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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands


Each island had a chief and council which governed its society. While Nukunono and Atafu were subject to Fakaofu, the chief of Fakaofu was the supreme authority of all the islands. He was looked upon as king by the first missionaries and referred to by this title in their writings. All chiefs and council members were elders of their community, for advanced age was a requirement, if not the primary qualification, to hold office. The social principle that age and long experience were essential to gaining wisdom and sound judgment pervaded the whole social order. Even the heads of the kindreds were selected on this basis in preference to following the eldest line of patrilineal descent if this would bring a younger man into office. Even among the elders there was gradation of position according to age, which is illustrated in the order of seating at feasts. The high chief sat in the position of first rank, and the eldest men (kailau) sat beside him. Their juniors (kaikava) and the older men of the community sat next to them. The men of the kailau and kaikava were appointed by the high chief. It was tapu for others to sit among them or even for a kaikava to sit among his seniors; such a breach of etiquette or infraction of law would bring death by sickness upon the offender.

The importance of age is perhaps nowhere else in Polynesia so highly developed. Certainly the existence of only one or two hereditary offices is unusual. Nineteenth century visitors to Fakaofu were particularly impressed with the stress laid on age; they felt that age alone was the basis of election to council and high chieftainship. From the evidence Williamson (36) even suggests that the government of Fakaofu was once “purely gerontocratic”, page 50 and that a single chieftainship developed later, after which there was an extension of the complimentary title of chief to other members of the actual chief's family. This is pure speculation, and ignores the evidence of Newell (19), on which Williamson chiefly relies, that the chieftainship at one period passed directly from father to son.