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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The Tokelau governmental organization is patterned after the fundamental social unit—the kindred. The high chief was a patriarch of the community, succeeding theoretically in the patrilineal line, but also by seniority among the four families who were eligible to the position. A council of elders aided and advised the high chief as the kindred council advised and decided kindred matters with the kindred chief. The executive head of the council, second in rank to the high chief, appears only in the highest branch of the government.

This same system of government appears also at Funafuti (12) and Vaitupu (13) in the Ellice Islands, and, except for the executive officer, at Pukapuka in the northern Cook Islands. At Funafuti, the executive officer succeeded the high chief. These two officials were chosen from two families which alternated in the high chieftainship. It is probable that a similar rotation was observed among the “royal” lines at Fakaofu. The chiefs and council members were always old men in the Ellice Islands. At Pukapuka, all society was graded by age, even more definitely than in Tokelau, and the eldest group was given the right to election into the highest council. Nowhere, however, does the great emphasis on old age seem so stressed as at Fakaofu.

The Tokelau and Ellice atolls had the simplest and most democratic governments in western Polynesia, due to the small populations, limited by the food supply. The first bands of people to come to these islands were under the leadership of one or two chiefs, one of whom became the high chief. Not enough people came or remained to have among them a body of chiefs who would form a hereditary aristocratic class.