Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



Based on the conclusions of Lister (14), Newell (19), and other nineteenth century writers, it has always been assumed that the Tokelau culture was derived from Samoa. It is true that the Tokelau culture is very similar to the Samoan, but, with our present detailed knowledge of the cultures of nearly all Polynesian groups, non-Samoan elements can be pointed out: the h and wh of the alphabet, the sharkskin-covered drum, and the mat-covered monoliths on the marae. The cultures of the Ellice Islands a few hundred miles to the west, the Gilbert Islands to the northwest, Manihiki, Pukapuka and central Polynesia to the east whence the trade winds blow for more than half the year, must be examined for comparable traits before the true position and relationships of the Tokelau culture can be stated.

Polynesia has been divided culturally into eastern and western areas (28), the dividing line passing along longitude 160° west, but extending westward to include Pukapuka Island and turning southwest below Tonga to include New Zealand. The Tokelau Islands are well within the western area.

People and History

Based on such historical details as are known, particularly the records of inter-island wars, it appears that two peoples settled in the Tokelau Islands. The Fakaofu people are a later intrusive group who, once established on their island, drove out the people whom they found on the other islands of the group. The fighting may have been caused by the aggression of the newcomers or, more probably, by the militant self-defence of the earlier settlers who resented intruders into their islands, and waged a long but losing fight to drive them back to the islands whence they had come.


The Tokelau dialect contains more consonantal sounds than any other Polynesian dialect. It also has the unique combination of h, wh, f, s, v, and w. No evidence exists in any other Polynesian dialect to suggest that the Tokelau alphabet is a single or an original form. Even the hypothetical proto-Samoan alphabet, postulated by Churchill (39) as one of the original Polynesian forms, lacks wh and w. Our present knowledge of Polynesian linguistics limits us to the explanations that the Tokelau dialect is either a single one containing the consonantal sounds, h, wh, and w, which are passing to s, f, and v, or the combination of two dialects, one containing s, f, and v which is slowly absorbing an earlier dialect containing h, wh, and w. No philologist has yet shown that the wh has become f or the h, s in any Polynesian dialect as a purely local and uninfluenced transition. Hiroa (30) believes page 160 that f is a later intrusive element for which wh has been interchanged in the greater part of the eastern area. S is a consonantal sound limited to the dialects of the western area, except Tongareva just beyond the eastern borders. In Tonga and Rotuma h and s are both in the dialect but they are not interchangeable. Words containing s are of Samoan origin. The dialects of Futuna (38) and the Ellice Islands contain f and s but not h and are considered to have a Samoan derivation. The Samoan language, containing the f and v, but no wh or w, appears to be the center of the s-using dialects. This leads to the belief that in western Polynesia there is a dialect containing f, s, v, and k, which was introduced into the Tokelau Islands and is now becoming the popular form. Lately impetus has been given to this form by Samoan pastors and school teachers. An eastern Polynesian dialect containing h, wh, and w, was probably spoken by the earliest settlers, as is evidenced by a few surviving words and place names of the early people in Tokelau.

Social Organization

The order of the individual's life and his relation to his own kindred and to other members of society conform very closely to the pattern of the life of the individual in Samoa (59) and other western Polynesian societies. However, the Tokelau pattern includes a few traits whose peculiarity points either to a local development or to an influence outside of western Polynesia.


The exhibition of a young mother five days after the birth of her first child, parading with her relatives through the village to the council, is explained by the natives as a display of a woman's beauty; if this is its purpose, it has its counterpart at Manihiki (30) and Leuaniua (61) where young girls, on reaching the marriageable age, were displayed unclothed for the community to admire. The Tokelau procession took place, however, at every island where a mother gave birth to a child. This suggests that the purpose was a ceremonial announcement of motherhood or of an heir in the family. If it was to announce an heir, it is curious that the mother and her relatives should make the announcement in a patrilineal society. Possibly this ceremony developed in a society which changed from a matrilineal to a patrilineal pattern—the matrilineal line satisfying its former claims to the children ceremonially.


The walking of the dead body of the chief about his house has never been reported as part of any other Polynesian funeral ceremony. The details and reasons remain unknown. Flexed burial on the back as described by Lister (14) is unique also in the Tokelau Islands. House burial was commonly practiced in Rotuma (15) and Vaitupu (13) and at Nauru in the Gilbert Islands (47), but was limited to the occasional burial of children in Tonga page 161 and Samoa (59). Disinterring the body and annointing it with oil has slight analogy with the Micronesian custom, also practiced in some of the Ellice Islands, of disinterring the body and cleaning the bones. Behind both is the desire to preserve the remains of ancestors, an idea which prevailed in parts of eastern Polynesia.

Kinship System

The Tokelau system and terminology is basically similar to that of the neighboring islands, but contains a few terms differing in usage and connotation. The Tokelau term for mother, matua, is an eastern Polynesian and archaic Manuan term for parent, but is used also in the Ellice Islands (13). Pratt (22) gives matua as a Samoan word meaning parent, but the specific word for mother is tina, in Tonga, fae.

The Tokelau father's eldest sister is designated as matua sa which corresponds to the term of ilamutu used in Manua, Samoa. The Manuan ilamutu's son is termed tama sa, but in Tokelau the tama sa is the first-born son of a man. The change of the term tama sa reflects the great importance attached to the first-born son in matrilocal but patrilineal society and the attempt to emphasize the patrilineal line.

The adoption of the tama sa by the father's sisters is related perhaps to a custom formerly practiced at Vaitupu. The sisters and female cross cousins took his eldest son, in succession, to their homes shortly after his birth. The mother had to visit her child to feed him. Kennedy (13) suggests that this strange custom arose from the desire on the part of the father's family to emphasize their preëminence in a society which had at one time changed from a matrilineal to a patrilineal form. Possibly the custom arose, as it probably did in Tokelau, because of matrilocal marriage, which otherwise brought the rearing of the children among the mother's kin. Matrilocal marriage occurred at Manihiki (30) and Rotuma (14), but there it was more often for convenience or wealth and only a temporary arrangement. In the Tokelau Islands, however, matrilocal marriage was, at least in theory, the rule. Together with the adoption of the eldest son, frequent inheritance of family property by the daughter, and celebration of the birth of a child by the mother's kindred, there is the suggestion that Tokelau society was once more strongly matrilineal than when first seen by Europeans. Bird's comments (2) on the importance of women and the position they took in state affairs and official receptions substantiate this. Micronesian societies gave more respect and importance to their women than did those of western Polynesia; in eastern Polynesia, descent and inheritance were sometimes reckoned through the matrilineal line (48). Tokelau society became more patrilineal in later times, due to cultural influences from Samoa or elsewhere in western Polynesia.

page 162
Men's Houses

The men's house is a special development in the Tokelau sa organization. This large blood group is found in most western Polynesian societies, but outside the Tokelau and Ellice Islands the definite institution of the men's house is not evident. The building of the Tokelau and Vaitupu men's houses along the sea walls is typical of the location of council houses at Mokil in Micronesia (42).


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.


The classification of the Tokelau gods and spirits is typical of western Polynesian religion, but several characteristics of the supreme deity—the temple and sacred enclosure, the coral slabs wrapped in mats, and the national annual ceremony—strongly distinguish Tokelau religion from that of Tonga and Samoa, type religion for all western Polynesia.

Supreme Deity

The supreme deity as a sky god, associated with thunder and appearing in the form of a bird, has analogies to Tangaloa, the great god of western Poly- page 163 nesia, but fire was not sacred to Tangaloa, nor were temples or great stone slabs erected to him. The only parallel to Tui Tokelau is found in the supreme deity of most of the Ellice Islands and some of the Gilbert Islands. The god of Funafuti (12), Foilape, was seen by the people as thunder and lightning and as a sea bird; fire was tapu to him and was prohibited at night at Funafuti and Niutau (68). The chief god at Nukufetau (68), Tapuariki, was also worshipped in thunder.

The Tongan title tui (highest ranking chief), applied to the name of a god, suggests the deification of a chief. It is possible that the first chief of the Fakaofu people was deified, an assumption for which there is good evidence in Newell's account (19) of the deification of a chief, Fafie, during his own lifetime.

Nature Gods

The only god of second rank who has any significance in the Polynesian pantheon is Fakafotu. In eastern Polynesia Fakafotu is a goddess or female element, but no characteristics of this goddess are remembered in the Tokelau Islands. That Fakafotu's importance was once very great is evident in the special marae and coral slab devoted to him or her, an honor accorded no other god, except Tui Tokelau and his son.


Unlike the priests of Samoa who were outside the social pattern (59), the priests of Tokelau (taula) held a very high and important position in society. They took an active part in the government as well as in the religious rites, and formed an inner council which was very close to the high chief. This position is more like that held by priests in eastern Polynesian society where they developed into the dominating power of many islands.

The lesser priests (vaka atua) appear under the same name in Tonga and Samoa, and fulfilled the same functions as vehicles of the gods through whom they spoke to the people. The interchange of the terms taula and vaka atua by early writers in speaking of the different classes of priests and shamans has left in confusion whatever distinguishing characteristics there may have been between the two groups.

The coconut was spun at Vaitupu, Ellice Islands, like the Tokelau notched ball, but Kennedy (13) does not refer to its use in selecting priests or officials.

God Houses

The Tokelau god house, in its construction, size, and consecration to the supreme deity, has no counterpart in the god houses of Samoa. Samoan god houses were much like the surrounding dwellings of the village, and were sacred to village or local war gods (27). McKern (58) states of Tonga that, “It is doubtful if there were any temples as such.”

page 164

In eastern Polynesia the construction of temple buildings varied in the different groups. In Hawaii, temples were built within the walls of the marae. In the Marquesas, sacred houses were built for the use of the priests during inspirational seances, but these were destroyed after the ceremony. At Tahiti, a moderately sized structure was built on the court of the marae or near it to house the idols and religious paraphernalia.

Temples did not exist in Micronesia. The Gilbertese (44) built small spirit houses similar to the Tongan house described by McKern (58), with no doors and an entrance under the eaves reached by a ladder.

The type of Tokelau god house is limited in its distribution, outside this group, to the Ellice Islands. Houses of the supreme god, Foilape, stood at Funafuti, Nukufetau, and Nanumea Islands. As at Fakaofu, weapons were kept in the temples at Nanumana and were brought out for religious ceremonies. These god houses were also festooned with strings of pearl-shell ornaments; this decoration was used in the special dwelling house of a Tongan priest (58). No god house outside Fakaofu is described as containing the wooden seats but such seats were once used by the talking chiefs of Samoa (27) and are still used in Sikaiana, an island of mixed peoples with a Polynesian culture, in the Solomons. Wooden seats were also commonly used by eastern Polynesian chiefs.


One of the chief differences between the cultures of eastern and western Polynesia is the form and function of the marae. In eastern Polynesia, the marae is marked by upright stones, by stone platforms, or a combination of both. In western Polynesia the marae is a cleared ground without stone construction. It is used chiefly for social gatherings and council meetings. Great stepped earth and stone vaults were built in Tonga for chiefs' burials, but they were neither termed maraes nor used for religious purposes. Monolithic slabs were erected to the high god on the marae of Funafuti, Nanumea, Nui, Nanumana, and Niutau in the Ellice Islands and at Onoatoa, Apaina, Nukunau, and Tapiteuea of the neighboring Gilbert Islands in Micronesia, but none of these were associated with stone platforms or stone enclosures.

Simple maraes of upright stones on a cleared area are found also in the interior of Tahiti and in New Zealand. In Emory's opinion (43) the simple form with sets of three upright slabs at one end of the ground and a single slab opposite is the original; from this form developed the complex marae of stone platforms with upright slabs placed on top of or before them. Emory (43) believes that the slabs are back rests for the gods and priests.

The Fakaofu marae (pl. 6, B) suggests very strongly the original Tahitian shrine without platform. At one end of the Fakaofu marae stand the high coral slabs of Tui Tokelau and his son O Te Moana, and opposite them stands a wooden stool, undoubtedly the seat of the priest during part of the ceremo- page 165 nies. There is no evidence in the Tokelau Islands that the upright stones of any marae were seats of the gods or priests as in eastern Polynesia. They were places of the gods, something material in which they could reside when they came to earth during the ceremonies. It is possible that the idea of the material embodiment of the god was transferred, in the Tokelau Islands, to the upright stone, which would account for the practice of dressing the stone. In eastern Polynesia, the material object entered by the god was an image or object separate from the stone slab seat or back rest (43). At Tahiti, Captain Cook saw the image of the god Oro wrapped in tapa, laid on the platform of the marae. Simple maraes without platform or terrace but with stone uprights occur in both eastern Polynesia and the Tokelau and Ellice Islands, but the function of the stone uprights differs.

The sacred stone enclosure, for the disposal of the cast-off mats from the sacred stones at Atafu, is also found in the early type of combined platform and monolithic slab marae in the Tuamotu Islands. Here the enclosures served as places for the disposal of sacred paraphernalia and bones of sacrificial food which had been eaten by the priests. The absence of these enclosures in the Ellice Islands can be explained by the absence of the practice of wrapping the sacred stones.


The annual ceremony of offerings and prayers for prosperity was performed to Foilape at Funafuti in the same manner as at Fakaofu (12). Mats and pearl-shell pendants were the main presents laid before the god. Although a prayer for abundance of crops, fruit, and fish was made annually by the high priest at Rotuma (15) and a ceremony to Tangaloa was held at the full moon in May in some villages of Samoa (27), no ceremony held before a temple and sacred upright stones has been fully or even partially described from any other islands of western Polynesia.

The fundamentals of the Tokelau ceremony are found in eastern Polynesia. At Tahiti great ceremonies called pai-atua (assembling and uncovering of gods) were held on a marae, before upright stones or a platform, for the inauguration of a sovereign, for the laying of a cornerstone of a new marae, for rain in time of drought, and for a great harvest. The ceremony was preceded by preparations similar to those made in Tokelau: everything at the marae was renewed, the god's canoe was patched, offerings of fine white mat cloth were made, grounds were weeded and cleaned, the moss and waste from the marae and the old coconut leaf images and matting were collected and thrown into the sacred refuse pit. All activity after this was forbidden and the people remained in their houses. The priests consecrated themselves at their homes, abstaining from mingling with their families, eating their food apart, living on a separate mat and having their private water gourd—restric- page 166 tions observed by the master carpenters of the Tokelau Islands while building canoes or houses. The Tahitian ceremonies were far more elaborate and prolonged than the Tokelau rites. At times the populace was prohibited from witnessing them, but at other times was allowed to watch from a distance as at Atafu. The uncovering and redressing of the erect stones of the gods was not observed at Tahiti.

Headstones of graves were wrapped with mats at Leuaniua (61), an island with mixed Polynesian culture in the eastern Solomons.


In Oceanic mythology there are two distinct types of origin stories: an evolutionary or genealogical type that traces the origin of man from far distant beginnings, in which abstract elements and sky and earth ultimately evolved the gods from whom men are descended; and a creation type, in which a preexisting supreme god created the first man. This creation type of myth is centered in and characteristic of the western Polynesian area.

A third class of myths, unrelated to the origin tales, is the Maui cycle of stories concerning three brothers who go through many exploits. Maui, the youngest, is the foremost of the three and the great Polynesian culture hero. Two of his greatest feats are the fishing up of the islands from the bottom of the sea and the bringing of fire from the underworld to the people on earth. The name of this hero is known in different parts of Polynesia as Maui, Mauitikitiki, and Tikitiki.

The myths in the Tokelau legendary history contain elements from these three classes of Polynesian mythology garbled into strange and new forms. These elements can be summed up in the following episodes:

1. Man is created from a maggot. The myths based on this element belong solely to western Polynesia. Parallel details of the Tokelau tales can be found in Tongan and Samoan mythology.

2. Three brothers from Tonga—Maui the First, the Second, and the Third—fish up the three northern Tokelau islands. This episode is widespread over Polynesia.

3. A man and woman, Tikitiki and Talanga, draw up the islands. This couple are the parents of the first man in the islands. Tikitiki is another name for Maui and Talanga is the name of Maui's mother in eastern Polynesia. This tale is a local attempt to account for the islands and the origin of the people, based on figures and an exploit taken from the Maui cycle.

4. In other myths, Tikitiki and Talanga are the parents of Lu who pulls up two of the islands, raises the heavens to their present position with the aid of the twelve winds, and learns the secret of making fire and gives it to mankind.

Regarding the raising of the heavens Dixon (7) remarks: “The episode of the elevation of the heavens seems to have been originally a part of the cosmogonic myths prevalent throughout the Polynesian area, with the exception of Hawaii. In New Zealand it remained such, owing to the rupture of all communication with the rest of Polynesia after the period of the great migrations of the fourteenth century; but in central Polynesia, on the other hand, it largely lost its true cosmogonic character and was assimilated by the Maui cycle, being carried as such to Hawaii, which lacks any other form though the vestiges of the older cosmogonic type linger in the central area.”

page 167

The Tokelau tale associating Lu and Maui with the raising of the heavens would thus appear to be a direct introduction from the Cook Islands, where at Mangaia exists the closest parallel of the story. The other two exploits of Lu are properly feats of Maui. Although Lu appears in Samoan mythology he is never associated with the Maui cycle or acts of creation.

5. Talanga appears as a man, the giver of fire to the world. Talanga, a woman in eastern Polynesian mythology, is the father of Tikitiki in Samoan tales, to one of which the Tokelau tale is closely akin. The Talanga of this tale has no connection with the wife of Maui in the Tokelau tales.

6. Mafuike appears as a supernatural male being and as a supernatural, blind, female being. The stories of wresting fire from Mafuike, like those of Talanga, have two sources. The appearance of Lu in one story and of the fire goddess, Mafuike, in the second points to a definite central Polynesian origin. The appearance of the man, Talanga, with the fire god, Mafuike, points to a Samoan origin.

The elements of the three types of myths—evolutionary, creation, and the Maui cycle—combined in the Tokelau versions, show that Tokelau mythology has both Samoan and eastern Polynesian origins, the latter particularly from the Cook Islands. The best evidence of this local fusion of east and west Polynesian myths is the tale concerning Tikitiki and Maui, which shows that the identity of these two names was unappreciated.

The remainder of the Tokelau tales, including those of the well-known Polynesian figure, Sina, and others, are predominantly like Samoan stories. In “The story of the pearl-shell” collected by Burrows (4) at Fakaofu, the incident of the hero who eats the taro of a blind woman and afterwards restores her sight is a myth element common in many eastern Polynesian tales but absent in Samoan mythology. Comparison of all the tales collected from the Tokelau Islands shows that a minority of elements are of eastern Polynesian origin.

Music and Dancing

The skin-covered drum is in type and name (pahu) an eastern Polynesian instrument appearing only at Tokelau in the western islands.

The peculiar processional dance performed by a file of dancers in tripping steps is also danced in the Ellice Islands and has been noted by Burrows (5) as a Samoan dance, and by Wilkes (34) as a dance of Nonuti in the Gilbert Islands. The modern dances and the old paddle dances are common throughout western Polynesia.

Nature Lore


The Tokelau calendar (table 7) shows eleven names in common with the calendars of Vaitupu and Nukufetau of the Ellice Islands and Manihiki and Rakahanga of the Cook Islands. One name, Kelekele, which is in the Vaitupu calendar but not in the Tokelau, appears in a compound name at Manihiki and page 168 Rakahanga. The calendars of Samoa and Tongareva have nine month names each, in common with the Tokelau calendar.

A basic calendar containing the eleven names, Palolo mua, Palolo muli (toe), Mulifa, Takaonga, Silinga mua, Silinga ma (toe), Utua mua, Utua muli (toe), Fakafu, Kaununu, and Oloamanu, is common to Samoa, Tokelau, Vaitupu, Nukufetau, Tongareva, Manihiki, and Rakahanga. The twelfth and thirteenth names of this system cannot be determined from the existing data.

Tonga, closely related to Samoa in culture, has but five Samoan names in its calendar, one outside the basic system and two duplicative pairs included in the system. The Tongan calendar has its closest affinities with those of Uvea and Futuna.

Western Polynesia possesses three calendrical lists, the Tongan, the Rotuman—unique to that island (15), and the Tokelau-Samoan, called here the basic calendar which is also found in the western islands of eastern Polynesia.

Table 7—Polynesian Month Names
Tokelau Vaitupu and Nukufetau (13) Manihiki and Rakahanga (30) Tongareva (29)
Palolo mua Palolo mua Palolo mua Palolo mua
Toe Palolo Toe Palolo Palolo muri Palolo muli
Mulifa Mulifa Muriha Silinga mua
Takaonga Takaonga Takaonga Silinga muli
Silinga Kelekele Hiringa kerekere Aitua mua
Toe Silinga Silinga Hiringa ma Aitua muli
Utua mua Silinga (Nukufetau only) Utua mua Hakaahu
Toe Utua Utua mua Utua muri Aloa manu
Vainoa Toe Utua Rehu Tokaanga
Fakaafu Fakaafu Piripiri Hakaunuunuu
Kaunonu Kaununu Whakaau Serehu
Oloamanu Luamanu Unuunu
Ngataitokia Oroamanu
Samoa (11, 14) Tonga (40) Futuna (38) Uvea (4)
Palolo mua Hilinga kelekele Mataliki* Hilinga kelekele
Palolo muli Hilinga meaa Tolu Hilinga maa
Mulifa Aoao Palolo mua Aoao
Lotumanga Fuufuunekinganga Palolu muli Fuufuu
Taumafa mua Uluenga Munifa Uluenga
Toe Taumafa Tanumanga Tauafu Tanumanga
Utuva mua Ooa-kifangaongo Vaimua Liha mua
Toe Utuva Liha mua Vai muli Liha muli
Faaafu Liha muli Lisa mua Vai mua
Fanonga (Lo) Vai mua Lisa muli Vai muli
Aununu Vai muli Fakaafu ola Vai mo vai
Oloamanu Fakaafu moui Fakaafu mate Fakaafu olu
Fakaafu mate Ualoa Fakaafu mate
page 169

Material Culture


Fishing methods and equipment have a great similarity throughout the whole Polynesian area. In fishing and techniques of manufacturing fishing equipment, the Tokelau and Vaitupu cultures are almost identical. The fishing culture of these atolls is also closely parallel to the Samoan, but has Ruvettus and shark fishing with wooden hooks, a widely distributed eastern Polynesian method, completely absent in Samoa. Although Gudger (10) describes Ruvettus hooks from Tonga, doubt still exists as to their origin; Ruvettus fishing has never been described at Tonga.

The Tokelau bonito hook is the western Polynesian type, but, like the Vaitupu hook, varies from the Samoan hook in having three perforations in the base instead of two.


The Tokelau fishing canoe is fundamentally the five-piece canoe found in both eastern and western Polynesia. The lack of large timber on the islands has forced the canoe-makers to build the hull in many pieces, but the style is that of the round-bottom dugout. The sides are built up with small pieces called tafai instead of a single plank strake, widely known in Polynesia as oa. The terminology suggests that the many-pieced sides are not technically strakes. Complete direct lashing to secure parts of the hull is a detail of the eastern Polynesian type of construction. The sharp cutwater and flat bow and stern covers, ornamented with a row of small pyramids and shells, are similar to those of the Samoan plank canoe.

The outrigger float is a general eastern and western Polynesian type, but the indirect attachment of a straight boom by four connecting pegs set in V-form are taken from the Samoan fishing canoe. The socket rest for the bonito fishing rod is a feature of western Polynesian canoes, but the rectangular shape of the Tokelau socket is purely local.

The Vaitupu canoe shows the greatest number of similarities with the Tokelau type. It is a five-piece canoe having pyramid-ornamented bow and stern covers, direct lashings, straight cutwater, “fishtail” stern, and round-bottom hull, often built up of irregular sections of tree trunk. This canoe and the Nanumea type, also in the Ellice Islands, have one important difference—the outrigger attachment—which Kennedy (13) states is a late development. Elsewhere in Polynesia the direct attachment has been assumed to be early Polynesian, surviving in some islands, particularly Hawaii.

The Tokelau canoe and two Ellice Islands canoes are survivals, with modifications, of the type which Hiroa (28) designates as the early type in western page 170 Polynesia. Its Samoan affinities have been adopted from the plank canoe which was developed in later times by the Samoans and Tongans.

The triangular sail resting with its apex before the mast in both the single and double canoes is common to sailing canoes throughout western Polynesia.

The odd feature of reversing one hull of the double canoe is found elsewhere only in Manihiki canoes. The double canoe made of two undecked hulls of fishing canoes attached by cross booms is a type commonly found in eastern Polynesia (56). It is this type, which was both sailed and paddled, that Europeans have actually seen in the Tokelau Islands. The limited timber supply suggests that the larger, decked, double canoe with stepped mast was a rare type. Except for the reversal of one hull, the Tokelau double canoe conforms to a Samoan pattern. The indirect lashing of the seams is a western Polynesian technique. It is more than likely that these larger canoes were brought from Samoa by Samoan settlers in Tokelau and that the reversed windward hull was not characteristic of them.


The rectangular house form is widespread in Polynesia. Linton (56) has shown that it belongs to eastern Polynesia and particularly to the peripheral region, but Hiroa (28) has demonstrated that it is still preserved in the center framework of the poorer type of Samoan long house. The presence of the rectangular house in the Ellice and Tokelau Islands establishes it as definitely in the west, although not necessarily part of the distinct western Polynesian culture.

The Tokelau dwelling has its closest counterpart in the Manihiki type (30). The Tokelau house had no definite entrance and according to Bird's description (2), was entered on hands and knees. The Manihiki house had an entrance at one end. The ends of both houses were slightly inclined but the methods of producing the effect were not the same.

The house platforms of low coral mounds for drainage obviously can not be compared to the terraced platforms of eastern Polynesian houses, but the difference is due to environment. The porous coral foundations of atolls draw off rainwater as quickly as it falls, making the high platforms of volcanic islands unnecessary. In form the Tokelau platforms are roughly rectangular. The differentiation which Linton (56) makes between rectangular and oval platforms seems a bit illogical, for the shape of the platform usually follows the shape of the house.

No material boundary or permanent beds were made in the Tokelau houses, although the men and women had their own parts of the home for sleeping. Shelves and upper stories were built in both the Tokelau and Manihiki houses. This feature may be an introduced trait from Micronesia, for in the Gilbert Islands an upper story, reached by a ladder leading to a small opening, is a customary feature of the dwelling houses.

page 171

In furnishings, the stuffed mat or soft pillow, also made at Nauru (47) and Funafuti (12), is an eastern culture trait heretofore not associated with western Polynesia. It is certainly foreign to the household furnishings of Samoa and Tonga. Linton (56) gives the distribution of this article as New Zealand, Marquesas, and Hawaii, the main islands of peripheral Polynesia.

God House

The god house, as illustrated by Wilkes (pl. 6, B), is non-Polynesian in many features. The railing, the tying of the thatch in bunches at the eaves, and the peculiar curvature of the roof “like a Chinese pagoda” suggest Micronesian rather than Polynesian affinities.


The men wore a plaited malo or breechcloth, customary in the eastern Polynesian islands, but did not wear the bast shirt or titi, the ancient daily apparel of men in Samoa and the Ellice Islands. On festive occasions, Tokelau men wore a fringed mat kilt with braided belt of human hair, a dress also worn in Samoa and Tonga.

The exclusive use of the titi by the women is an eastern Polynesian trait. The prodigious thickness of the women's titi, described by Wilkes (34) as a great bundle of straw, was also characteristic of the Tongarevan titi, described by the first European resident on the island as “a mass of hay”.

Ornaments And Tattooing

Wilkes (34) alone has reported the men's custom of wearing a band of false hair across the forehead. According to Stair (27) “frontlets of human hair plaited to a kind of network” were worn by Samoan men at dances or in war. This ornament must have differed greatly from the wig worn by Fijian warriors. A kind of wig was also worn in the Society Islands, but had braids of hair attached to a piece of tapa (56). In Micronesia, false hair was worn at Truk (55) and wigs were traded in the Gilberts (34).

The peculiar practice of the Tokelau natives of perforating and then dilating the lobes of their ears, by inserting larger and larger pieces of wood, is not so typical of Polynesia as of Micronesia. Bone or turtle-shell rings, slipped over the loop of the distended ear lobe, are worn at Nukufetau, Nauru (47), the Marshall Islands (44), and some of the Caroline Islands (42).

The pearl-shell lei, a strip of shell shaped either like the shank of a bonito hook or like a fish with incised eyes and fins, is an ornament found at Tikopia, Tonga (58), and in Micronesia.

The description of Tokelau tattooing probably does not include all the designs formerly employed, for the sudden decrease of the population due to slave raids, followed by a missionary ban on the practice of tattooing, took page 172 away most of the evidence. From what knowledge remains it is readily apparent, however, that the style had no connection with Samoan tattooing. Although the exact appearance of the fish design is not given, it suggests an affinity with the Micronesian and the semi-Polynesian islands along the east coast of the Solomons. The anthropomorphic figures are a local development as far as can be ascertained. The line tattooed on the cheeks of the men is like the tattooing still practiced upon the women of Anuta Island; the pattern varies but the position of the marking is identical. Tattooing of the lips of the women also occurs in the Marquesas and New Zealand, but the Marquesan pattern is a series of vertical lines. Also like the Tokelau women, the women of Tahiti had a girdle tattooed around the waist (56).


The limitations of atoll environment and the original absence of agriculture and swine make it impossible to compare fairly food and food preparations with those on volcanic islands. The Tokelau islanders used the fire plow, wooden bowls without legs (kumete), fire tongs, coconut graters, water bottles, and the ground oven—all familiar equipment throughout Polynesia. The water bottle net was made by the same technique used at the island of Nukuoro (42) in Micronesia. It is not described by Hiroa (28) for Samoa. The Tokelau Islands coconut grater was four-legged like the eastern Polynesian type.

Sacred Food

The whale was sacred to Tangaloa in Tahiti (53), but was not sacred in Samoa. The Tokelau custom of fighting between the people who discovered the whale and the villagers suggests a mock combat between a foreign group landing on the island and the autochthons. A people worshipping the whale, or holding it sacred to their group in some semi-totemic way, may have once had their arrival at the Tokelau Islands contested, an event which is still celebrated when a whale drifts upon the reef.


It is impossible to draw any conclusions upon the Tokelau adzes from the two specimens collected, both made of material not indigenous to the island. The basalt adz is of a type not uncommon to Samoa (28). Basalt tools were undoubtedly much sought after by Tokelau men who traveled the sea, and voyagers to Samoa probably returned with a fair supply.

The appearance of a tanged quadrilateral adz, however, is remarkable in face of the distribution of this type in Polynesia. Both Linton (56) and Hiroa (28) have noted that the tanged adz is found in the central and marginal cultures of eastern Polynesia, and Hiroa has commented on Linton's page 173 statement that such adzes are rare in Samoa as incorrect, adding that tangs in Samoan adzes are due to accident and not intentional technique. Since publishing his work on Samoa, Hiroa (30) has found quadrilateral adzes at Rakahanga and Nassau Islands on the border line between eastern and western Polynesia. Burrows (38) has found in Uvea two tanged adzes, one of which has two lugs, closely resembling the Rakahanga and Nassau adzes. With the Tokelau adz, these establish a western distribution for the type, but as the specimens are few and the adzes of Tokelau, Rakahanga, and Nassau—all coral atolls—were introduced from volcanic islands, the more logical explanation is that all four of these adzes were brought from the east.

Wooden Fishing Buckets

Hiroa (30) has noted that a tuluma or wooden fishing bucket, brought to Manihiki from the Tokelau Islands, had ten short legs, an interesting observation, for legged tuluma are not at present made in Tokelau and there is no information that they ever were. The tuluma at Manihiki is not unique, for the Funafuti tuluma (12) also had short legs. Otherwise the Funafuti tuluma are identical with those of the Tokelau.

The tuluma of Sikaiana are small cylindrical boxes with four legs and either tight-fitting wooden covers or coconut shell caps. These differ from the Tokelau boxes in being much higher in proportion to their width and circular instead of elliptical in cross section. The Sikaiana boxes are approximately 8 inches high. The same type of tuluma is also made at Liuaniua (61). Boxes with tight covers but without legs or handles are made at Rongelap in the Carolines, Nukuoro, Nukumanu, and Tauu.

Linton (56) shows that the distribution of these boxes, with tight-fitting covers and the same rim and flange, includes the Marquesas, Hawaii, Society Islands, and New Zealand in eastern Polynesia; he adds Samoa, a statement which Hiroa has since disproved. Round, covered boxes appear in Hawaii, but the boxes of the Marquesas and New Zealand are oval like the kumete and sometimes in the Marquesas made in bird form with a tail at one end of the cover, overlapping the rim. Linton believes that these covered boxes originated in eastern Polynesia, but the Micronesian distribution shows that it was a trait probably introduced into eastern Polynesia.

* The first month of the Hawaiian calendar.