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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Sacred Food

Sacred Food

Whenever sacred fish (ika sa)—whale (tafola), swordfish (sakula), and turtle (fonu)—were caught they were brought to the village malae for ceremonial prayers of thanks and distribution among all the villagers. Anyone page 152 who kept a sacred fish for his own household alone was punished by having his house burned and his property and canoe broken up.

Whales were never caught but were sometimes washed up on the windward side of the islands after dying in a storm. The men who discovered the whale on the reef decked themselves in wreaths of flowers and twined coconut leaves and carried short clubs cut from the heavy butts of green coconut leaves (langa). They went in canoes across the lagoon to the village where they shouted out their discovery. Immediately the men sitting in the men's houses rushed out, cut similar pieces of coconut leaf butts, and went to the point of the beach where the canoes were landing. The men in the canoes jumped out and a pitched battle (moamoanga) followed between them and the men of the village, which was only stopped by the intervention of the old men of the village when they thought it had continued long enough. Both parties then retired to the men's house to rest, while the news of the find was told in detail. The significance of this ritual is not known by the present natives.

All who could get into the canoes went to the reef, cut up the whale, and brought it to the village malae where it was heaped before the god house. The priest offered a prayer of thanksgiving for the bountiful supply of food. The official apportioner of food appointed a man to slice off and roast a small piece of the flesh in the great oven which had been prepared while the meat was being brought into the village. A second man was appointed to taste the cooked meat. If he considered it fit to eat he shouted, “Te tala mai Samoa” (literally, news from Samoa). The meat was then divided among all the families, the chief receiving the choicest and the sacred parts, and a great feast was held. The whale was not considered a god but there were some people who refused to eat its flesh.

Turtle were carried to the malae and laid on their backs, while thanks were offered to Tui Tokelau for his provision. The head was presented to the high chief of the village. Turtles are still divided among all the villagers although the man who first sights the turtle receives a larger share.

All ceremonial divisions of food are made by the tauvaenga who is today appointed by the official head of the village (faipule).