and, waving their spears, performed the “hai.” One of them, stepping forward, delivered a long complimentary speech. This must be done before they salute you, no matter how glad they may be to see you. No undignified haste of greeting can be sanctioned in Te Pitaka.

The “hai” mentioned is an incantation corresponding to the Maori karakia and was accompanied with movements of the legs, arms, and of the spears with which the people always went armed in premissionary days.

The introductory speech was also made from the shore by the home chiefs before the canoes of visitors were allowed to land. Lamont (15, p. 177) observed this custom on his visit to Motu-unga: “Before our landing, some men came to the edge of the water and made a lengthened speech, I presume welcoming me to their shores, accompanying it with a grotesque and rather undignified dance, during which, however, they maintained great gravity.” The speech was one of welcome, as Lamont's impending visit had been announced previously to the people. When a number of canoes visited an island the introductory speeches were conferences. The raiding of coconut plantations had become so rife that any visit of canoes had to be explained before visitors were allowed to land. The canoes, therefore, drew up within hearing distance, and the local chiefs made their welcoming, conciliatory, or hostile speeches. The chiefs in the canoes exchanged their greetings and explained the object of the visit. When the visitors came from a friendly island to visit relatives, on the conclusion of the speeches a camping place was assigned to the guests. If the visitors came from a hostile island there was a long discussion. When the Te Pukan fleet drew up before Motu-unga the speakers explained that as they were visiting a neighboring island they had come on to see (hakakikite) Lamont and that after pressing noses with him they would go on. Lamont complied by wading out to the canoes, and the visitors passed on without landing.

On another occasion, when the Motu-ungan fleet visited Tautua with the object of raiding the coconut groves, a long discussion took place be- page 74 tween the chiefs of the canoes and Lamont, who stood on the shore representing the Tautuan people (15, p. 293). The Motu-ungan people were Lamont's greatest friends, and the chiefs made speeches of greeting to him. Lamont then explained that Tautua had recently been raided, that the people were poor in coconuts, and that he would protect them. The Motu-ungan chiefs professed their friendly intentions and asked to be allowed to land to meet Lamont's new friends. The Tautuans had no confidence in the profession of friendship, and their chief, Mahuta, begged Lamont to take them to the landing place on the neighboring island. After much discussion the leading chief, Taharua, with his crew, was allowed to land. After saluting Lamont, Taharua pressed noses with Mahuta. The two parties sat beside each other and no ceremony other than the evening meal took place. Houses for sleeping were assigned to the party. The next day, after the morning meal, Taharua and his men departed in their canoes without having pulled a single coconut. The forced reception thus described was characterized by the introductory speeches, pressing noses, and meals, whereas the weeping and dancing which accompany the full friendly ceremonial were omitted.

The speeches of welcome proper were delivered when the people had taken their places for the weeping part of the ceremony. At Mangarongaro the speeches were given after the pehu weeping was over and before the pressing of noses took place. This order follows the New Zealand usage in the tangi weeping ceremony. At Motu-unga, however, the chiefs made their speeches of welcome first, after which they approached and pressed noses. A mat for Lamont was then placed between the seated rows of women, and the pehu weeping proceeded. (See 15, pp. 303, 304.)

The introductory and the welcoming speeches are made by the men who are chiefs, but Lamont (15, p. 190) relates that after a pehu ceremony at Mangarongaro his adopted mother made a speech to him after her husband had done so. Probably her relationship gave her the privilege of departing from the usual etiquette. Apart from public occasions, the women made short remarks of welcome which would be little more than set phrases that usage had established as correct form.

The intrusion of Western culture has caused the abandonment of many social customs used in the reception of visitors. When the schooner Tiare Taporo berthed against the Omoka wharf on my arrival at Tongareva, Pa, the oldest man of the community, addressed a speech to me from the wharf explaining that according to ancient custom he could not approach me until the proper ritual had been observed. He then proceeded to recite a long incantation, after which I landed, and the people came forward to shake hands. The shaking of hands in Western fashion has displaced the old page 75 custom of pressing noses, and Lamont's remarks (15, p. 131) on the lack of acquaintance with hand-shaking are interesting. When he held out his hand to some people he met they held out their hands with the back, instead of the palm, to his grasp.

The hands are waved in welcome or farewell, and the waving is accompanied by the appropriate greetings. The extension of the hands with the quivering of the fingers (salasala) is a common movement in dances. Lamont referrs to it as a greeting or farewell. He evidently caught a more sibilant sound in the initial s and heard an r sound instead of l, for he spells the word as “sharashara,” It corresponds to the Maori method of flexing the fingers on the palms as a gesture of greeting.

The pehu custom of chanting, weeping, and cutting the flesh with shells resembles the Maori tangi. I did not see the ceremony, but Lamont's account (15, p. 124) from first-hand observation supplies a vivid picture.

On the conclusion of the dance, after some further preliminaries (for I noticed everything done required discussion) they seated themselves cross-legged on the ground in two rows, the men arranging themselves in two lines behind the women. The same low, mournful chant or wail that I had heard in the night was then commenced, accompanied by a clapping of hands in slow time. The women shook their heads in a mournful way, by no means reassuring, as they looked at us, and while their song continued tears fell from their eyes. Their voices, before low and plaintive, now rose to a piercing and unearthly yell, and the hands were clapped more quickly and violently, an act to which they were stimulated, by sundry pokes behind from the men's spears. The men themselves also now joined in with their deep voices, and, strange to say, they too commenced crying. The women became so excited that they began to cut their arms with small clam shells, which, in the midst of all their distress, they had been leisurely sharpening on stones for the purpose. The more they cut, the more they screamed, with the most discordant sounds, the men also joining in and accompanying them in this outrageous proceeding. Before they ceased, their legs, arms, and faces were streaming with blood, and as they wiped away the ever-flowing tears, now mingling with the red stream on their cheeks, their visages became perfectly horrific.

The Tongarevan pehu so closely resembles the tangi custom still actively used by the Maoris that it is extremely probable that both customs have a common origin and that the same psychological factors are present in both.

The customs originate in the feelings of sentiment connected with the reunion of blood relatives. When a kinsman returns to his family or local group his reappearance awakens various sentiments. As he is not merely an individual, but a member of a closely related group, all the members of the group must assemble to express their feelings. He cannot mix with his people to exchange individual greetings until he has been received by the community. His arrival awakens the memory of his relatives who have passed away during his absence, and the sorrow connected with their loss to the community is reawakened. The visitor must pay his tribute of tears to the departed, and the whole community shares in the sorrow. The state of feeling that occurred at the time of death is repeated, for this is page 76 the first opportunity that the traveler has had of expressing his grief with the community. Appropriate laments and dirges are chanted, and the mournful words, the tune, and the whole association of ideas finds physiological expression in tears. Once the lachrymal glands have been stimulated to action, the flow increases. The sentiment of grief continues to increase in intensity and finds vent in the vocal expression of wailing as well as in physical movement. In New Zealand the need for further physical expression takes the form of quivering the fingers and in Tongareva the clapping of the hands increases in rapidity. The climax is reached when the flesh is cut so that the blood flows. The native culture did not impose any inhibitions on the public demonstration of grief, but rather encouraged it as a natural and appropriate line of conduct. For the native the sentiment and grief caused such oppression within the breast that the flow of tears and physical violence to the body were the only means of relieving the psychological tension. The mourners derived satisfaction also from their public expression of grief, and the greater the flow of tears and the outward expression, the greater the psychological satisfaction.

The sentimental relationship between the individual and his family or family group also exists between separated groups. The common ancestral tie has been strengthened further by marriages of a later date than that of the common group ancestor, and when the groups meet, members in each group recognize kinsmen in the other group, and their weeping is directed toward one another while their respective groups support them. In the general sentiment aroused each group forgets old grudges and animosities, and the custom, by thus emphasizing common ties of blood, serves a useful purpose in maintaining peace. The constant exercise of such expressions of sentiment caused the complex to become set as a custom for the reception of visitors, even from groups in which the blood tie was far removed. While still a real expression of sentiment among related groups, the custom became more artificial among distant groups and was incorporated as orthodox ceremonial in the social structure. During the early part of Lamont's stay at Mangarongaro visitors from neighboring islands were constantly arriving to satisfy their curiosity, and all such visits were marked by the performance of the pehu ceremony.

The ceremonial part of the custom is observed between two hostile forces and they make a temporary peace. Thus, when an armed force from Omoka visited Mangarongaro (15, p. 135), the combined forces of Mangarongaro and Motukohiti met to resist them. After much discussion peace was made, and the pehu gone through by both parties. Another ceremonial occasion is seen in Lamont's description (15, pp. 121–125) of the formal reception of the shipwrecked crew of the Chatham.

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When a community welcome is planned, it is not correct for individuals to meet and indulge in songi (pressing of noses) until after the community greeting is over. Lamont was puzzled by the actions of people who avoided him on his return from his trips, as shown by his remarks after his first trip to Motu-unga (15, p. 190):

I was astonished at meeting no more people, and equally so at getting a glimpse of a few running in haste before me, as if in iear of my aproach; but, on my arrival at home, I found they were all congregated there. There was a great assemblage already, and more were arriving. They seated themselves quietly in a row as they came, apparently without noticing me, or, if they did, it was only by a glance and a little wave of the elevated hand. I would have advanced to shake hands with my honored parents; but they retreated from me, and, pointing to a mat, said, “na hoké ratha” (sit down there), which, they hastily repeated until I had taken my place. Indeed, had I been acquainted with the etiquette of Te Pitaka at the time, they should not have been compelled to speak to me at all, as they were not accustomed to do so on such grave occasions. A pehu was again performed, which ended in the usual crying, scratching, and cutting. Speeches were delivered in the gravest manner by my father and mother, who approached, stooped, and kissed me. I had then to pass along the double line of persons seated, to be kissed by them all in grave silence, whilst at the same time they shook their heads and waved their hands. If I had risen from the dead, our meeting could not have been more melancholy.

This is a good picture of what still exists in Maori society—avoidance until the community greeting is over; the weeping and chanting of dirges, speeches of welcome by the home people (replied to by the visitor); and finally, the individual pressing of noses. Lamont embarrassed his adoptive parents, not so much by causing them to speak as wanting them to shake hands with him. He means pressing noses when he uses the word “kiss” and the phrase, “na hoke ratha,” should be noho ki raro (sit down). Lamont made a similar mistake regarding the avoidance before the pehu on a later return from Motu-unga, for, as the people again hurried away from him to the community meeting, he states (15, p. 315): “I saw the inmates hastily flying before me, instead of offering the welcome with which, on ordinary occasions, I was received.” He did not realize that his return was not regarded by the community as an ordinary occasion.

The pehu is still used in a modified form, but the term more commonly used at present is seva. The people sit and wail, clapping the hands with a downward circular motion. Blood is drawn from the face or body by scratching (sasaku or kokoti) or cutting (sau) wtih a kasi shell.


The pehu ceremony was associated usually with two types of dance, the kapa and the saka, which formed part of the ceremonial reception to visitors.

The kapa (Lamont, “capa”) was performed for me at Omoka under the direction of Pa. The women were seated in two rows a little apart and facing each other, with the men behind in rows and erect as in the pehu page 78 ceremony. A chant was sung by all, and time was kept with various movements of the hands and arms, all in perfect unison. The dance was similar to the Samoan siva, except that the women did not change position, as in the siva. At Mangarongaro Lamont (15, p. 316) saw a more elaborate kapa in which two rows of seats made of hala (Tongarevan, hara) stems and branches were utilized by the men. The men had festoons of leaves hanging across their shoulders and a green coconut leaf in each hand. The chiefs wore long belts plaited at the waist and hanging in a fringe to the knees. The material of the belts, or rather kilts, was a bark of light color. Folds of broad sennit were bound around their heads. Each chief carried a long wand with a loop at the end to check those who were too far forward or to bring up those who were too far back by throwing the noose over their heads and pulling them forward. The women sat in corresponding rows before the men and sang a low chant to which the men kept time with a slow motion of the coconut leaves. The chiefs stood at intervals in the space between the rows and directed the dance. Lamont remarked on the rage of the chiefs and their recriminations and blows at the men who got out of place at the commencement of the dance. The dancers were arranged in straight rows. The term kapa, applied to the whole dance, is the term used by the Maoris to denote the straight rows of people in the posture dances and war dances.

The saka (Lamont, “shukai”) resembles the tarekareka dances of the Cook Islands and Manihiki. In the dance that I saw the performers were arranged in a column of fours with males and females alternating in each four. The dancers stood upright, but when the dancing commenced they bent the knees slightly. Rapid movements of the hands and feet, with quivering of the knees, were indulged in, while changes were effected by facing right, left, or about at intervals. The time was given by a drum in modern fashion, but in pre-European times neither skin drums nor wooden gongs were known. The dance was more a women's dance, though under modern conditions men join in. Lamont (15, pp. 123, 124) describes it:

When dressed we were again marched off to a clear space near the beach, where the women were congregated. These, after some hesitation, as if from bashfulness, stroking down their “titches,” placed themselves in position opposite to each other, and began a very absurd dance, though (unlike other islands of the South Seas) there was nothing indecent in it. Raising one hand in the air and lowering the other towards the ground, they waved them rapidly, at the same time (after scraping the ground with their feet to make it smooth) rising on their toes, with their knees partially bent. Then, looking wildly sideways at each other, they commenced a quick-step, beating the ground as rapidly as they could hop from one foot to the other, changing their position occasionally, and elevating now the right and now the left arm, accompanying these gestures with a low gutteral sound not unlike that made in calling chickens. This dance, called the “shukai,” is performed on all public occasions, and much admired, though the fair dames sometimes require a little pressing to commence.

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The saka is performed at the commencement of community affairs of more than usual concern. It is part of the celebration when different territorial communities meet together, or when a canoe is about to depart on a voyage of moment. When people emerge from a period of mourning, the phrase used to indicate the end of the gloom is, “kua saka te tangata” (the people dance). The dance described by Lamont was performed before the pehu, but on another occasion (15, p. 144) the people of Te Puka danced after the pehu had taken place. The word saka corresponds to the Maori haka and resembles it in being a posture dance used at the commencement of community activities of importance, including funerals.

The tumu, lately called taki, was a dance in which men or women, or both, formed a circle. It was simply a variation of the posture dancing (tarekareka) of the Cook Islands. Lamont (15, p. 144) saw it danced after the pehu by men of Te Puka, who formed a circle with their hands joined.

Another dance described by Lamont (15, p. 317) was more like the historical pageants enacted in Manihiki and the Cook Islands. The event enacted was the wrecking of the Chatham. A framework was erected to represent the ship. The ship was provisioned and manned with a crew. A woman pretended to see the visitors for the first time and alarmed a group of sleeping warriors, who attacked the ship and finally carried off the provisions. A number of the boys ran about on all fours making a noise like dogs. They were pursued by men with spears, who in turn fled when the dogs turned and barked at them. The actors could scarcely play their parts from the amusement they derived from their own performance. The landing of historical ancestors in their canoes, or outstanding events in traditional history, were enacted in a similar way. The importance of Lamont's account is that it proves that such dances were performed in Tongareva in premissionary times. The “ship dance” was acted by the people of Mangarongaro as part of the welcome to Lamont on his return, and also for subsequent visitors.


Hospitality prevails in Tongareva as it does in other parts of Polynesia. In Tongareva, owing to the heat and the lack of cooling streams, the offer of drinking nuts is a necessary act of hospitality. The host on one occasion is the visitor on another. The first thing a Tongarevan does when a visitor enters his house is to give him a drinking nut. He often has little else to offer, but he realizes through experience that there is nothing that will be appreciated more keenly by his visitor. If he has not a stock of husked nuts in his kitchen, he sends a boy up a near-by palm, and a nut is speedily husked. The custom has become so firmly established that even the foreigner page 80 dwelling for a brief time in Tongareva received this practical attention. A neighbor gathering his stock of nuts brings back some extra nuts which he sends, ready husked, to the stranger within his reef. When I left Omoka on H. M. S. Veronica the people of the village sent out a boatload of drinking nuts as a parting act of hospitality.

In olden times when people from one island visited another they took their food supplies already cooked with them, but it was customary for the local people, after indicating the place where the visitors could camp, to supply them with drinking nuts. If the visit was prolonged, a serious inroad was made into the local crop of coconuts; but although the unwilling hosts might chafe at the depletion of their food supplies, there could be no suppression of hospitality without a loss of prestige. The unwilling prolongation of hospitality was also actuated by political motives. Personal ownership of coconut palms was recognized, and anyone discovered plucking coconuts from a tree not his own was regarded as a thief. Under such conditions it was preferable for the owners to supply the nuts to dangerous guests, rather than to risk guests' helping themselves and so creating a cause for war.

Hospitality also includes the giving of food, or the warusanga feast. (See p. 119). The old-time hospitality still flourishes in spite of contacts with Western customs.

The giving of presents is a concomitant of hospitality and follows naturally after entertainment with food. The following is the correct formula:

Ei urunga atu ki nga tupuna, e rimatahi mai ai;
Ei urunga atu ki nga matua, e rimatahi mai ai;
Ei urunga atu ki nga tungane, e rimatahi mai ai;
Ei urunga atu ki nga tungane, e rimatahi mai ai;
Ei urunga atu ki nga tamariki, e rimatahi mai ai.

For the purposes of union with the grandparents, that they may share;
For the purposes of union with the parents, that they may share;
For the purposes of union with the brothers, that they may share;
For the purposes of union with the sisters, that they may share;
For the purposes of union with the children, that they may share.

The enumeration of the relationship terms indicates the basic idea in the giving of presents, to promote unity by stressing the blood kinship. The sentiment expressed by the present not only extended to the recipient, but also to his whole blood kinship group so that all had a share in it, as expressed by the phrase, “Kia rima tahi mai ai.”