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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands


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The elements in the religion of the Tokelau people were characteristic of the religions of western Polynesia. The pantheon was comprised of a supreme deity who resided in the sky and a group of nature gods who dwelt in the world. No stone maraes or platforms were erected to the gods. Ritual was very slight and almost entirely confined to an annual ceremony to the supreme deity. Communication was held with ancestral spirits. Nature spirits abounded in the woods and sea.


Supreme Deity

The supreme deity was Tui Tokelau, or Tui Tokelau Sili (Tui Tokelau, the highest), who resided in the sky. The name does not appear among the gods elsewhere in Polynesia, and his title, Tui, is the Tongan and Samoan term for chief, which suggests that he was a deified chief. This is supported by an account (26) written by the Rarotongan native teacher who visited Fakaofu in 1848:

The people set up their gods and gave them names, Tui Tokelau being the principal and most powerful. His advent at Tokelau was witnessed by the people. He descended from the sky and his arrival was accompanied by thunder and lightning. He is a cannibal god and appears in the night when all are asleep, with a coconut leaf in his hand with which he snares the spirit of man from his body, and when daylight comes, that man who has thus been acted upon dies.

Wilkes (34) states that Tui Tokelau was also called Tangaloa i lunga i langi (Tangaloa above in the sky). Tangaloa was a Samoan god who appeared in the mythology of Tokelau but not in the pantheon of gods. It is probable that some of his attributes were ascribed to Tui Tokelau.

Tui Tokelau controlled all nature and the food supply of the people. He was propitiated each year with offerings to make the fish and coconuts plentiful and to send sufficient rain. A coral slab erected to Tui Tokelau at Fakaofu had certain supernatural powers, according to Lister (14):

Good and bad fortune and diseases were sent by the Tui Tokelau. The bad fortune came as punishment for failure in the proper observances in his honor.

Sick people were washed with coconut water, some of which had previously been sprinkled over the stone.

If a person wished to die, he would crawl to the foot of the stone and remain there. His friends might bring him food and he might eat it, but in the course of two or three days he would die—and people had been known to die in this manner, so great was the power of their belief.

If a good haul of fish was taken, part of it would be offered before the stone by the king, and afterwards it was distributed among the Taulaitu—the priests.

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A sacred bird (manu sa) called the talanga belonged to Tui Tokelau. Its appearance was considered an omen that the god was approaching the island, and said by some to be the god himself.

Fire was sacred to Tui Tokelau, and only during the month of his worship was it permitted to have lights after dark. At other times three necessary exceptions were permitted: fish caught at night could be cooked in the kitchen shacks, for otherwise they would spoil during the warm night; and lights could be made at night during the care of a woman in childbirth and in honor of the death of the high chief, the priest of Tui Tokelau.

Nature Gods

The minor gods were personifications of natural elements and resided in the world. According to Monfat (17) the god second in rank was Te Moana, the son of Tui Tokelau. Te Moana was a sea god who took form in a waterspout. When Fakaofu was attacked, the priest of Te Moana prayed to him to create high waves and a strong wind to drive off and drown the enemy fleet.

Nothing is remembered of Tonuailangi who resided beyond the horizon except his ability to prophesy. Through his priest he foretold events which happened on the other atolls, and which were later verified by visitors from these atolls to Fakaofu. Because the European ships came from behind the horizon, the natives at first believed them to be vessels of Tonuailangi.

Toikia was physically the strongest of the minor gods. Little is remembered about him besides his part in the wrestling match between Fafie and Leua, two semi-mythical characters. In the match Fafie threw his opponent and held him down, but Vevea pulled Fafie off by his hair. Fafie called upon the god Toikia to assist him, and Toikia appeared and wrenched Vevea away. Although the other gods were present at the match, they were helpless against Toikia. When the king of the gods saw that Vevea was defeated by Toikia, he ordered that Vevea should be killed. The others threw him upon a fire and burned him to death.

Fakafotu was the god of storms and hurricanes; thunder was called the anger of Fakafotu. He also appeared in the form of a great tree. A coral slab was erected to him beside the slab of Tui Tokelau at Atafu, but at Fakaofu his god house and slab were separate from those of Tui Tokelau and Te Moana. Fakafotu has the name of the primary female parent of the gods and men in Tongareva (29), New Zealand, and eastern Polynesian islands.

The god Fafie took the form of a great canoe. He lived in traveling canoes and ruled over the destinies of voyagers on their journeys between the atolls and Samoa or neighboring groups of islands.

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Te Lio appeared as a great mat and lived near the beach along the lagoon, of which he was the god.

Mafola was a god of the sea. Requests addressed to him through his priest were always fulfilled.

All kanava trees were consecrated to Na Tongaleleva and could never be used without the removal of the tapu by the chief priest. Any man violating this tapu was killed by the deity. When it was necessary to cut a sacred kanava on one of the outside atolls, the chief priest of Fakaofu appointed a priest to travel to the atoll and perform the rites. Tonuia, the chief of Atafu, broke this tapu and cut down a tree of Tongaleleva. Later he journeyed to Fakaofu, and on his return he was blown to sea and lost. His death was reported by the priest of Na Tongaleleva, who ascribed the cause to the breaking of the tapu. Tongaleleva also brought to his priest the song Tonuia sang at his death which has become a popular ballad.

Ko taku sala ia e ko iloa
Ko te ulu o na Tongaleleva
Na ko taia kupu kese lava
Fakaofu e kona e mamala.

My wrong is known
The head of Tongaleleva
The mature tree was cut far away
Fakaofu is poisoned and diseased.

The god Te Laumua lived with the mischievous spirits (ngaveve). He was very kind and made amends for the pranks of his implike fellows. When he was prayed to through his prophet, he restored the souls that had been stolen by the ngaveve.

The god Salevao had many of the characteristics and propensities of the ngaveve spirits. He resided in the bush at the northern end of the village on Atafu and flew about the villages snatching souls with a flying-fish net. The natives often heard the flick of Salevao's net overhead, which they interpreted as an omen of death. He had a great liking for pretty women, especially when they were pregnant. A very bad odor often indicated his presence at home, but it was customary for anyone noticing it to flatter the god by crying out, “What a delightful scent I smell!”

Hale (11) mentions another god, Atua Tafito, who was referred to as “O Debolo”, a word probably learned from shipwrecked sailors on the atoll.

Luafine was given as the name of another god, and at Nukunono the names Mona and Fenua were given as local gods of that island. Thomson (31) adds the name of a god, Aeooa, worshiped at Atafu, to whom a stone slab was erected.

Nature Spirits

Two bands of spirits, tupua maiuta (spirits from inland) and tupua maitai (spirits from the sea), inhabited all the islands and the neighboring sea. The tupua maiuta were friendly spirits of the Tokelau people and page 62 waged a continual war upon the foreign spirits (tupua maitai). When the tupua maitai were victorious, troubles multiplied for the people.

Another group of elfish and mischievous spirits (ngaveve or kaufiola) lived among the trees outside the village boundaries and in the plantations of the other islets. They spent their lives in merriment, laughing, dancing, and playing pranks on human beings. Their greatest sport and chief danger to mortals was their custom of running away with men's souls. Their thefts were temporary, but the soulless bodies of men talked wildly and incomprehensively and were apt to go mad. These irresponsible sprites also ran off with children to bewilder their parents. Tito, who is now an old man on Atafu, related his experience with the ngaveve when he was a small boy:

His parents had left him in the middle of the long islet on the eastern side of Atafu while they went torch fishing. Tito remembers being carried by the ngaveve to the northern end of the islet and then down to the southern end of the islet, where they left him. During all this time he was unable to move his body but was conscious of where he traveled. His parents found him where the ngaveve had deposited him.

There is another well-known tale of a girl who was carried from her house to one of the windward islets of Nukunono. For several months her captor played with her and fed her on the food of the ngaveve. One day the spirit carried the girl back to her house and placed her by a bowl into which a woman was cutting up fala pandanus fruit. The woman did not see the child eating the fruit from the bowl and cut off one of the girl's fingers while she had her hand in the wooden bowl. The ngaveve immediately flew back with the girl to the windward islet, where he made his home, and left her by herself. Some people from the village of Nukunono found her with a finger lost from her hand.

Ancestral Gods

The souls of men (aitu) were less powerful than atua and had no influence over the forces of nature. The aitu advised their descendants and helped them in times of sickness and trouble. One aitu, Fafie, whose name is fourth in the list of high chiefs, was a deified high chief of Fakaofu. He was worshiped even before his death, according to Newell (19):

Fafie here referred to was the god (aitu) of the clan Sulu. He became on the death of Leua (King of Fakaofu) king of that island. But before this no less than two hundred people made allegiance and offered sacrifice to him.

A spirit named Fenu, who dwelt at Nukunono, is classed as an aitu, though his character is not typical. At one time Nukunono had a fresh-water well and Fakaofu had none. A Fakaofu aitu5 came to Nukunono and carried off the well in a coconut-shell cup. Fenu chased him, caught him at the islet, Motu Akea, and hit his hands, spilling some of the stolen water he page 63 was carrying which formed a well. The aitu fled to Fakaofu where he made wells on all the islets, but he used most of the water to create the large well on the village islet. In retaliation, Fenu flew to Fakaofu, stole the kie pandanus, and planted it in Nukunono. Today Nukunono has but one small well, and the kie pandanus, though recently introduced, is said to grow poorly on Fakaofu.

Totemic Gods

Certain forms of fish and sea life were venerated as gods (kolinga) by every kindred. These were: a small striped fish (mutu), a flat fish (api) of the lagoon, squid (feke), and a variety of eel (pusi). Although these gods were not regarded as ancestors, they show some totemic characteristics. They were never caught or eaten by those to whom they were tapu. The eel, Te Pusi, was the most important. It was classed by informants on Atafu and Nukunono as an atua but was never worshiped by an entire community. On Atafu, Te Pusi was the family god of Tonuia, the first ancestor. It was possible for any member of a family holding Te Pusi sacred to ask him, through his prophet, to take vengeance upon an enemy. At an opportune time Te Pusi would bite this enemy and bring upon him a lingering sickness from which he would waste away. Thomson (31) states:

In the old days every family had a spirit which lived in some form of animal life—eel, turtle, fish, or bird. The sons all took the father's totem… . I am in doubt as to the truth. Other informants told me, in contradiction, that a son took, or was given, a totem which differed, as a rule, from that of his father. During his father's life, as a matter of courtesy, the son paid respect to his father's totem, but afterwards, the son held no reverence for it.

No family injured, much less ate, the flesh of their family god. If the spirit of the god entered a man, his skin turned scaly like a fish's or whatever animal the god might be, and in time the man was changed into the form of the god. The visitation of the spirit might be only a temporary one, however, and the man would speak involuntarily as the mouthpiece of his spirit, revealing secrets of the past and future. In each family one member had the power to communicate with the transformed spirits.


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.

God Houses

Each village in Tokelau had the usual Polynesian meeting ground called malae, where most of the religious ceremonies, all the dances, the ceremonial division of fish, turtles, and whales, and other community festivities took place. At Atafu the malae had an area of about 180 square feet and was covered with sand and pebbles. A god house (fale atua) stood at one end, some distance from the village. One informant stated that it contained three coral slabs representing Tui Tokelau, Te Pusi, and Te Lio. A second informant said that two slabs of Tui Tokelau and Fakaofu stood before the god house, and none were inside it. These slabs were tupua, the residences of the gods during ceremonies. One of the slabs was taken by a missionary (Powell or Davis of the London Missionary Society) in 1884, and the other was put into the walls of the present church.

Thomson (31) inspected the site of the god house and coral slabs with a native who had seen them and the ceremonies performed before them in pre-Christian times. Two slabs 7 feet high, 6 feet wide, and 1.5 feet thick stood side by side and about 40 feet in front of the god house which was a rectangular frame building 40 feet long and 20 feet wide, standing on a low platform or foundation and similar in appearance to the present Atafu council house (pl. 5, C). Within the house was a chamber walled off by mats, the most sacred part, entered only by the priest. To the right side of the sacred malae, about 60 feet from the coral slabs and facing at a 45° angle toward the front, was a stone enclosure (sai) 18 by 18 feet square and 3.5 feet high. The rotted mats which were removed from the coral slabs during the annual ceremony were deposited here. They were absolutely tapu, and anyone daring to disturb them would die from contact with such sacred objects. The whole area was a sacred precinct which only the priest and his assistants might enter.

Fakaofu had two malae (26): one to the god, Tui Tokelau, and his son, O te Moana, and one to Fakafotu. Wilkes (34) describes the god house of Tui Tokelau and the two coral slabs or idols of the god and his son erected before it (pl. 6, B):

Their gods or idols were placed on the outside nearby. The largest of these was 14 feet high and 18 inches in diameter. This was covered or enveloped in mats, and over all a narrow one was passed, shawl-fashion, and tied in front, with the ends of the knot hanging down … The small idol was of stone, and 4 feet high, but only partially covered with mats. About 10 feet in front of the idol was one of the hewn tables, which was hollowed out. It was 4 feet long by 3 broad, and the same in height.

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The ancient god house was the largest structure at Fakaofu. Around the inside of the eaves was hung a string of mother-of-pearl shell lei made from the annual offerings of these ornaments to the god. The huge house posts were ornamented with sennit bindings, according to Hale (11):

In the center of the house, about the largest post, were piled confusedly together a dozen massive benches, or large stools, 2 feet high, as many broad, and about 3 feet long. They were of clumsy make, very thick and heavy, each one being apparently carved from a single block. The natives called them seats of the god, and we supposed that they might be for the elders of the village when they meet in council or for religious celebration.

Leaning against the largest post of the house were several spears all much worn and battered, which the natives said were from the sea. They were called lakau taua (wood of war).

The last god house at Fakaofu was destroyed by Father Padel in 1852 (p. 32). The only sacred objects that he reported inside the god house were two rusty guns salvaged from a wreck. He did not mention the great posts, the seats, or the table seen by Hale and Wilkes. Possibly these were destroyed in the hurricane of 1846 or 1852.

Worship and communication with family gods was conducted in the homes. Ancestral spirits came in visitations to priests or mediums who were descended from the ancestor. Many houses contained two or three coconut water bottles reserved for the ancestral spirit. They were suspended from a post or rafter, and fresh water was poured into them each day.

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.

Land of the Dead

The spirits of the dead (nganga) were thought to go to Tualiku, where the god Te Sesema reigned. Tualiku was not localized, but the meaning of the name, “the back of the sea”, suggests that it lay over the rim of the horizon. It was a true paradise of Polynesian imagination, where the blessed danced and ate all day and night and wore flowers in their ears, and pearl shell ornaments (lei) around their necks, forbidden to all common men in life. In Tualiku there was also a purgatory where the souls of men who were damned by never having been circumcised in life (ngatino seki faeloa) walked through eternity with great stone discs like grindstones on their backs.

The natives believed that their spirits could select their residence for the afterlife. As death was approaching, a man told his friends that he was going to the moon or to some part of the heavens where he might be seen by his friends. A soul might also elect to remain on earth in the grave, according to Turner (32), who adds:

They believed, moreover, that there were certain evil spirits always on the watch for human beings, and that, if any were caught, their souls were dragged up and down the universe forever, as the slaves of these demons, and never found a resting place. Hence it was a common saying at Tokelau, “Take care of the soul. It lives forever. Never mind the body, it rots in the grave!”

5 Burrows (5) gives his name as Semoana in the Fakaofu version.

6 Tai means “a number of” (22), probably used here in the sense of “plenty” or “let there be plenty of.”

7 This is an ancient word now forgotten. It is probably derived from fana, shoot or drive, and ifo, down.

8 Neither Thomson's information nor mine stated whether or not the stone slab of Fakafotu or Te Moana was wrapped with mats during the ceremony. The illustration from Wilkes (pl. 6, B) shows both stones covered.