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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands

Ceremony to Tui Tokelau

Ceremony to Tui Tokelau

In May every year the chief priest at Fakaofu set aside four weeks for the worship of Tui Tokelau and appointed emissaries to announce the time to the other islands. The time was determined by the rising of the full moon in June which also determined the time of worship of Tangaloa in Samoa. After the announcement, all property was repaired and tidied. Houses were rethatched and swept, canoes mended, and new garments were plaited. Bands of young people picked up debris from the village malae and disposed of it in the sea. When the households and lands were in order, the village council declared that the following two weeks were to be devoted to gathering food. For seven days all active men and women gathered coconuts and fala pandanus fruit from their plantations. The next seven days were set aside for fishing and every canoe in the village went out to sea. The men at home fished with their nets, and the women combed the reefs for squid and shell fish. In the kitchens the younger people and old women prepared the simple puddings of coconut and fala pandanus, and broiled and dried the fish in the sun.

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Many new mats, mother-of-pearl pendants, the unused halves of the shells made into bonito shanks, pandanus malo and coconut leaf skirts, and sennit braid were made and collected to send to Fakaofu as offerings. Food was gathered for the crew of the canoe bearing the offerings and as gifts to the chief priest.

The journey of the canoe bearing these offerings was a sacred mission and a heavy tapu was placed on the captain. It was believed that any disorder among his crew would cause the canoe to be blown off its course. Many other canoes accompanied this vessel to join in the festival. However, disaster would immediately befall them if they entered the passage at Fakaofu before the sacred canoe. Vaovela, a son of Tonuia from Atafu, broke this tapu; in going over a reef, a wave upset him and the hull of the canoe crushed the foot of his son against the coral. When the ships approached Fakaofu the mats to be presented were hung on the mast and displayed.

Burrows (5) believes that these offerings represented tribute to the overlordship of Fakaofu, but they were held so sacred that it is not probable that they were taken by the Fakaofu people as presents.

A tapu was placed on all activity at the end of the seven days of fishing and the ceremony of worship to Tui Tokelau began. The religious ceremonies were conducted during the first days and were followed by a longer period of dancing and feasting. No one could leave the village; when not on the malae, people had to keep to their houses. Prayers and dancing were made far into the night in the light of great torches burnt in honor of Tui Tokelau.

The ceremony began by removing the rotten garments and gifts of the preceding year from the coral slab of Tui Tokelau and replacing them with new offerings. It was said that the old offerings were burned, but Turner (32) reports that they were set aside and left to decay, being too sacred for anyone to touch. Lister (14) describes the ceremony as follows:

When they [the travelers] landed, the mats were wrapped round the stone [of Tui Tokelau] to remain until they rotted away, and the pearl shells were placed along the eaves of the house sacred to the gods, close at hand. The stone was anointed with coconut oil scented with flowers; then the king was carried in front of the stone, seated in his chair, with the coconut leaf emblem of royalty around his neck, and a black line of charcoal drawn over his forehead, the people following in procession with shouts of “Tu-tu” and general rejoicing.

Then the high chief, as the priest of Tui Tokelau, commenced his prayer for good weather and a plentiful supply of fruits and fish. This was followed by dancing in which first the women and then the men participated.

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Prayer to Tui Tokelau
Tulou, tulou, tulou, tulou..u..u
Fanake la ki to langi.
He tai6 ua,
He tai malino,
He tai malama,
Fanaifo7 ki to ulufenua,
He tai taume,
He tai singano,
Fanaifo ki to uluulu.
He tai manini,
He tai,
Fanaiko ki to moana.
He tai fonu,
He tai atu,
Fanaifo ki to namo.
He tai fasua,
He tai tifa,
He tai paikea,
He tai.

Tulou (word of apology often used today as “excuse” or “pardon”).
Rise there to the heavens.
Let there be plenty of rain,
Let there be plenty of calm,
Let there be plenty of light,
Send down to the plantations.
Plenty of (sheaths of the) coconut blossoms,
Plenty of young hala pandanus fruit,
Send down to the reef.
Plenty of manini (small fish),
Let there be plenty,
Send down to the deep sea.
Plenty of turtle,
Plenty of bonito,
Send down to the lagoon.
Plenty of Tridacna shell,
Plenty of mother-of-pearl shell,
Plenty of grubs,
Let there be plenty.

Smith (26) gives a similar prayer in Rarotongan asking for abundant food and “addressed to these evil spirits”. He adds:

After the incantation has been recited, the food is partaken of by the chiefs and priests, after which the food is distributed to all the people and a feast is held.

The following description of the ceremony at Atafu is taken from the notes of Dr. Andrew Thomson (31), former Director of the observatory at Apia, Samoa, who was in Tokelau in 1928.

The ceremony took place in June on the evening of the full moon. In the early afternoon the people deposited their offerings 40 or 50 feet before the god house. These were large mats measuring 12 by 6 feet, to be used as clothing (malo) for the stone column of Tui Tokelau.

The ceremony commenced in the early evening before moonrise. The priest, appointed to Atafu from Fakaofu, began with a long prayer during which he looked at the heavens and asked that the sun might continue to shine and the rain be plentiful, then he looked at the sea and asked that fish be numerous during the year, and finally he looked at the land and asked that coconuts might grow in great quantities. All this time the people looked up to the sky. The men stood within 15 or 20 feet of the god house during the ceremony, but the women and children remained several hundred feet away.

After the prayer the priest carried the mat offerings into the inner chamber of the god house and divided them into two portions—one for the immediate ceremony and the other for the ceremony at Fakaofu. He brought outside again the mats to be wrapped on the Atafu slab of Tui Tokelau and removed the rotted mats with which the slab page 69 had been clothed the year before. He deposited these in the stone enclosure beside the god house. Ten chosen men assisted the priest to wind on the new mats 8. This concluded the ritual after which there was a feast continuing into the middle of the night.