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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The priests (taulaitu) at Fakaofu probably belonged to a superior social group including the high chief and the council of elders. They were venerated because of their age as well as their sacred character.

The chief priest was the priest of Tui Tokelau. Other gods also had their own priests, but little is remembered of their offices and powers. Prophets and shamans, called vaka atua (literally, the canoe of the god, the transporter or hull of the god), did not officiate at any religious ceremonies but acted as intermediaries to the gods. When a prophet was in communication with his patron deity he usually threw himself into a frenzy. The god was believed to possess (tokaia) his body and employ his voice to speak in page 64 thunderous tones to those who desired advice or explanations. The activities of a vaka atua are described by Turner (32):

After death, the friends of the deceased were anxious to know the cause of death. They went with a present to the priest and begged him to get the dead man to speak and confess the sins which caused his death. The priest might be distant from the dead body, but he pretended to summon the spirit and to have it within him. He spoke in his usual tone and told him to say before them all what he did to cause his death. Then he, the priest, whined out in a weak, faltering voice, a reply as if from the spirit of the departed, confessing that he stole coconuts from such a place, or that he fished at some particular spot forbidden by the king or that he ate the fish that was the incarnation of his family god. As the priest whined out something of this sort, he managed to squeeze out some tears and to sob and cry over it. The friends of the departed felt relieved to know the cause, got up, and went home.

These shamans or prophets were consulted for omens and advice of the gods before undertaking any important activity. Before people journeyed away from their island they prayed to Tui Tokelau and his son for aid. Ancestors were called upon in time of any family trouble, sickness, or imminent death, through the family vaka atua. For these services the shaman received an offering of food or a mat. Direct offerings were not made to the gods when conferring with their mediums.

It was believed that a god would perform any task or grant any request if properly approached through his vaka atua. If the vaka atua could not succeed in bringing about the desired result, he announced that a stronger deity, over whom he had no control, had driven his own deity away.

Election of Priests

At the death of a priest his successor was selected by spinning a wooden ball (niufilo) in the center of a circle of the candidates. This ball was about 15 inches in diameter and had a notch or mouth cut on one side. The man toward whom this notch pointed when the ball ceased spinning was the candidate selected by the god. The name niufilo (coconut that spins) suggests that a coconut may have been used, as at Vaitupu (13). The niufilo was kept in the god house of Tui Tokelau.

Further confirmation of the selection of the priest was made by a pair of crossed sticks (filifili) hung low over the heads of the candidates. If the sticks moved when the name of the candidate indicated by the niufilo was spoken, it was believed that the god had verified the choice.

The high chief, with his principal officers, conducted the divination, and spun the divining ball. It is said that he often turned it to select his personal choice, but it was believed that such an action would bring great distress to the king and his family. Once a chief, Kakaia, was spinning the ball, which stopped with its mouth opposite Pakao, but Kakaia turned it to point to Savaiki. The father of Pakao jumped up and cursed the people of Faka- page 65 ofu with exile and torture at the hands of strangers for permitting this trick. The hurricane which subsequently drove many people to sea and the raids of blackbirders are believed to be the fulfillment of his curse.