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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



The Tokelau people believed that sickness was caused by malicious gods or the infraction of tapus. According to Turner (32), there was a specific disease-making god. Only by making presents of mats to his priest were the sick able to recover. The priest then prayed to the god and massaged the affected part of the sick person with coconut oil. This cure was evidently to be accomplished through spiritual power imparted by the god, for Turner (32) says:

He used no particular oil. When he sat down he called some one of the family to hand him some oil and, dipping his hand in the cup, passed it gently over the part two or three times.

When an epidemic, kuanga mai aitu (sickness from the gods), spread rapidly or ringworms afflicted more than the usual number of people, they believed that the gods of other islands had sent the sickness upon them. By page 70 a decree of the chief and priests the village united in driving the sickness from their island. First, each person of the village collected a few feathers and a segment of coconut husk which he burned out to make a rude model canoe. Then they assembled at the far end of the village from the beach and commenced a drive toward the sea. With sticks and spears they rushed through the village, hurling their weapons at everything they came to, piercing old bowls or coconuts, upturning rocks and logs about the houses, and beating any object till they came to the water's edge. Here they set up the feathers as sails in their model canoes and launched them into the sea, supposedly carrying on board the spirits that had inflicted the epidemic. By this pantomime and magic the sickness that had been sent to them was passed on to another island.

In each community there were medicine men (matai fau) and assistants (fofo) who were not priests or prophets of gods. They treated the sick according to prescribed methods based on theories of what took place in the body when particular symptoms showed. This lore was handed down from parent to child and is still practiced today by descendants of the ancient native doctors. All the people have a general knowledge of household remedies and freely practice massage with coconut oil to remove soreness and bodily pains. But doctors are relied upon in any serious trouble because of their greater knowledge.

The chief doctor's medical kit included: a set of lancets (nifomanga), shark teeth lashed to light sticks for opening ulcers and cutting away flesh; a bottle of coconut oil (niulolo); and a few leaves, roots, and pieces of bark. These medicines were usually procured from the bush and prepared as they were needed.