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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The physiological processes of conception and the part of fatherhood in the production of children were fully appreciated here as elsewhere in Polynesia. The offspring was known to be descended from both the father's and the mother's lines.

The time of birth was calculated from the cessation of menstruation, which was recognized as the symptom of pregnancy. In former times delivery was expected after nine moons had passed. The projection of the umbilicus from the distended abdomen of the woman was considered also as a sign of the month of the delivery. At the end of her pregnancy the woman was massaged every day and taken on walks which were thought to bring on an easy delivery. No food tapus were placed upon her. The only restriction was that she must always be accompanied by other people when she entered the plantations and gardens beyond the village or traveled to other islets. At night a man always accompanied her to protect her from the attacks of spirits.

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Birth took place in the home of the mother's parents. At the commencement of labor pains, the husband sent for the midwife (sisiki), and the husband and two or three women of the wife's family aided at the delivery. The woman was screened by mats at one end of the house. Relatives gathered in the outer chamber but were not allowed to witness the operations.

A young boy or girl was sent to watch the tide, for it was thought very propitious for the ease of the mother that her delivery take place at flood tide. As the full tide turned and ebbed it was believed a magical influence of like producing like would aid the woman in labor. The tide was watched particularly if the labor pains were protracted and delivery delayed. Messengers were constantly sent for reports on the sea, and as full tide was reached the woman was fed the very soft pith from the top of a coconut tree, which acted as a stimulant. As soon as the child was born and had begun to cry, the women relatives set up a shout of “Tulou! Tulou!” to hide the cries of the baby from any evil spirit hovering to steal the soul of the child.

Either of two positions was taken by the woman during the accouchement. She lay on her back with her husband sitting behind her head or reclined in his lap while he held her under her arms. This second position, however, was not commonly practiced. Lying on the floor the woman put her arms behind her and clasped her husband around his neck to brace herself during the delivery. The midwife sat opposite the husband and received the child on a soft mat. If the delivery was delayed, the midwife massaged the woman's abdomen, and expertly inserted her hand to turn the child.

A bed of soft puka leaves was placed under the woman's thighs before delivery, and after the birth a pad of these leaves was placed against her vagina and held firmly in place by a plaited bandage (noafaele laupuka) attached to a belt. It was also customary to wrap a band (noa faele) of soft matting made of pandanus (laukie) 4 or 5 inches wide around the woman's abdomen as a support and to help her regain her natural figure. This band is unfortunately no longer worn by the Tokelau women.

As soon as the child lay fully on the mat, the midwife inspected it. She sucked the mucous from its mouth and nose, and if it was pale and lifeless she blew into its mouth. If any blood was pulsating from the mother, she pressed it into the child by working on the umbilical cord (pito) with two fingers, for the blood was considered the life of the child and would cause it to cry. Then the cord was immediately tied with a thread of hibiscus bark (fau) and cut with a pearl shell knife (tifa). If it continued to bleed unnaturally the end was stopped with a fine white powder scraped from a fresh coconut stipule (kaka).

The child was bathed with warm water and wrapped in soft puka leaves. On the first day it was fed the juice of very young coconuts and the milk or cream squeezed from grated coconuts. For the first-born this feeding page 37 was continued for five days before the child was given the breast. During these five days the mother was fed only coconut juice and a little food.

After birth the severed cord and placenta were buried beneath a stone, and a coconut was planted over them. The tree growing from the nut became the property of the child. A mutual sympathy existed between child and tree. As the tree grew, so the child grew—straight and strong, or bowed and weak. When the two reached maturity the tree bore fruit for its owner.

When the child was one day old, magical influence was practiced to bring him success in the most important part of his life's work. A male child was given pieces of raw bonito to suck so that he might become a skilled fishing captain. A baby girl was given the tips of a squid's tentacles to play with and suck, so that she might become a clever fisherwoman on the reefs.

The mother of a first-born child remained in the house for five days and then went to the beach to bathe herself, after which she was massaged and rubbed with coconut oil. Then she dressed in her finest mats, a necklace, and head wreath of flowers, and paraded through the village and into the meeting house (falefono). She was accompanied by a young woman of the family and followed by several male relatives, who were armed with spears. The rest of the village gathered in the meeting house or along the way and joined in singing while admiring her beauty, considered in its prime at this time. After the display she returned to her house where she suckled her baby for the first time. According to Burrows (5) this public appearance of the mother after the birth of the first child took place ten days after delivery. If a woman moved to another island of the group and had a child there, the same ceremony was performed whether it was her first child or not.

As soon as a birth had taken place, relatives who were waiting in the home began preparations for a birth feast (katamunga). Mats, which had been plaited after the announcement of conception, were brought as gifts (sanga o te alopo'u). The small epe epe mats were plaited of fala pandanus; the kiekie mats were plaited of kie pandanus.

Little importance was attached to the naming of children. The name was chosen by the parents either before or after the birth.

No true religious rites were performed for the benefit of new-born babies or the protection of the mothers. If the parents of a child were especially delighted and wished to demonstrate their appreciation to the gods, they made a special offering for the child to the supreme deity, Tui Tokelau, at the annual ceremony following the birth of the child.

It was believed that twins were the result of overwork during pregnancy. Twins had but one “soul” or spirit between them, and if one should die the other would probably follow. (Improper feeding is the chief cause of infant mortality and, as twins receive identical treatment, both are likely to die if improperly treated.) It was recognized that twins are likely to appear in page 38 the same families in successive generations. Boy and girl twins are called masanga alei; twins of the same sex, masanga.