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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

The High Chief

The High Chief

The high chief of the Tokelau Islands was a patriarchal head. He had full authority over all the people and established their laws, which he enforced by his power to curse any one to death. He was also at one time priest to the supreme deity, Tui Tokelau, through whom he brought a plentiful supply of food, sufficient rain, and stormless weather to his people.

His title is not clear. At Atafu he was referred to as the tupu, a term for the highest rank a chief can attain in the Samoan islands of Upolu and Savai'i, and Vaitupu in the Ellice Islands (13). The term is translated in the Samoan Bible as “king”, but never used in literature for the chief of the islands. Newell states that the high chief alone bore the title, ariki. The natives of Atafu used the word aliki to Hale (11) in referring to their chief who resided at Fakaofu. I believe that aliki is the original title for the high chief and that tupu refers to his supreme rank and may have been recently adopted. Turner says that the high chief was called Tui Tokelau, a term also used by an Atafu informant in referring to the high chief in his capacity as high priest and as living representative of this god. Newell suggests that Tui Tokelau may have been the first great chief of Fakaofu, who later became deified, and his title given to his successors but its use was tapu. The high chief was sometimes called Kava, the name of the first historical high chief and also of one of the first settlers in Fakaofuan tradition from whom three of the four chiefly lines are descended. Avafatu (the opening of stone), still another title of the high chief, is probably a figurative term referring to the mythological creation of man from the splitting open of a stone.

The succession of the high chief theoretically passed from father to eldest son but in actual practice often varied from this rule, due to the precedence given to age. A younger brother of a deceased high chief was appointed in preference to the eldest son if he were not at least a middle-aged man. The appointment was decided by election in the village council. Four lines were eligible to succession to the chieftainship, according to the most detailed information given by Newell (19):

The ariki is always the oldest male member of the four principal families of Fakaofu, all of whom trace their descent from the two brothers above referred to—namely, Kava and Pi'o. [Kava and Pio came from Samoa and were the first discoverers and owners of the land of Fakaofu, according to one tradition.] Their genealogical tree is thus given:

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When the ariki dies the oldest man then living among these four families becomes ariki. No others possess this title, and there are no clan names or titles outside this circle. The Samoan custom of conferring the name of the head of the family upon the heir does not exist in the Tokelaus. No young man would under any circumstances become head of the clan so long as an older man was left to take the headship.

Turner (32) supports Newell's evidence by the statement: “There were three families from which the king was selected, and they always selected an aged man.”

Newell (19) assumes that, as in several other Polynesian islands, at one time the offices of chief and high priest were combined in one person whose power was later divided between two descendants of the same family:

Dr. Turner says that Tuitokelau was both king and priest. I was, however, informed that the king or ariki was not also vakatua or priest of the god. It seems probable that the two offices were originally combined in one person, but that afterwards as is now affirmed by the people of Fakaofo, the son of the ariki became king, but the son of his sister became priest.

[In a footnote Newell adds] As we have seen, this law of heredity with regard to the office of ariki does not now obtain on Fakaofo. I transcribe the exact words of the statement made to me about the offices of king and priest: “O tamafafine na fai ma vakatua; o tamatane na fai ma ariki”—Daughters became priestesses; sons became chiefs.

No evidence exists to indicate that women were ever priestesses. The translation of Newell's information should read, “The children of a sister became priests; the sons of the father became chiefs,” which was the correct order of succession. The use of the terms ariki and vaka atua by the natives does not show which one held higher rank.

From the change in mode of succession it seems probable that the offices of chief and high priest were divided. However, the dual division may have always existed until the appearance of Christian missionaries who stamped out the priesthood. When Newell came to Fakaofu, the office of high priest had already been abolished and he found only a secular high chief at the head of the native social order.

The high chief was a sacred person whose body could not be touched by others. He lived apart from the daily activities of the community attended by his family and household. He associated with the group of priests and the elder councillors, and attended only the most important of the village councils. The families of the village consecutively supplied him with food, which his own family prepared and served him on a coconut-leaf dish, plaited by a technique used only for this purpose. He had his own lands for additional food supply and a share of the best fish from every large catch. Turtles, which were sacred food, were presented to him, but only the head page 52 was taken as his rightful share. The high chief might demand anything he saw from the food supply or property of others. Visitors noted that the best shirts, knives, and ornaments, for which the natives had traded their manufactures on shipboard, shortly came into the possession of the high chief.

The insignia of office, worn whenever the high chief walked abroad or performed any religious rite, was a chaplet of coconut leaflets attached to a section of midrib in front, divided to pass about his neck, and knotted so that the tips projected upward behind his head. A coconut leaflet, as a protecting flag or charm, was held by an escort sitting before the high chief when he went out in his canoe to meet European ships (32).

When the high chief died, a fire was lit in his house and large fires were built around the village and even in the trees. These burned throughout the night, an exception to the tapu which forbade any lights after dark, for they were in honor of the priest of Tui Tokelau, the god of fire. The high chief's death was also marked by the planting of coconuts, prohibited at all other times.

The family of the high chief and the members of the council gathered in his home and wailed over the body for three days where they remained in seclusion during the entire period of mourning. Outside, the people formed a great circle to sing death songs and to dance the funeral dances which they performed in a sitting position. Every person brought a mat or pearl shell pendant (lei) as a gift offering. If the fishing had been exceptionally good during the reign of the high chief, the fishing captains bestowed great numbers of these lei or bonito-hook shanks upon him for his good offices. The lei were made into a necklace and hung about the high chief's neck. Mats also were placed with the body and buried with him.

Before the body was interred, it was well rubbed with coconut oil and dressed in the finest of the family mats. In a peculiar ceremony (fakanofoanga) the body was paraded around the interior of the house by two priests, each holding an arm of the high chief across his shoulders with one hand, and moving a leg with the other hand. The other persons in the house sat in the center of the floor and sang. The body was then temporarily interred in the burying ground of the high chiefs, beside the council house, Tolunga Fale. It was removed after a few days, rubbed again with oil, and redressed in fresh mats. It was kept in the house for a day or two and replaced in the grave, this time at a greater depth than in the first burial. The grave was filled with smooth white coral pebbles (kapitilekamea) collected on the beaches, and the surface was covered with coral slabs. This monument was erected only on the grave of a high chief.

If any of the high chief's relatives came to Fakaofu from one of the other islands in the first few months after his death, his family exhumed the body in order that the visitors might see their beloved relative once more.

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