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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



A child stayed with his mother, or with a wet-nurse living outside the home, until he was weaned—a period which often lasted two years. Adoption was common, and a child frequently left home when he was one or two years old. No strong feeling of solidarity existed within the family proper and children were freely exchanged. Collateral relatives of the parents who were childless often brought up a child. When a child was old enough to assist in the work of the household and had several young brothers and sisters, he was sent to help his grandparents, if they were not living in the home of his parents, or to an aunt or uncle who needed extra help. Children frequently left home of their own accord. In the simple village life, where the children roamed in and out of every house, the separation from parents was not absolute. A child always knew who his true parents were and understood his relationship to his foster parents.

An eldest girl grew up in the house of her mother and remained there. The eldest son usually was taken before he was weaned and was nursed by his adoptive mother, the father's eldest sister, or another aunt in her house, who took especial care of him as the heir in her kindred by direct lineal descent in the male line. She was his matua sa (sacred mother) and he was her tama sa (sacred child). His cousins, the true children of his adoptive mother or aunt, who were living in the household, became his brothers and sisters. The close relationship of these cousins is shown in the extension to them of the same kinship terms used for actual brothers and sisters.

While the children were young they were unclothed and intermingled without regard to sex or relationship, but as soon as brothers and sisters approached puberty they observed strict rules of avoidance, carried on throughout life between all relatives of the same generation who were termed brother or sister by one of the opposite sex. This usually included all cousins to the fourth degree. All communication between a brother and sister was passed through the intermediary of their mother. A boy must not utter any indecent or obscene language before his sister or conduct himself incorrectly; he must not sit on a mat with her or enter a house where she was. A sister left the presence of a brother unless he was much younger. This avoidance was more rigorous between true brothers and sisters and first cousins than between more distant relatives, but the freedom that existed between unrelated girls and boys was never permitted.

As soon as a child could run about he played outdoors in the village or on the beach under the guardianship of an older brother or sister. His play page 39 was much of his education, for in it he imitated the practices of older people, and learned much of reef fishing, plaiting, and the preparing and cooking of food. As soon as he was old enough he was put to work by his elders.