Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The study of the Tokelau culture shows that in its linguistic, social, religious, mythological, and material phases, many features are common to cultures of eastern Polynesia, but have no further distribution in western Polynesia, except in the neighboring Ellice Islands. Of the material traits in particular, many with eastern affinities are found in western Polynesia in page 174 contradiction to the theoretical western material culture complexes put forward by previous writers.

Hiroa (28), who has made the latest grouping of Polynesian material culture traits, has shown that a fundamental culture is common to both eastern and western islands. With this fundamental culture, Tokelau shares the five-piece dugout canoe, which, however, possesses a breakwater on the bow cover, has its seams closed by complete direct lashing, and its hull made of three sections—three details which Hiroa (28) designates as eastern Polynesian. The manufacture of the hull in sections has been pointed out as due to local wood supply. The other features, like many traits of the fundamental culture in Samoa, may have been lost with the advent of the later and extremely dominant culture. The Tokelau rectangular house belongs also to the fundamental culture but, like the Manihiki and Ellice Islands houses, lacks walls. The roof is constructed both with and without the ridgepole resting on end posts, but always with the purlins resting on the principal rafters in the eastern manner. The Tokelau culture also has similar fishing methods, bonito fishing by trolling with a hook with pearl-shell shank, the shark noose, and the bow and arrow (although this trait carries the name tika, possibly to be identified with the Tahitian te'a).

The other so-called eastern Polynesian traits found in the Tokelau culture appear at first hand to extend the known traits of this fundamental complex in the west, but manuscript material in Bishop Museum on Tonga, Uvea, and Rotuma Islands, as well as published works on Samoa and Futuna definitely show that practically all these “eastern” traits are limited in their western diffusion to the Tokelau and Ellice Islands.

Into the fundamental culture in the east, there came a complex of traits from the west, which swept north of the main islands of the western area without affecting them. In his theory of Polynesian migrations, Dixon (41) has shown one group, possessing stone construction, which passed through the Ellice and Tokelau Islands to eastern Polynesia. Linton (56) has supported this theory by evidence drawn from the Marquesas Islands culture. Hiroa (28) has noted such a possible diffusion in his conclusions on Polynesian material culture: “Certain culture traits, such as the marae type of religious stone structure, stone figures, stone food pounders, upright drums covered with skin at the upper end, and the nose flute passed into or developed in eastern Polynesia without affecting Samoa.” To this complex Linton adds the partially ground, tanged adz. From the distribution in the Tokelau and Ellice Islands, I would add the wooden box or bucket with tight-fitting cover and the stuffed mat pillow. The nose flute was not described to me by informants, but the wooden food pounder is found in the Ellice Islands culture.

In other phases, the Tokelau eastern complex shows a close affinity and characteristic general likeness with one cultural complex of the Society page 175 Islands, which Handy (48) calls “the early culture”. The wearing of the breechcloth by the men and the grass skirt by the women, and the tattooing of a girdle around the waists of the women are like Tokelau fashions. The use of the wooden Ruvettus hook is also like Tokelau usage, and indeed is found in the western area only in the Tokelau and Ellice Islands, with the dubious exception of Tonga. Dueling by champions before assembled warring armies, in which others took the places of fallen comrades, was practiced in both the early culture of the Society Islands and in the Tokelau Islands.

The early people of the Society Islands were organized in communal and democratic kindreds, which reckoned descent through both the patrilineal and matrilineal lines. Their kinship terminology contains metua as the term for mother and tupuna for ancestor. The political organization was headed by a chief who had both political and sacerdotal functions. Women were granted a high position in the Society Islands, and the term fatu (lord) appears in the Tokelau phrase, fatu paeape (head of the household).

The religion of the Society Islands culture included the deification of ancestors, the deity Fakafotu, seasonal ceremonies and accompanying periods of tapu of the land and activities, rites of tapu by priests such as the Tokelau master craftsmen observed, and sacred marae with upright monoliths and sacred areas for the deposition of refuse taken from holy places (53). The idea of a temple also belonged to eastern religions, but its greatest development took place in Hawaii. These general features were common to the early religion of all eastern Polynesia in contrast to the later religion associated with Tangaloa, which was particularly the religion of the western area.

Handy ascribes the Maui cycle of mythology to this same early culture, and, though the tales are common to the whole Polynesian area, some of the Tokelau tales incorporating the name Maui appear to have an eastern origin in contrast to other Tokelau Maui tales which name the hero Tikitiki in the western Polynesian manner.

The eastern Polynesian traits of the Tokelau culture, coupled with the evidence of an eastern Polynesian dialect in the islands and the historical tradition of two populations, lead to the conclusion that some of the people who settled in eastern Polynesia, particularly in the Society Islands, came to the Tokelau and Ellice Islands. These people must have been part of the first migration which came into Polynesia from Micronesia (41). After descending to the Tokelau and Ellice Islands, the migration moved directly eastward without influencing the major western Polynesian islands to the south. It is probable that some of these people reached Samoa but had little permanent effect, being absorbed by a later wave of people. Stair (27) remarks that stone slabs were erected to local gods in one Samoan village, and that Samoan page 176 orators formerly had four-legged seats, traits which Hiroa (28) excludes from the Samoan culture.

However, this early group of Polynesians could not have brought all the eastern traits appearing in the Tokelau culture. The fully ground, tanged adz of tufa must have come from the east into the Tokelau group, for it was developed in the eastern islands from the partially ground type (58). The other sporadic, ground, tanged adzes found in the western area are too few to have been indigenous there. The fusion of the Maui and Lu elements of mythology in Tokelau, demonstrated by Dixon (7) to have taken place in the central Polynesian area, can only be explained as diffusion from the Cook Islands. At the time of discovery the Fakaofu people knew of Pukapuka to the east but not the Ellice Islands to the west, and before much more European contact had taken place, a tale was given to a missionary that a man from Rakahanga had first settled Fakaofu (26). Such evidence proves irrefutably that there was contact with the neighboring eastern Polynesian islands. How much more of the eastern Polynesian culture in Tokelau is due to a rediffusion from this area it is impossible to determine. Perhaps the isolated marae to Fakafotu at Fakaofu was the shrine of a small group who came from the east.

That a great rediffusion or backwash of eastern traits could easily take place is obvious from the geographical position of the Tokelau Islands in the Polynesian culture area. Situated in the northwest corner, they are at the leeward end of the course of the trade winds which blow from the southeast during more than half the year. Fishing parties and even traveling groups, leaving their homes in the east, have been blown westward within recent times. Such drift voyages must have been at least as frequent in the pre-European era, when the Polynesians conducted many more voyages.

This same backwash from Polynesia westward to Melanesia has been described by Thilenius (66). Much of this traditionally came from Samoa, but the many eastern Polynesian traits of these islands, such as the food pounder and the fishing box with tight-fitting cover, suggest eastern and Tokelau origin. This backwash of eastern culture into the western area and beyond is extremely important in the discussion of Polynesian cultural diffusion, and must be borne in mind in seeking the origin of all easternlike traits in the western islands.

Western Polynesia is characterized by a distinct cultural complex. Historical and cultural evidence shows that a small band of people moved from this area (traditionally Samoa) into the Tokelau Islands. This second migration to these islands probably took place in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, about three hundred years after a similar movement to the Ellice and Gilbert Islands (46). These Samoans established themselves on Fakaofu and finally conquered the earlier peoples of Atafu and Nukunono. Perhaps they found early people at Fakaofu also whom they conquered and amalgamated into their page 177 own group. They introduced into the Tokelau culture the large, permanent, double canoe with its western type of sail, which was adapted for the fishing canoes, the flat bow and stern covers with the ornamental rows of pyramids, the deep vertical cutwater, a new boom attachment, a fishing culture which incorporated bonito fishing with the western type of hook and the fishing pole socket in the canoe, some plaiting techniques and the fringed plaited kilts worn with braided-hair belts, the nafa gong, the wooden, legged pillows, the simple birth and marriage rites, the ilamutu relationship, exogamic kindreds, most of the kinship terminology in use today, the title tui, zoolatry or pseudo-totemism, the calendar, the creation myths, and the Tangaloa and Sina tales. It is their dialect and culture which is the most pronounced in the islands today.

The first Polynesians in the Tokelau and Ellice Islands probably remained without much outside contact for many centuries, during which their simple culture developed and diverged from the cultural forms in the east. Later, blended with the Samoan culture, it became a distinct complex greatly differing from the other cultures of the geographical western area.

The close similarity between the Tokelau culture and Funafuti and Vaitupu culture is due to the settling by peoples of the same migration and to a probable early contact between the two groups and a continued drift in the trade winds from Tokelau to the west. Communication probably passed between the northern Cook Islands and Tokelau as well as an eastward drift contact. The peculiar reversal of the Tokelau double canoe is no doubt an idea taken directly from the Manihiki double canoes.

Some contact was made, through occasional movements of people, with the eastern Micronesian islands; this explains the Micronesian traits appearing in the Tokelau culture. But the definite answer to this must await further researches in Micronesia.

The analysis of the Tokelau culture can be summarized as follows:

1. A migration of people moving through Micronesia passed through the Tokelau Islands and into the eastern Polynesian area. These people left a small number of their group in the Tokelau Islands, where they were the first settlers and the bearers of the so-called eastern Polynesian culture traits now found in the Tokelau culture.

2. A movement of people from Samoa to the islands of the northwest, through which their ancestors had probably come to settle Samoa, reached Fakaofu, introducing Samoan culture and ultimately conquering the whole group.

3. During the whole period of settlement of the Tokelau Islands there was a small but constant drift of Polynesians, brought by the trade winds from the eastern area, who introduced locally developed, eastern cultural traits and reënforced the early culture.

page 178

4. There developed in the Tokelau Islands, and the Ellice Islands as well, a culture based on an early form of eastern culture, later influenced by Samoan or western Polynesian culture and perhaps slightly by Micronesian cultures, which took on a form unique in Polynesia, and which must be considered a sub-culture in the western area, and in the future distinguished from the phrase “western Polynesian culture”.

The culture of Olosenga has been excluded from these conclusions, for we have but one brief account (23) of the people and customs of this island in which are given the following five points peculiar to Olosenga in the Tokelau group: the cultivation of taro, the wearing of a dyed leaf cloak, the possession of dogs, the bearing of chiefs on litters, and the fair skin and hair of the natives. Except for the leaf cloak, the four culture traits are common to both eastern and western areas. The leaf cloak is characteristic of the east. It is possible that these traits, except agriculture, existed in the northern islands but were never reported by early observers. Absence of aboriginal taro pits in the three northern islands indicates that cultivation was limited to the more fertile Olosenga.

The great detail with which Quiros and his followers described the people at Olosenga and in some of the Santa Cruz Islands shows definitely that they found in these island populations a light-skinned element. Dixon (41) and Linton (56) have distinguished a Caucasoid element in the Polynesian race which Dixon notes is dominant in the Ellice Islands peoples. The Olosenga people undoubtedly belonged to this racial element which had not thoroughly intermixed with the other Polynesian elements. From the foregoing conclusions on the Tokelau culture, we can only believe that the Olosenga people were part of the first population in the islands and members of the racial and cultural group which moved into the eastern area by the northern route.