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Vikings of the Sunrise

14. The Eastern Atolls

page 185

14. The Eastern Atolls

Grew up the land Havaiki
With its king Rongonui;
Then grew up the land Vavau
With its king Toi-ane.
Then appeared the land Hiti-nui
With its king Tangaroa-manahune.

I was born in the south of Polynesia, lived in the north, worked in the west and centre, but had never visited islands east of Tahiti. In 1934, after I had spent two years at Yale University as Bishop Museum Visiting Professor of Anthropology, Bishop Museum sent me to join its Mangarevan Expedition. A high-powered sampan, The Islander, and a small schooner Tiare Tahiti (Tahitian Gardenia), had been chartered to visit various island groups east of Tahiti. The sampan party, under the leadership of Dr. C. M. Cooke, Jr., Malacologist at Bishop Museum, made collections of plants, insects, and land shells from islands not hitherto explored scientifically, and gathered an amazing amount of material new to science.

The Tiare Tahiti for the use of the ethnologists, J. F. Stimson, K. P. Emory, and myself, met me in Tahiti in August, but, as it had to go into dry dock for repairs, I took page 186 passage on the trading schooner Moana to join my colleagues in the eastern Tuamotu.

On the second afternoon out from Papeete we passed Kau-kura, the first atoll of the Tuamotu group. Over the near horizon peeped the tops of coconut trees. As we approached the trees seemed gradually to stand up, until finally they came to rest with their bases wrapped round by the dazzling white coral beach. Other islets appeared over the horizon, curving off to follow the round of the great reef on which they are set. On the far side of the nearer islands lay the still, green waters of the lagoon, contrasting sharply with the deep purple of the outer sea. Beyond the green waters were indistinct specks, clumps, and lines of coconut trees, indicating other islands which complete the ring of an atoll.

On the next afternoon, our captain pointed to some clouds to the southeast and said, ‘Anaa.’ I gazed at the clouds and at the surface of the sea, but there was no trace of land. I did not understand how an island could be seen in the sky when not visible on the sea, nor how clouds could be tethered like a captive balloon to mark the site of an atoll.

‘How do you know?’ I asked.

‘See that green tinge on the clouds,’ he replied. ‘That is the reflection of the green waters of the lagoon of Anaa. The lagoon is shallower than those of other islands, and the water is greener, Anaa can always be picked by the green clouds so long as the sun is shining on the lagoon and a cloud is above.’

I looked at the cloud. It had a green tinge. Perhaps the keen-eyed Polynesian navigators could distinguish the fainter reflection of other lagoons—perhaps even when there were no clouds. Unfortunately they have not handed on to us these finer observations that guided them to success in their early explorations.

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We sailed alongside Anaa five hours later and went ashore in the schooner's boats, for there is no reef opening by which the schooner may enter the lagoon. A few native men and two Chinamen gave us a tepid welcome. While the captain attended to business, a companion and I walked along a cleared road connecting the outer shore to the lagoon shore half a mile away. On either side of the road were the houses that constituted the small village of Tukuhora. Nearly all the houses were made of scraps of boards taken from boxes and roofed over with rusty corrugated iron. A few houses were thatched with plaited coconut leaves which were attached to a single set of rafters by nails driven through the midribs of the leaves. I put my notebook back into my pocket with a sigh.

On the lagoon shore, my eyes brightened at the sight of some outrigger canoes, but my hopes were quickly extinguished. The canoes had a straight fore boom fastened to the float with connecting stanchions and a slender, curved afterboom which bent directly down to the float. The technique had been borrowed from Tahiti, and even the pattern of the lashing of the fore boom was identical with that I had drawn in Tahiti four years before. The native technique of Anaa had completely disappeared.

The people, while not exactly morose, showed none of the cordiality so characteristic of the Polynesian people. I found out afterwards that their lack of vocal expression was regarded by the rest of the Tuamotu as being peculiar to Anaa.

One of the crew said, ‘The torea bird makes a noise in the mornings and evenings when anybody goes near it.’

‘What about it?’ I asked.

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘there are no torea on Anaa.’

On the way to Hikueru, we called in at the uninhabited atoll of Reitoru. The atoll belongs to Hikueru, and the chief page 188 of that island, who was a passenger, gave the captain permission to get firewood for the engine. Not only did we acquire firewood, but also fish, which teemed in the lagoon, and many fledgling sea-birds from their nests in the low shrubs. In the old economic system of the Tuamotus, an atoll was allowed to lie fallow periodically, while the people migrated elsewhere, in order that the food supplies might increase on both land and sea.

When we landed at Hikueru, the people lined up to greet us with the customary ‘Ia orana’ and to shake our hands. They were clean, athletic, and good-looking. There were evidently plenty of torea birds on Hikueru. However, the houses and canoes at Hikueru were as disappointing to an ethnologist as were those at Anaa. Even the speech had been replaced by the Tahitian dialect, largely through trade and the universal use of the Tahitian Bible. The k and ng, present in the old speech, have been dropped. I created a certain amount of interest by using the Maori dialect in conversation, which was recognized as being like that of the old people who had passed away.

The chief's compound was a model of a complex household. The front wall was made of concrete surmounted at intervals with pairs of pearl shells for ornament. The side and back walls were neat picket fences. The enclosed buildings small and simple, made of sawn timber and roofed with corrugated iron, all neatly kept and very clean. Besides the dwelling house, there were separate dining room, kitchen, bathroom, and latrines. No less than ten canoes were drawn up within the compound and carefully protected from the sun by coverings of coconut leaves and sheets of corrugated iron.

The bathhouse was made entirely of corrugated iron with a spacious wooden floor. A capacious cylindrical can, open page 189 at the top and with a shower rosette attached by a short pipe to the lower end, was suspended near the floor by ropes attached to a pulley fixed to the roof. The handmaidens of the chief carried buckets of fresh water from the town cistern close at hand and filled the can. They then hauled the can upward to the requisite height, announced that the bath was ready, and departed. As a guest of the chief, I was privileged to use the shower supplying my own towel and soap. I turned on the tap above the rosette and enjoyed one of the finest shower baths I have ever had. The towel was afterwards washed by command of the hostess. She expressed a wish to wash the clothes I had on, but as no suggestion was made as to what I should do in the interim of drying, I declined by saying I wished to watch the process of loading the boats with copra.

The copra, consisting of the dried chunks of coconut meat cut out of the mature nuts, was stored loose in various sheds. The trading schooner supplied the sacks, which were filled by the local workers and weighed in the presence of the ship's supercargo. The weighed sacks were thrown outside in a heap and were carried down to the landing, about half a mile away, by natives of both sexes. The men carried a sack over their shoulder, but the women used two fairly large handcarts that carried several sacks. Two women pulled on the pole at the front of the cart and three pushed from behind. The carts rattled speedily along to the sound of laughter. It was fun and did not last long enough to become a labour. From the landing, men carried the sacks down to the boats, which were brought as close to shore as the depth of water would allow. When a boat was filled, her crew pushed off and rowed to the schooner, which tacked up and down just outside the reef.

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We called at Maro-kau and landed a Chinese trader with his stock of goods at a temporarily deserted village, whose inhabitants were probably at some other islet preparing copra. The trader's goods were widely assorted, including bars of soap from New Zealand and pots of ginger labelled ‘The Product of China’.

At Tauere, the houses and canoes still followed the modern pattern. A young man took me to the marae of Rangihoa where the god Tahiri was once worshipped. A few stones marked the site, but my guide dug into the sand and produced a skull. From the ease with which he found the skull, I suspect that the temple was a show place for chance tourists.

At Hao is a deep passage into the lagoon. The passage was named Kaki (Neck), and the current was so strong that the Moana had difficulty in making way against it. This was a great fishing ground for sea-birds, and the frigate hawks, like enemy aeroplanes, waited high above them. When the sea-birds obtained their catch and started for home, the pirates of the air swooped down on them. The frightened birds regurgitated the fish, and the swift frigate hawks caught the falling fish before they touched water. An old man, Te Uira, gave me the chant which the Kaki channel sings:

Kaki! Yes, I am Kaki,
The Neck with a narrow gullet,
Irregularly distended by the urge of hunger.
The interior of our ancestress Tiaki is empty.
My breath comes in short gasps,
So little time have I for rest—ah me!
My bowels churn as the troubled tides
Raise the surging waves along my channel.
My fish, swaying gently to the wavelets
On either side the current,
With hungry, upturned gaze,

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Await the flotsam from the lagoon,
That seaward floats
Upon the surface of the stippled waters.
But what bird is that
Also waiting expectantly above?
Beware! ‘tis the frigate hawk,
The bird of prey with the gleaming breast.

The Hao lagoon is one of the largest in the Tuamotu, and the islets of the far edge were but dimly seen as we sailed in to the main village of Otepa. From a distance the red-roofed houses of the village gave the appearance of a seaside resort, but on closer inspection the red colour proved to be not tiles but the rust of corrugated iron. The people of Hao were friendly and communicative, and they evinced an interest in my dialect which retained the sounds k and ng which they had dropped.

At Tatakoto, we picked up Emory and Stimson, and on the way to Reao to do field work, we landed at Pukerua. The houses were made of native material. The canoes were built on a local pattern out of small pieces of plank sewn together with sennit braid. They were deep and narrow and were provided with a plank for an outrigger float instead of the usual thick timber in the round. The Pukerua and Reao people have a close affinity with each other, and in physical form they differ from the other Tuamotuans. They are shorter with short, broad faces and wide noses. It looks as if some other mixture of blood was present, but the analysis must be left to the physical anthropologists.

Before reaching Reao, I received a wireless from Tahiti stating that the Tiare Tahiti would be some considerable time in dock. If we waited at Reao, the field work at Mangareva would not be done adequately, because of the lateness of the page 192 season. We changed our plans and went on to Mangareva.

Although the atolls I visited were disappointing in material things, Emory and Stimson had been able to gather what is probably the largest collection of myths, songs, and legends yet made in Polynesia. The Tuamotuans, like other coral islanders, lacked the variety of food and textile plants grown only in the fertile soil of volcanic islands. Due to the lack of economic appeal to white traders, they remained more isolated than their kinsmen on volcanic islands and retained many of the so-called ‘heathen customs’ until a much later period. Finally missionaries and traders after copra and pearl shell invaded even these poor atolls, forcing the natives to share in the general change that has affected the whole of Polynesia. However, some of the old men interviewed by Emory and Stimson had taken part in the ancient ceremonies on the temples and could give first-hand information about many things.

Apparently the Tuamotuans, whose material culture was necessarily poor due to a lack of raw materials, developed a particular feeling for poetry and an ability to express themselves in beautiful words. Living on coral islands and watching the constant movement of the waves, they set their thoughts to the music of the surf beating against the outer reef. The age-long music was personified as Orovaru, the Gushing-murmur-of-the-waters.

Throughout Polynesia one of the most popular amusements was community singing, not only at public functions but at ordinary family gatherings in the evening. Once started, a group of singers would run through their entire repertoire, the adults refreshing their memories and the young people learning new songs by a process of absorption and the desire to be able to join in the chanting. As they page 193 grew older, obscure passages were explained by their elders. Thus the transmission of ancient lore was continuous from one generation to the next. European contact and conversion to Christianity generally broke this continuity, but the music-loving Tuamotuans continued to sing their ancient chants. Although temple ritual and prose teachings were abandoned, the old fagu chants still known today give a fairly adequate picture of the myths and concepts of creation that existed in the Tuamotu Islands before European contact. In addition to the major gods possessed in common with all Polynesia, each atoll had its own local gods who were deified ancestors.

The myths go back to the Kore (Void), and the period of Cosmic Night finds expression in the familiar term Potango-tango. The Great Source, Tumu-nui, brought up the sand from Hawaiki, the land below the sea, and caused it to reach the surface. It became a reef and, subsequently, an island. English prose cannot adequately convey the lilt of the Tua-motuan chant as it sings of ‘the growing sand, the rising sand, the lifting sand, the spreading sand, the sand that expands into land’.

The great nature gods of Opoa are richly represented in Tuamotuan myths. Many of the creation chants commence with Te Tumu-nui, the Great Source, and recite a number of forms of Te Tumu. He occurs as Tumu-po (Source-of-darkness) contrasted with Tumu-ao (Source-of-light). Papa (Earth-foundation) is associated with Te Tumu. Atea (Space) appears in the form of Atea-rangi (Sky-space), who is above; and Fakahotu (Fructifier-of-the-soil) is below. In one myth, Atea-rangi mates with Atea to produce the gods Tane (ruler of things above), Tangaroa (lord of the ocean), and Rongo (patron of oratory and eloquence). This arrangement follows page 194 the early pattern that emanated from Opoa, except that by some confusion Atea takes the place of Papa or Fakahotu in being mated to Atea-rangi. The compound name of Atea-rangi connects in thought the Atea of central Polynesia with the Rangi of New Zealand, who are the husbands of Papa, the Earth-mother.

The gods in the period of darkness called in labourers to push up the sky sphere, Atea-rangi, and to uphold him in position. The people employed were the Ngati-Ru, the family of Ru, who are alluded to as Long-Ru, Short-Ru, and Humpbacked-Ru. We have seen that Ru himself performed a similar task in the Society Islands, but desisted when he became humpbacked. In the Cook Islands, Ru was successful without any bodily ill effect.

Some of the fagu chants tell in detail of a conflict between Atea and Tane in which Atea gave in. This struggle occurs in the Society Islands myths, and the story is reminiscent of the New Zealand myth in which Tane took an active part in forcing Rangi (the Sky) up into his present position.

Stimson has collected information from various sources on an attempt to establish a supreme creator in the person of Kiho-tumu. The struggle for supremacy has been seen in the Tahitian elevation of Ta‘aro and will be met in New Zealand in a similar treatment by some theological schools of Io.

The widespread Tiki myth is known in the Tuamotu. The Hao version records that Ahu-roa, an ordinary man, married One-rua and that they had a male child, Tiki. Tiki married One-kura, the daughter of a human couple named Mati and One-ura. In other island groups, Tiki's wife was made from earth, and her name was usually Hinia-ahu-one or some variant. Traces of the more general myth are seen in the inclusion of Ahu (to heap up) and One (Earth) in the names of page 195 Tiki's parents and also in the name of his wife One-kura (Red-earth). The later part of the story follows the general pattern in that Tiki seduces his own daughter by trickery and commits incest with her. Though they had children who doubtless became ancestors, the Tuamotuan story is unique in making Tiki merely a legendary character who is not credited as the father of mankind.

The Maui myth is recorded with much detail and local variations. Ataranga married Hava and produced Maui-mua, Maui-roto, Maui-muri, and Maui-taha. He then married Huahenga and had a son named Maui-tikitiki-a-Ataranga, the mischievous culture hero of Polynesia. This last Maui snared the sun, bested Mahuika, the god of fire, killed Tuna (Eel from whose head grew the coconut) to retake the woman Hina, and created the first dog.

The dog story is interesting, for it indicates that though the Tuamotuans did not have the pig and the fowl, they had some knowledge of the dog. Briefly stated, Maui was married to Hina, who proved faithless by conducting a love affair with a handsome stranger named Ri. Maui found out, and one lazy afternoon he beguiled Ri into delousing each other's heads. As Ri lay comfortably stretched out on the ground with his head on Maui's knees, he fell asleep. Maui then applied digital traction to Ri's nose, ears, and spine. When Ri awoke he was not only anatomically transformed into a quadruped but he was evidently mentally transformed as well, for he became the ancestor of dogs. The myth naively continues that many people came to see the wonder Maui had performed. Maui and his four older brothers set out on a fishing expedition in an outrigger canoe named Taitai-arohia. Maui baited his hook with the crimson feathers that are usually associated with high chiefs and gods. It is little wonder page 196 that he hooked a marvellous fish. As he hauled in his line, he sang a haunting song describing each item in his fishing tackle and the canoe equipment, which are given proper names. With the last haul, he chanted the final verse:

My fish is hooked,
It ascends to the World-of-light.
At last my fish
Breaks into view above the waves.
It is Tahiti.

The Tuamotuan Maui myth has affinity with the New Zealand myth in that Maui, moved by the sight of his wife's grey hairs, sought to gain immortality for man. He was told that he could prevent death if he exchanged the stomach of Rori, the Sea-slug, for his own. He sought out Sea-slug in the shallow waters near the shore, but that obdurate individual refused to make the exchange. Maui thereupon seized him and, by squeezing his body, he made Sea-slug's stomach protrude. He vomited up his own stomach and commenced to swallow that of Sea-slug. The esophageal end of the stomach was just about to disappear when Maui's brothers, who had secretly followed him, called out, ‘Look at what Maui is doing’. Sea-slug's stomach was ejected, and Maui replaced his own. The quest had failed. This was the last adventure of Maui-of-the-thousand-exploits.

The most noted lineages of the chiefly families commence with a chant termed nanao ariki (to grope for the chiefly source). One of them runs as follows:

O my king!
I will grope down
Into the recesses of
My ancient learning and teachings,

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Down to the Great Source, Tumu-nui,
The Lesser Source, all other Sources.
Let the south turn toward me,
Let the north incline toward me.
Papa, the Foundation, was battered,
The Foundation was cleared,
From the Foundation sprang the lineage,
The lineage of Whom?

The lineage of my noble ancestor,
My ancestor Hiro.

Hiro, the great navigator of the thirteenth century, is a well-known ancestor. From him, twenty-six generations ago, the lineage is easily carried down to the present day.

Some of the old chants are composed about individual atolls and indicate the affection of the inhabitants for their homes. The following poem collected by K. P. Emory is about the atoll of Raroia:

What is that canoe that hither sails,
Overarched by the rainbow,
Encompassed about by white tern?
The land of Raroia is encircled.
This is Raroia, land of soft breezes,
From which sounds the lament of Marere-nui.
Softly sound the rustling coconut leaves.

Oh, how my land
Inspires love!

Many chants have been poetically translated by Stimson, but space forbids further quotations.

In the wealth of myths and chants, there are a number of different versions of the same story and different explanations of obscure points. Even in ancient times, the learned page 198 people realized that the version of the ancient lore (vanaga) and the given explanation (korero) might not coincide. This doubt found expression in the following verse:

Correct is the explanation, wrong is the lore,
Correct is the lore, wrong the explanation.
Correct, correct is the lore,
Ah no!
It is wrong, it is wrong—alas!

The chant at the head of this chapter shows that the Tuamotuans were acquainted with the islands of Havaiki, Vavau, and Hiti-nui. The fact that Hiti-nui is associated with the king Tangaroa-mahahune, whom we have already met in Tahiti under the name of Ta‘aroa-manahune, indicates clearly enough that Hiti-nui is Great Tahiti in the Society Islands and not a name for Fiji.

Religious rituals were conducted on open courts with a raised stone platform at one end behind which was a row of spaced limestone slabs, somewhat similar to the religious structures of Tongareva. On the court itself were other erect limestone slabs that formed backrests for the principal chief and priest. The side and front boundaries of the court were not defined by any curb, as they were in Tongareva.

The principal ceremony conducted on the courts was in connection with turtle feasts. When a turtle was caught at sea, a piece of the breast bone was immediately detached and offered with an incantation to the god Tangaroa. It is thus seen that Tangaroa maintained his position as god of the sea and of fishermen, as he did in the Marquesas and New Zealand. The turtle was taken onto the court and a ritual conducted during which the throat of the turtle was cut. A piece of raw flesh from the side was hung on a forked stick erected page 199 in front of the platform. Then the whole turtle received a first cooking in an oven near the court, after which it was returned to the court. It was cut up, and the principal chief and priest ate the heart and a flipper of the turtle on the marae. The cut-up turtle then received a second cooking after which the male population feasted near the court. Women were not allowed a share, as turtle meat was prohibited to them. As it was taboo and could not be taken back to the dwelling houses, any meat left over after the feast was placed upon a wooden platform near the cooking fire. If turtle were plentiful and much was left over, the men returned the next day and feasted on the surplus.

After completing my field study in Mangareva, I returned to Tahiti by the steamer Toia, which fortunately went through the Tuamotu by a northern route, introducing me to new islands. The Tuamotuan archipelago is extensive, stretching a thousand miles from Rangiroa in the west to the atolls near Mangareva in the east. In fact, the Mangareva group is usually included in the Tuamotu Islands, although they are of volcanic origin with a culture distinct from that of the Taumotuan atolls.

At Fagatau I had an experience which, though inconsequential, may serve to illustrate the genuine friendship of the Polynesians for all men, but particularly for those of their own race. We landed on the beach, and I shook hands with the usual group of people watching our landing. Among them were some old men, but I did not venture any speech beyond the Tahitian greeting of ‘Ia orana.’ The supercargo set off for the village a few hundred yards away, and I followed in his wake. A tall, handsome Tuamotuan of middle age fell into step beside me. As we walked along, he kept glancing sideways at me with a puzzled look. He was trying page 200 to diagnose what stock I belonged to, but he dared not ask a direct question in case I should happen to be Polynesian. No Polynesian of any birth can ask the question, ‘Who are you?’ The person questioned might be a high chief, and the questioner would be overcome by shame for his own ignorance. In the Tuamotu, the old people might quote the following, which would have necessitated a genealogical recital in the old days:

Manuka is where questions are asked.
Visitors are journeying to Matahoa-a-Tane.
I ask a question of you,
O my high chief.
From whom are we two descended?

In order to break the suspense, I pointed to a tree and asked, ‘He aha te ingoa o tera rakau?’ (What is the name of that tree?). The effect upon my companion was more striking than I had hoped it would be. He fairly jumped. His mouth opened, the name of the tree came forth, but his mouth remained open and his eyes bulged. Why? No matter how well a foreigner may learn a Polynesian dialect, he generally misuses a vowel or misplaces the emphasis on consonants. My companion knew that I came from the same stock as he did, but the problem was: Where from and who? After enjoying his surprise sufficiently, I said, ‘I am Te Rangi Hiroa.’ I knew that both Emory and Stimson had told some of their Tuamotuan informants about me and that possibly this man might know the name. He seized my hand with a crushing grip and then dashed back toward the old men on the beach, shouting, ‘Fariua, O Fariua, here is Te Rangi Hiroa.’

An intelligent-looking old man detached himself from his page 201 fellows and hurried toward us. He shook hands very heartily and said, ‘Why did you not tell us you were coming?’ I did not tell him that I had forgotten the particular atoll upon which he lived, though I did remember that he had given a wealth of information to Emory and Stimson on their previous visits. We went to Fariua's house and sat on his veranda talking. His daughter, who had also been an invaluable informant to my colleagues, sat with us. When the time approached for leaving, Fariua issued an order. A small boy disappeared and then reappeared with two live fowls. They were Fariua's gift to a kinsman from a distant land. We marched down to the boat landing with the boy carrying the fowls behind us.

I said to Fariua, ‘Come out to the ship for a trip.’

I knew that the ship had brought cases of bananas and mangoes from Mangareva that were sold at the various atolls, where fruit, other than the coconut, did not grow. When the last boat left the ship, Fariua was accompanied by a case of mangoes and a case of bananas, which were my reciprocal recognition of his hospitality. We do not usually talk about these things, and I hope that Fariua will never see this book. Yet it seems to me that such minor personal incidents indicate clearly the spirit of Polynesian hospitality. Give and receive, receive and give, not for the material benefit but for the sake of one's honour.