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Ethnology of Tokelau Islands



In ancient times songs played a large part in community activities in Tokelau. Songs of worship or propitiation were sung before any great undertaking and in connection with feasts, funerals, and other rites. Hale (11) says the natives of Atafu constantly broke into song for their white visitors, probably to placate them. The numerous references in literature and legend to songs indicate that once there was great variety in singing. A few ancient songs are remembered at Atafu, but most of them were forgotten when dancing was forbidden by the missionaries.

The modern singing in Tokelau has been greatly influenced by foreign music. Samoan teachers have introduced modern Samoan songs and Christian hymns, which the natives enjoy singing in the evenings. Sailors from the Ellice Islands and other parts of Polynesia have taught songs of their islands. Many of the words written by local lyrists are based on reports of events and places of the outside world; Auckland Harbor and the new wireless are subjects of present popular songs.

The following ancient songs, translated by Mika, were sung as accompaniment to the paddle dances performed at Atafu. Many lines refer to forgotten events and several words are no longer in the dialect. H and f were pronounced in the words and are reproduced here without transcribing them to the f and s form of the dialect used in other parts of the text. I could procure no translation for several of the songs.

Ta Hoe—Songs for Dances Performed with Canoe Paddles

Huo nanaia
Ko te lepu mo kavea
Ko te hoe tua hamania
E tele ki nei
E hapinia eoea (eo ea) iã.

Dipa and waveb (the paddle)
The stirringc (of water) … ?
The paddle with even-grained backd
Sail to heree
Strike the fish running away in fright.

Hiahia ai vao
Kou te tu ma kou te noho
Ko holoholo mulia.
Au fakaheka fakatia
Au fakaheka fakatia.

?(Who) rejoices in the bush
I shall stand and I shall sit
I step (or slip) backwards.

a Paddle is dipped down and held like a shovel.

b Paddle is shaken or waved as a signal before the body.

c Paddle is carried in upright position to right side.

d Paddle is dropped in front of body with tip of blade touching the ground.

e Paddle is lifted upright again and carried across the body as if it were drifting or sailing by.

page 77

Utupeepee, utupeepee,
Tangaloa talae fetokai.
E angina ki Fali ma Fana
Kanapa uila fati tili
E numia kai fakatau mai
Ko molia—Taku hoe nei
Apoapo taku hoe i lalo
Na tahea ite ngalutau
Ke mau mai ke mau mai.

Spin the paddle, spin the paddle,
Touch and strike (the paddle of) Tangaloa.
The force of the wind to Fali and Fana
The coming of lightning and thunder
The whirling of water … ?
My paddle here beneath
I dip my paddle beneath (the canoe)
(It was taken by) the flow of the backwash of the wave.
Hold (it) close to the body.

Ko hao ke maua
Kuamaua kuapokiac
Uhiu i te hoena
Ki okutua
Uhiu i te hoena
Ki okuluma
Uhiu i te hoena
Hakapato tia iad

Te fili tupua
Te fili momono
Na koe ia
Na koe ia
E ngaulua
E na koe ia
E na koe ia
E na ulua
E na koe ia
Te fili tupua.

a Paddle is twisted in the hands and held upright.

b Paddle is carried to side and held upright.

c Paddle is waved over the head.

d Paddle is touched to the ground in front at the word ia.

Ta Paki—Songs for Dances Performed with Dance Paddles

Te kanave tau kailove,
Te kanave tau kailove,
Te fia vaka vakai e.

Toss the handle of the paddle,
Toss the handle of the paddle,
Wishing to look for the canoe.

Holiholia vaka heua
E uhu Tonga,
E voliao.
Manu afe
Ie ie e lua.

Step in time, turning the canoe about (?)
To start a journey to Tonga,
To dance.
A thousand birds
Point to things (point out the way).

page 78

Ta paki ko tu mai.
Ko te paki na holitia
Kapuna kapunake lea
Ko te paki katele ki Uea.

The dance paddle stands near.
The dance paddle standing near
Is stepped on.
Rising to the surface
The dance paddle sails to Uvea.

Songs for Dances Performed Without Paddles


This song refers to a turtle hunt in which Tinilau, a mischievous character of Polynesian mythology, allows the turtle to escape.

Song of Catching the Turtle
Honu a levaleva,
E hala honu a levaleva.
Tulituli atu tamafanau.
Kai amutia ko Tinilau
Oi avalau ma lualau.
Kae Tinilau e voliao.

The turtle of the deep sea,
The turtle of the deep sea is hunted.
Chase away the young children.
Who congratulates Tinilau
Alas! there is nothing.
Tinilau continues to dance.


The following song tells of two lovers who exchange their garlands of Tahitian gardenia (tiale) blossoms, which they wear in their hair, signifying their engagement to be married. The last line refers to a second suitor who enters the house and is told to retire.

Song of Lovers

Hakauta atu te hautiale,
Hakaakeake ke ahiaki,
Lihaki atu te fautiale,
Hakaake afiake,
O tuku atu, O tuku kai,
O ponopono ke hoki ai.

Give and place the tiale wreath on (her) head, (to the man)
Wear it in the evening and walk about, (to the girl)
Let the (your) tiale flower wreath give out its scent, (to the girl)
Put it on and wear it about in the evening, (to the man)
Oh, give away and take (exchange your wreaths) (to both)
Send back again (anyone who enters).


The following song deals with a canoe which sails to two islands, Leuaniua (the native name of Ontong Java) and Laloata (an unknown island).

Ancient Dance Song
E tau te vaka i Luaniua,
E taha te vaka,
E taha te vaka i Laloata.
Hateu e teu mamao.
E neni aue9 tao.

The canoe anchors at Luaniua,
The canoe travels close,
The canoe travels close to Laloata.
Make ready to go (?) far away.
The canoe moves suddenly and goes.

page 79

Ka po te talinga pola
Kaha tu mai tu maia
Kaha tu mai tu mailoa
Te ika taulia o ka taulia te akau
Ka taulia te mate, e - e.
Langa mai la te aoao
Po le taua.