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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Legendary Period

page 16

Legendary Period

The legendary accounts of the origin of the Tokelau Islands and people are of two distinct types—the evolutionary tracing of man from gods evolved from distant and abstract elements, and the western Polynesian belief in the creation of man by a preexisting god. Unrelated to these tales of the creation of man are the Maui and Lu tales describing the origin of the islands and the bringing of fire to man. These myths, derived from other islands, particularly from Samoa and Tonga, have been garbled into new stories in Tokelau. The analysis of these stories reveals much concerning the origins of Tokelau culture.

Tokelau myths recording the creation of the islands and belonging to the Maui cycle have been related by Burrows (5), Smith (26), Turner (32), and Lister (14). Burrows gives the following account of the origin of the islands, probably a local adaptation of the story of the fishing up of Tonga, known by the first settlers on Fakaofu.

There were three brothers who lived in Tonga and whose names were Mauimua, Mauiloto, and Mauimuli (Maui the First, Maui the Middle, and Maui the Last). One day the three brothers went out fishing in their canoe far from land. Presently Mauimua's hook got caught in the roots of a coconut tree on the bottom, so he hauled up a portion of the bottom to clear his hook. Thus an island was formed which so surprised the brothers that they called it Fakaofo. (Faka = in the nature of, ofo = surprise).

They then moved farther on and continued fishing, when Mauiloto's hook got caught in the bottom, this time in the roots of a nono tree. He hauled up, and thus another island was formed. This they called Nukunono. (Nuku = island, nono = the name of a tree. Nukunono is said to have many trees about the village.)

Again they moved on, and on this occasion Mauimuli's hook got foul of the roots of a kanava tree. By hauling up, the island of Atafu was formed. (Atafu has more valuable kanava trees than the other islands.) The origin and meaning of the name Atafu are not known.

Olosenga is not mentioned in the myth, suggesting that the Fakaofu people did not regard this island and its former inhabitants as belonging to the Tokelau group.

Since myths concerning Maui and Tikitiki exist side by side in Tokelau, it is possible that their identity was never appreciated by the inhabitants of Tokelau, and that their stories were derived from different sources. In Smith's (26) account of the formation of the islands, Tikitiki drew the islands out of the sea. In Lister's (17) account, Lu, the son of Tikitiki and Talanga, pulled up Nukunono, Atafu, and Samoa; the origin of Fakaofu is not accounted for. There the belief was that the sea and sky were always in existence and human creation took place from the stones of the ground; no further details are given. The association of Lu with Maui is probably page 17 derived from the Cook Islands though his specific relationship as son is probably a local twist. Lu drew the trees and plants out of the ground and later, with the aid of the winds, pushed the sky to its present height. The following story, similar to central Polynesian tales, is told by Burrows (5):

When the world was first created, the sky was very close to the earth; in fact, there was only about one yard of space between the two. At this time there was a man named Iikiiki and his wife Talanga who lived on the earth, and they had a son named Lu. Now Lu was a small boy and, as he lay on his back, could rest his feet against the sky. Lying thus one day, he began to sing:

Sapaipai2 ie, sapaipai ie
Te langi o te Atua,
E Lu tekena3, e Lu tekena.

Lift, lift
The sky of god,
By Lu's pushing, by Lu's pushing.

As Lu sang “E Lu tekena” he straightened out his legs and pushed the sky up a little. Then he stood up and, still singing his song, pushed the sky with his hands. Then he used a tree, and finally he climbed up one tree and used another to push with.

When he could reach no higher he changed his song and called the winds to his assistance. All the twelve winds obeyed his calling and came to his assistance, and by their united efforts of blowing from all directions, blew the sky up to its present position!

In another Tokelau myth (5) Lu introduced the knowledge of fire into the world. He attempted to steal a burning log against which a devil, Mafuike, was leaning; but Mafuike caught Lu before he could run away. They wrestled for some time, but Lu allowed the old man to tire himself out, then seized him, and made Mafuike promise to give him the secret of fire. In this way Lu learned the secret of making fire by rubbing two sticks together and taught the people of the world.

Turner (32) gives a different account, probably derived from Samoa, of how this knowledge was obtained from Mafuike. In his story, a man named Talanga went down into the nether world and obtained fire from Mafuike, an old blind woman.

Much confusion of details exists in the tales of the beginning of man on Fakaofu. Perhaps the most common versions are those in which man springs from a maggot. This form of origin myth is probably derived from Samoa and appears in several different legends in Fakaofu. A dead ulua drifted ashore at Fakaofu and rotted on the beach. In time, maggots grew within it. A talanga bird flew down from the sky and pecked a maggot open. Rain fell upon the fish and from the maggot a man came to life. This man was Leua te Ilo or Te Ilo (The Maggot), who is the forefather of the Fakaofu people.

In a different version, rain fell heavily on Fakaofu and with it came thunder and lightning. The thunder crashed against a great stone and split page 18 it apart. A maggot (ilo) crept from the split stone, and the snipe (tuli) flew down and pecked the maggot open. Then rain fell and man grew from the maggot.

Burrows (5, p. 152) gives the name of the first man as Te Ilo, and his two sons as Kava and Singano, from whom the people of Fakaofu are descended. Another account gives Kava as the first man to be created and Senga, the first woman. Lister (14) cites a tale in which Kava and Singano are the first men, created directly from stones. Turner (32) states that Kava Vasefanua, the first historical chief of the island, was born from Fatu (stone).

A distinctly different form of story (26) was told by a Rarotongan teacher who visited Fakaofu with a missionary ship in 1858. The first man was born of Maui and Talanga who formed the island. His name was Kava and one of his descendants was Hi-ingano (Singano). Lister (14) gives the reverse of this account in which Maui and Talanga are descended from Kava and Singano, the first men.

Still other legends attribute the beginning of the Fakaofu people to settlers from other islands. Newell (19, p. 604) mentions two such traditions. In one, the first men were Kava and Pi'o who came from Samoa. In the other, the first settlers were Kulu and Ona, a man and a woman from Samoa.

The fullest account of a historical settlement is given by Burrows (5) who learned it from an old man of Fakaofu, who was a full grown boy when the missionaries arrived in 1861 and when the slavers raided the island.

A canoe containing three men and three women sailing from Rarotonga was driven to the westward. They eventually landed on a reef which had a sand bank on it but no trees. This was Fakaofu, and here one man and his wife elected to stay, the others setting sail again and eventually reaching their homes. Some coconuts which were in the canoe were landed with the man and his wife, and some of these they planted.

By-and-by the woman died without children, so the man built himself a canoe and sailed to Nukunonu where he obtained another wife. The family of these two were the ancestors of the present inhabitants of Fakaofu.

This last tale gives evidence that Nukunono was inhabited at the time of the settlement of Fakaofu, for the Rarotongan went there to obtain his second wife. If Fakaofu was a barren sand bank without coconut trees as suggested in the tale, it explains why the earlier people never occupied it, although they visited its fishing banks.

The legendary and mythical evidence accounting for the beginning of Fakaofu people have one element in common, the name Kava, sometimes paired with Singano, as the first man of Fakaofu. It is characteristic of Polynesian stories of settlement and voyaging to give only the name of the chief or chiefs of the party. Kava and Singano were probably the leaders of the group of people who either migrated or drifted to Fakaofu. All historical chiefs of the island took the name of Kava as an official title.

page 19

2 Lister gives this as “Apei pei”, which is incorrect. Burrows states that he can not trace the word sapaipai in the dictionary. It is derived from the word hapai, “to lift” and is also a Hawaiian word meaning “to lift and carry”.

3 Lister writes “elu te kena” (until you reach god). Burrows has transcribed this in the correct form.