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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands


The lack of fertile soil in the Tokelau atolls forces the inhabitants to depend on the sea for sufficient nourishment. The life of the men centers around fishing and canoes and the religion is permeated with gods of the sea, who must be continually propitiated to insure good fortune in fishing quests. Unfortunately few of the religious observances, prayers, and tapus have been remembered since the complete destruction of the former religion, but their significance at one time may be inferred from the memory of old rites and from the fishermen's lore concerning the proper technique and behavior.

Fish are abundant near Tokelau. Schools of large fish are attracted to feed at these isolated reefs, and the broad lagoons are filled with varieties of smaller fish. The population is so small that there is no danger of “fishing out” the holes and banks as in thickly populated islands like the Hawaiian group.

Fishing is the prerogative of men and they have become expert fishermen due to a lifetime spent on the water and the great accumulation of page 93 fishing lore handed down through the generations. The men fish all day and there is always someone on shore watching for shoals of small fish. Though there are many methods of fishing, the principal ones are seine fishing and angling. Much of the seine fishing and net casting is carried on in the lagoon by individuals for the reefs are not broad enough for large communal fishing expeditions. Some angling is done in the lagoon by solitary fishermen in canoes, but most of this is done from the edge of the reef with pole and line or from canoes over the deep banks where the castor oil fish and similar species live. The greatest sport of the fishermen is the pursuit of the schools of bonito when they feed at the surface in the early mornings. When the bonito are running, every man devotes all his energy to this type of fishing.