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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



Loin cloths and simply-cut dresses of Manchester print or white cotton cloth have taken the place of the former native clothing. This change has occurred because imported cloth is more durable and its use eliminates the arduous work of preparing and plaiting leaf material. Also the missionary disapproved of the scant native apparel and the natives desired to imitate the missionaries. On Sundays the natives wear shirts and coats, dresses trimmed with lace, and women's hats bought from the trading schooner. During the week the men wear a loin cloth (lava lava) and the women a simple homemade cotton dress with a lava lava either underneath or over the skirt. The men wear felt hats or native-made hats of split coconut leaflets fashioned in European style. These hats have supplanted the plaited coconut leaf eyeshades as protection for the head and eyes of the fishermen.

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Formerly the men wore breechcloths (malo) plaited of strips of kanava or leaves of kie pandanus. Apparently the Tokelau men never wore the kilt titi which was worn in Samoa and the Ellice Islands. To prepare kanava bark for making malo, branches from several kanava trees were soaked in the salt water of the lagoon for about a month. This soaking softened the outer bark which separated from the branch, leaving the soft inner bark adhering to the wood. The inner bark was peeled off and dried in the sun, after which strips were easily split with a fishbone point into even widths for plaiting. This bark provided a very soft, pliable material suitable for clothing and made a good substitute for tapa.

The malo was plaited in a strip ranging from a few feet to several yards long and about 6 or 10 inches wide. The working malo was put on by holding one end over the lower abdomen while the band was carried between the legs and brought up to the back and around the right side. It was passed over the free commencement end and around the waist to the middle line, where it was knotted. The more elaborate malo was long enough to pass several times around the waist and to have the commencement end, often fringed, hang at some length over the girdle in front.

Men's Kilt

The men's fringed kilt (kafa malo), worn on ceremonial occasions, was woven of kie pandanus (pl. 7, A), plaited with the technique used in making pandanus mats. It was about 5 feet long, 1.5 feet wide, and had a fringe about 2 feet long on each longitudinal border. The kilt was worn folded lengthwise with the fringes hanging down.

An ornamental black band running parallel to the edge of the girdle was formed of four strips of dyed coconut leaf which were entered into the plaiting from one end and were carried horizontally across by being turned at right angles between the wefts of alternate strokes. Each dyed strip was overlaid on one weft and plaited with it. On the next stroke the strip was passed underneath the weft and turned at right angles with the weft running in the opposite direction. On the next stroke of this weft the dyed strip was brought to the surface on the other side of the girdle and at right angles with the first stroke on the original side. The dyed strip was carried with the second weft under the next stroke, where it was turned at right angles again and carried down on a weft parallel to the first. It now appeared again on top of the girdle three strokes beyond its first appearance. This technique was carried on with four strips parallel to each other and commencing on parallel wefts. The fringe was applied to the girdle as the commencing edge and finishing edges were worked by leaving the wefts attached to the end of the leaf strip. The page 142 wefts were thus introduced in groups, and the long unsplit ends projected down. The ends were later split to the edges of the mat.

The belt (kafa lauulu) of the kilt was braided of human hair (lauulu) in four strands which were knotted together at each end. These belts were 12 to 18 feet long and were worn wrapped several times around the waist.

Eyeshades, plaited coconut leaf headbands, ornaments of shell and bone, wreaths of flowers, and feathers completed the men's full dress for ceremonial occasions.

Women's Titi

The woman's garment (titi), of leaf strips reaching from the waist to the knees, derives its name from the ti leaf from which it is made in Samoa and other parts of Polynesia. In Tokelau, it was made of kanava bark strips, prepared as for the malo, or of coconut leaves. The coconut leaflets were cut from green leaves and soaked in fresh water to soften them until the tougher outer layer of the leaflets could be split from the soft inner layer. The outer surface was made into the titimatu, worn in the daytime and while working. The softer portion was made into the titi fai fekau, worn for sleeping and for festive attire. Lister (14) states that the better titi were also made of kie pandanus. Titi were made very thick with strips secured to a braided belt or plaited girdle around the waist. Wilkes (34) describes them as being “well oiled and perfectly pliable, resembling a bundle of straw, tied about the loins. It was impossible to conceive a more unwieldy and ridiculous dress.”

Headbands and Sandals

Formerly the natives wore narrow headbands of plaited matting similar to the matting of their malos. They wore eyeshades (taumata) of braided coconut leaf to protect their eyes while fishing.

Sandals (taka) were used only for walking over the sharp coral reefs. They were made with sennit braid (kafa), but the technique has been forgotten. A temporary foot protection was made by binding sennit across the instep, under the sole, and around the ankle in a figure-of-eight pattern. Flat pieces of wood or coconut husk were sometimes bound to the soles of the feet for protection.