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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Rites in Canoe-Building

Rites in Canoe-Building

The making of a canoe is an important event for which the supernatural agencies associated with the trees have to be propitiated. A family, having obtained permission to use their kanava trees, formally requests a master carpenter (tofunga) to perform the work. He proceeds the next day with the male members of the family to the plantations and prays before each tree to the god Tongaleleva, that it may fall and be carried away. Abasing himself before each tree spirit the carpenter says, “Topalapala kai o tae. Aloha mai.” (Spirit bring your excreta to me to eat. I bring you aloha.)

At the beginning of each day, the master carpenter is given a new breech-cloth to wear and he and his assistants receive food for their morning meal. The carpenter makes a prayer for success in the day's work. The master carpenter is tapu during the period of the work—his clothes, his mats, the water bottles and wooden basin which he uses for washing are all untouch- page 114 able, and he bathes apart from his assistants. However neither he nor they live apart from their families. All women are tapued from the vicinity of the work.

At the completion of the task there is a large gift of mats, sennit, and garments made to the carpenters. A great feast (te auata) is held at the launching and the other canoes of the village meet the new vessel on the lagoon and race it to test its speed.

The master carpenter, as designer and overseer, is known as the matamai. His apprentices do most of the labor, and younger assistants (te tino) sharpen the dulled edges of the shell adzes on a variety of hard coral.