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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Courtship and marriage

Courtship and marriage

The tapu placed on men and women of blood relationship was the only restriction on unmarried people in sexual matters. Both boys and girls entered upon a series of love affairs and experiences, which received the tacit consent of their parents as long as they did not become scandalous.

Marriage took place when the children were 16 or 18 years old and was usually the result of parental planning. The family council, which decided the matter of a boy's marriage, was composed chiefly of members of the paternal side of the family from whom the boy would receive the greater part of his inheritance.

In making formal suit, the boy called upon the parents of the girl and presented them with a gift of food (kainiu) which they accepted. After the formal and evasive remarks which always preface the conversation of Polynesians soliciting for one another, the boy made the most indirect and brief allusion to the object of his visit and departed. The girl's family made inquiries about the boy's character and ability to fish and work. The immediate kin of the girl met to discuss the proposed alliance and then informed the boy of their decision. He carried the news to his own family.

Frequently a match was initiated by the boy's father in order to unite two prominent families or to secure a girl of wealth and prestige. The girl's father usually desired an industrious youth, able to work the land and heir to large holdings in his own line. The preliminary arrangements were made by the fathers of the couple.

When the boy decided the question of marriage himself he usually sent an intermediary, some boy friend, who carried to the young girl a flower or a head wreath made by the suitor and announced to her who had sent it. The girl showed her interest by accepting the gift, and if she was willing to marry the young man she wore it in public where he would be sure to see her. If there had been much intimacy between the two, the boy might make his proposal directly at some secret meeting on the beach or in the plantations beyond the village.

If love matches were disapproved by the parents as being socially unsuitable, the couple took a canoe and paddled across the lagoon, living perhaps in some little hut used by food gatherers. In a few days they returned and the families reluctantly submitted to the inevitable and allowed the two to set up their own household in the village or to reside with the girl's parents as a married couple of the community.

The relatives on both sides helped in preparing for the marriage. The boy's eldest paternal aunt (matua sa), as female head of the father's line, decided how many mats were to be made as gifts to the couple, and divided the work among the women of her kindred. She also took charge of the preparation of the food for the wedding. Her daughters, the boy's female page 41 cousins (ilamutu) also prepared mats for him. The boy's maternal relatives prepared mats as gifts for the wedding, but the marriage was less important to them.

The girl's mother and her eldest maternal aunt, who controlled the female side of the mother's kindred, took charge of the girl's affairs. The mother's eldest brother had more authority at this time and more interest than the father, gathering the food for the wedding feast and directing the work of the kindred. The wedding feast consisted of a few large fish, perhaps a turtle, a pile of coconuts, and dishes of cooked coconut meat and pandanus fruit, for the island produced no garden fruits or fowls.

A group of the villagers marched among the houses singing and shouting the formal announcement to all the community: “Kaitaoso, Kaitaoso, Kaikati, te mafua, ngutu” (Jump like a fish, jump like a fish, eat by biting the small fish bait in your mouth). This was sung to the bridegroom who secured his bride (literally, the bait) in the wedding. The wedding ceremony consisted only of the presentation of gifts and feasting. All relatives of the couple came to the wedding feast (kainganiunga) bearing the gift mats which they placed before the bride and groom. The bride received the mats of the groom's family, divided them, and presented them to the members of her family who had brought mats. The groom took the mats of the bride's family and distributed them among his relatives. All who aided in preparing for the wedding or contributed to the family display of wealth by the presentation of mats were repaid from gifts brought by relatives of the son-in-law or daughter-in-law. The couple received little of the wealth which passed through their hands. When the distribution was completed, the couple sat together for most of the day, eating with the guests who had come to pay their respects. No symbolic joining of the two, other than their remaining together on a mat throughout the day, signified their marriage. The groom remained at his wife's house and was allowed to sleep with her on the first night. The consummation was called moemuli. Virginity was not held at great premium, and no tests or formal proof were made to the family of the groom.

Because of fear of incest all cousins within four degrees of kinship on either side of the family were barred from marriage. However, many marriages between third and fourth cousins are found in the genealogy of the first settler of Atafu, and it is probable that on atolls where the populations were never large the extreme limits of the tapu have been disregarded through necessity.

Polygyny (taunonofo) was practiced, but cases of it are few in the records of early observers on the islands. Pio, one of the first men from Fakaofu to settle on Atafu, had two wives and two separate establishments. The children of his two wives are reckoned separately in the genealogies of page 42 his line. The difficulty of supplying food for two households was the chief restraint in the practice of taking more than one wife.

Men had recognized mistresses whom they visited in the women's houses and who were called wives (avanga) of the man but were free to marry other men in the village. Women who easily granted their favors to men of the village were called fafine taka, and a man who was known to cohabit regularly with one woman was termed moe fale pa. (This latter term suggests that the woman went to the men's house (fale pa) to sleep (moe) with her lover.) This license doubtlessly existed mainly among the unmarried group, for adultery was regarded as one of the most serious crimes against society. If a woman was found to be unfaithful to her husband, she suffered siki te fua (lifting the jealousy or avenging the husband). The family of the husband destroyed the woman's house, canoe, and property which was owned by her close blood relations, who dared not resist. The public shame and guilt were shared by all members of the family as well as by the iniquitous woman. This act freed the husband from any ties to his wife or obligations to her family. A mutual agreement of separation was common between husbands and wives who found life together unpleasant or incompatible. This constituted divorce if the separation continued over a long period of time.

No modern substitute has been found for the punishment of adultery and the separation of incompatibles. Without the fear of the old law, abolished by government and church, much promiscuity exists.